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wormy-birthdayThe following was originally written for Rotation.org's 20th Birthday Celebration in 2017 and has since been updated.


A Personal History of The Workshop Rotation Model

by Neil MacQueen

neilhead2016I'm occasionally asked "how did Rotation and this site all come about", and having been at the founding of both  I've written this personal history of the WoRM and site for those who want to know the story.  It's not a "finished" story, however. Rotation and the Rotation.org site both continue to evolve and INVOLVE many wonderful educators who have been with us since the beginning, or become part of this wonderful journey along the way.  <>< Neil

Where did the "Rotation Model" come from?

Like many churches and church educators, over the years I had experimented with rotating kids through various learning activities or "stations" and theme-ing classrooms for special programs, such as VBS. And like everyone else, I concluded that rotating and special set-ups were great, but the level of creativity was unsustainable --especially when you had to change the story each week and do a new setup.

In my particular church, we also had the burden of horrible classrooms and teachers who were going through the motions. So in June of 1990, I sat down in front of a flipchart with Melissa Hansche our part-time Christian educator and Julie Ramseyer our children's choir director --and listed all the things we didn't like about our Sunday School. It was a LONG list.

The breakthrough moment came when we simply asked, "what if instead of rotating the story every week, we rotated the kids through the story using a different approach each week."  That would allow us to spend time in each story doing different creative techniques in different classrooms. 

That's when I started drawing circles --one for each classroom we had available, and started labeling each classroom with a different teaching method: "Art" and "Drama" and so forth.

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(The original Drama Workshop at the Presbyterian Church of Barrington, circa 1993.)

The final piece of the Model arrived with a similar epiphany in that meeting: "Don't rotate the teachers, only the kids."   Let the teachers repeat their special lesson and improve it with each new group every week. Preparation time would go down, and lesson quality would go up, and special decor related to the teaching method and activity could STAY UP for weeks at a time.

It all seems obvious now, but at the time, it was kind of scary obvious!  ...especially the idea of not having a designated teacher for each grade level, but rather, assigning the teacher to the classroom (workshop) that they wanted to teach in.  We wondered if they would like that idea but knew it was worth a try. After they saw how much fun it was to teach that way, they were sold.

We've since heard from other educators who've had similar epiphanies. Many were missing the "multiple weeks per story" solution, or still rotating their teachers with their kids. 

Where did the name "Workshop Rotation Model" come from?

Melissa Hansche and I coined the name, but we thought it was awkward. So we simply called it "Sunday School" or "Sunday School Workshops" within our congregation.

Where did the concept of and name "Workshops" come from?

Our idea for transforming classrooms into exciting "workshops" came about during our first brainstorming session. We were lamenting our teacher's lack of room decor, and their constant under-utilization of art, videos, and skits in our classrooms, ...even when the curriculum called for it.  We recalled our childhood memories of elementary school "art rooms" --and how we wished our Sunday School classrooms were as inviting and exciting. That led us to thinking about designing a standing art workshop. From there, we simply brainstormed several other media-centered rooms. About a year later, we started to read about "multiple-intelligence" and "learning styles," ...which told us why we were on the right track.

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The above photo came from the third church I served in and introduced the Rotation Model to. (I've instituted Rotation in four churches where I've served.)

What's new about the Rotation Model? 

Primarily, the Rotation Model borrowed from tried and true experiences, mainly: creative teaching styles, teaching in "stations" (workshops), creatively decorating our space, and spending time on stories rather than rushing through them. What was innovative in 1990 was that we figured out how to do all those things EVERY WEEK instead of just for special occasions, and not kill our volunteers in the process.  The WoRM made such creative "sustainable."  

Four months into our Rotation experiment, we added a computer lab. And we introduced some room design ideas that you now see in a lot of Rotation churches. Things like popcorn machines, theater seats, murals, fabric hanging from ceilings and walls, and art stools, permanently decorating our hallways. These were things you used to only see in one classroom or for special occasions. We made them a regular feature. We were blessed with rooms that desperately needed help, and members who wanted to help.

And then it exploded...

At first, we were surprised it all worked so well. And then we started to tell some of our CE friends in Chicago, and it started to work well for them too. Palatine Pres in Palatine Illinois was the first to prove our concept wasn't peculiar to us, and several more churches followed in the early 90's. We got together with them from time to time, and that's where the idea of Rotation conferences got started.

