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Fancy rocks promote memorization

“Peter Pebbles” program popular at St. James, Burnsville.

At St. James Evangelical Lutheran Church in Burnsville, little painted rocks have been the key to motivating young children to do memory work — for over 25 years. Unlike some church programs that have been tried and abandoned (or tried, found ineffective, but kept anyway), this one continues to work.
Sheryl Bousu, Christian Education Director at St. James, says during 2001 there were 225 children — age 3 through 6th grade — who earned the little flat rocks with painted figures and a hand-lettered Bible verse.
In addition to the enthusiastic young fans of Peter Pebbles, over 40 adults in the Burnsville congregation are involved in creating these special “pebbles.” Their activities include gathering flat North Shore rocks, sorting, scrubbing, glazing, painting and reglazing them.
Specimens found unsuitable for the project get transported back to Lake Superior’s North Shore by environmentally-concerned members.
Bousu finds the enthusiasm for memory work unusual in an era when there is little memory work other than multiplication tables in schools. And, Sunday schools — including St. James’ — use the workshop model. St. James youngsters treasure their Peter Pebbles. Bousu relates that they get shown at school show-and-tell times (providing a witness in the secular world), confirmation open houses and graduation events. Her son admonished his younger brother to “keep your hands off my Peter Pebbles” when the elder son headed off to college.
It’s “Peter Pebbles time” at St. James, March 1 — mid-May each year. Here’s an example of what children at the Burnsville, Minnesota, congregation are asked to memorize in order to receive a “pebble”:
* 3 years—Table grace
* 4 years—Evening prayer or John 3:16
* Kindergartners—Greet-ing or benediction from Lu-theran Book of Worship
* First graders—The Lord’s Prayer
* Second graders—Apostles’ Creed
* Third graders—Books of the Bible (one Peter Pebble for the Old Testament, one for the New Testament)
* Fourth graders—10 Commandments and meanings
* Fifth graders—Words of Institution and Post-Commun-ion Canticle (coincides with First Communion)
* Sixth graders—Meaning of Holy Baptism or Belief Statement from Luther’s Small Catechism (in preparation for Confirmation).
Nearly all regular Sunday school attendees earn a Peter Pebble, Bousu reports. Children are very supportive of each other, she finds, and volunteer to help classmates who haven’t yet mastered their memory work and received their Peter Pebbles. Special help is available to children with special needs.
The excitement grows when the children are invited to go to the Christian Education office and select their very own Peter Pebble.
But how did the “Peter Pebbles” program get its name? Bousu relates that the words Peter and rock are from the same root word in Hebrew (kepha). And, it all relates to the Bible verse, Matthew 16:18a, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”
While the Peter Pebbles concept was not original with St. James, it may be the longest running use of the technique for encouraging memorization of some of the basics of Lutheran beliefs.
JoAnn LeClaire, former chair of Christian Education at St. James, asked a key question at the recent 25th anniversary celebration for the program: “Is memory work for children becoming a thing of the past? This was the question we reflected on over 25 years ago as I chaired the Christian Education Committee. We all wanted our children to carry with them the teachings of the Bible throughout their lives, and it seemed to us that memorizing Bible passages, the Apostles’ Creed, the books of the Bible and prayers should be a part of our Sunday school program. Could we offer a very special award for learning these things on a voluntary basis? … Grace Lutheran in Apple Valley had used painted rocks called ‘Peter Pebbles’ as awards. We all liked the idea.
“Having grown up in Two Harbors, Minnesota, I knew I would have easy access to the smooth, flat rocks from Lake Superior at my folks’ resort. Sharon Auldrich volunteered to put together a team of painters. Betty Nasstrom took on the lettering and selection of Bible verses (and she’s still at it).”
Marge Mann, former Director of Christian Education, said, “Peter Pebbles were an incentive for the children to memorize their assignment. Twenty-five years later, a second generation is earning them; they go along to college, and they remain on shelves as treasures.
“Think of all the people who have helped over the past 25 years … you are all rocks who have built a great tradition.”
For more information about the memorization reinforcement program at St. James Church, call Sheryl Bousu, 952/890-4534.