In the Winter of 1996, the Association of Presbyterian and Reformed Educators came to Chicago and sent a bus-load of participants to our church to learn about the WoRM.  

That night after the bus-load got back to the conference hotel, they started to tell others about this crazy new model they'd seen in Barrington. The next morning, when Melissa and I arrived at the hotel to do a seminar for those who couldn't make the bus trip, we walked into over 100 people in the room. It freaked us out.  

Over those two days in Chicago, dozens of creative educators found the final piece of the puzzle they too had been looking for to revamp their Sunday School. From those two seminars WoRM churches sprang up all over the country. And many of those "first wave" Rotation churches began training churches in their own areas.

This is another thing that's new about Rotation:  We created a movement of like-minded educators and pastors who reached out to each other without denominational or publishing help. In fact, in its first decade, many in the publishing establishment were opposed to Rotation (because it competed with their traditional products).

How did www.Rotation.org come about?

In the Fall of 1996, a network of Rotation churches in Chicago was established under the name "Opening the Doors Network." They led seminars and eventually held a series of national conferences. That same year, I left full-time parish work to pursue my growing passion for teaching with computers in Christian education. I started Sunday Software and began traveling across the country introducing both software and Rotation Model at educator meetings. I must have done a hundred of these before retiring from the seminar circuit in 2004.

As I traveled, I had the need to point people to resources, rather than tote them around. So in 1997, I launched www.rotation.org as a way to give away my original Rotation manual and lessons, and collect free lessons given to me by other Rotation pioneers. The manual was later revised and published by the Presbyterian Publishing. I also have to admit, at first rotation.org was merely my attempt to stop the phone calls for help from coming into my office so I could concentrate on developing software.

But the site really took off in 2000 when I installed a message board. It allowed people to register, share, and talk to each other.

How have the Denominations and Publishers reacted to Rotation?

Some not so well. My own denomination viewed it suspiciously and worried about what it would mean to their curriculum sales. 

By the late 90's, the Model was spreading faster than anyone could imagine. Local networks began popping up around the country. Articles started appearing in denominational magazines and even local newspapers. Resource centers started talking about it and sponsoring seminars. And there were Rotation curriculums starting to pop up.  In the early 2000's, when the denoms and publishers realized Rotation was a true Model and not a fad, the big curriculum publishing arms of the ELCA, PCUSA, UMC, and Group published "rotation-like" curriculum. They were a bit watered-down, but at least they recognized that the traditional model wasn't what everyone wanted.

In 2002 it was estimated by one publisher that over 5000 churches were actively using the Rotation Model in the U.S. and Canada. And many more were using ideas and materials generated by the Model and website. That number is now much higher, though nobody really knows. Rotation.org gets about half a million page views a month from all over the world.

TIMEMAGTIME magazine did a feature on the future of Sunday School in its Dec 16, 2002 issue and called Rotation "one of the most popular innovations in Sunday School."

The Future of the WoRM

Workshop Rotation is not merely a "model," it is permission to experiment and change. It is permission to SLOW DOWN the rate of story change and teach through various methods, not just the same-old. 

The Workshop Rotation Model also embraced the internet as a way to share and collaborate, and not merely to "sell" products as most publishers view it.  In web-terminology, what we're doing here at Rotation.org is called "Crowd Sourcing and Crowd Funding."

Sunday School is still in trouble because traditional churches are in trouble, and denominations are shrinking.  Back in the 90's we didn't see these uber-trends, but now they are upon us and putting new pressure on Christian education.

We drove away several generations of children who eventually left the church as adults and now don't bring their kids to church. Coincidence? I don't think so. Rotation may be a great way to minister to shrinking numbers of children, but there's plenty more that needs changed in the Church. What the WoRM has proved, however, is that change won't come by denominational publishing or wrangling over theology. What your church needs is already out there in someone else's church.

Ultimately, all models change, but I hope the lessons we've learned won't be forgotten:  

  • Creative problem solving can produce exciting changes and great results.

  • Creative Sunday School models, lessons, and ideas probably aren't going to come from traditional publishers.

  • Teachers need support communities, not just product websites and "top down" conversation.

Neil MacQueen, for rotation.org

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Last edited by Neil MacQueen

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