Friday, December 19, 2014

Healthy Tension in the Classroom

If you want to accelerate learning for your students it is helpful to create a little tension in the classroom. Tension needs resolution and the process of trying to resolve a problem and ease the tension opens up the mind to learning new things, not just remembering old things. I am not speaking of tension between people but the tension of ideas coming together with enough force that we must deal with them and figure out what they are saying and what it means to us. Here are two examples:

1. I was recently in a very good class where the lesson was a part of the book of Daniel from the Old Testament. There are a couple of stories that are very familiar in that book. One of them is of the three young men who are ordered to bow down to an idol or face the consequence of being burned alive. The highlight of the story (for me) is their statement of refusal, found in verses 16-18 of chapter 3. In essence they state that they are not going to do this and they know that their God can deliver them but even if He doesn't they still won't bow down.

Well, you could read those verses and simply say "What a great example of faith" and move on. No one would disagree with that and it would supply some inspiration but give you very little to think about besides 'I need to be more like that'. We need to find a way to leverage the inspiration into action and creating some tension with questions is the way to do that. You could ask some of the following:

  • Why do they use the word 'careful'? Shouldn't you be careful when you speak to a king especially if you are not going to obey? (remember that 'careful' means "full of care" and what they are saying is that it doesn't bother them to say this. How can they be that strong when their lives hang in the balance? What do you consider worth dying for?)
  • Where did they get the idea that their God would save them? They are looking at a very hot furnace, directly in their view. That is a reality and still they cling to the idea that God can pull them from it. How did they arrive at this point? Can anyone arrive at the same point? How?
  • Is it faith or ignorance to suppose that although God can save them but He might choose not to?
All of those questions, and others like them, can create some healthy tension that will enhance learning.

2. In the Shakespeare play King Henry the Fifth we are treated to a well known speech ("we few, we happy few, we band of brothers") by the king as his forces prepare for battle against the French at Agincourt. They are greatly outnumbered and yet the king refuses the idea of more help and more troops, even offering to send home any that are afraid to fight:
"O do not wish one more 
Rather proclaim it through my host
That he which hath no stomach to this fight, 
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us."

At the end of reading that you could say "Wow, that is a powerful speech" and just move on. It is inspirational, but again, if that is all it is we won't be moved to action, to deeper understanding, and ultimately to change our lives for the better.

What if you asked a couple of questions just to create some healthy tension, to stir things up, questions like this:
  • Is Henry confident or cocky?
  • Does Henry have a death wish not only for him but for his men?
  • Would you be more or less willing to follow a man like that?
You will get discussions, thoughts, more questions, and ultimately more learning if you clearly give your students a reason to think and give them some tension to resolve.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

In Praise of Students

I once visited a teacher's class that did not go well. We talked afterwards and we both knew it was weak. A month later I visited and it was a much better class. I asked him if he could pinpoint the difference and what had happened in the last 4-5 weeks. I was surprised that he could answer so quickly. He did not hesitate to say that the difference was in his own attitude. He had previously looked at his students as objects, things to make him look better. He stayed frustrated when they did not act like he thought they should so as to maximize his performance. Then he realized what he was doing and decided that he didn't care how he looked, he only cared about their learning. Things changed almost overnight for him.

So what do you see when you look at your students? In the worst case scenario you could see the enemy, those that oppose you each day and tend to make your life miserable. Of course there are days like that, but if that's really how you feel then you should polish up your resume and look for other work. If not, misery will be your constant companion as you attempt to teach. The other end of the spectrum is to see nothing but soaring scholars winging their way towards life long successes. Both extremes are misleading.

Here is what we really see: we see people, young and old, just like us who have questions and wonders and worries. They have a whole life outside the classroom.They grow and develop at different rates. They are anxious and are trying to find their place not just in the classroom but in their culture and social circle. They don't want to fail. No one starts out to fail and our students don't either. Even if they can't articulate it, they want to succeed, they want to do well and they need to do it with pressures on them that we may or may not be aware of. We are instruments to either help or hinder them.

There are many books in my library about teaching and I've read them all. Some I've read a second or third time. One of those is What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain. He has a whole section concerning what the best teachers expect of their students. If you are not expecting anything of your students other than just showing up you are hindering the learning process. Expectations stretch us and having high expectations begins with the attitudes of the teacher and what she sees as she surveys the students.

Here are a few thoughts from the book. I'm inserting them without comment so that you can just think about them as they come. Where do you see yourself in these quotes?

  • "The best teachers tended to look for and appreciate the individual value of each student."
  • "Students will be buoyed by positive expectations that are genuine, challenging yet realistic, and that take their work seriously."
  • "The best teachers tended to set high standards and conveyed a strong trust in their students' abilities to meet them."
  • "Trust in the students depended on the teacher's rejection of power over them."
  • "They looked for the diamonds in the rough, took all their students seriously, and treated each one with respect."
  • "The very best teachers had a deeper vision of ultimate quality that left them with a strong faith in their students' abilities."
I know that I have both hit and missed each one of those standards. And I think that time and experience and age help us all move towards the goal of seeing and treating each student with respect. It is interesting now to see former students who are adults and parents and see the goodness in them. They really were diamonds in the rough and they got polished up and now shine. The shine was hidden when they were 15 or 16 but it has come out now. When I have seen certain students I am grateful that I never said what I really wanted to say in a fit of frustration. For those to whom I actually did say what I was thinking I am embarrassed. I think the students have long since forgotten it, but some of those things have stayed with me.

If you are like me at all you will realize that we need to be slower to judge and quicker to embrace the goodness that is present in the students that come to our classes. Some of my very good friends are former students. My life has been enriched by them and I always hope it has been a mutual relationship.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Increasing the Clarity of your Teaching

Details matter. Sometimes in lesson preparation I think of large themes and big things to do in class. But if I forget the details I lose some of the power that the lesson could have. For example, there are some words that pop up frequently that beg for definition. I happen to think that it is not a good idea to ask students for word definitions because almost always they will be wrong, either completely, or miss the mark by enough that what they say is not very useful. If they really knew the words there would not be a need to define them. I prefer definitions to be teacher directed, not student led. Here are a couple of examples of common scriptural words that, if defined properly, have the ability to really deepen our understanding.

The word 'steadfast' comes to mind. When I've asked students to define the word, what I usually get is something like "hanging in there when it gets tough". That is sort of it, but if you break the word in half you get a much better feel for it. "Stead" means 'place' as in, "I'll do that instead of you" (in your place). "Fast" comes from the same word as 'fastener' and means to lock into place. So 'steadfast' means to be locked into your place and not capable of moving. Think of nuts and bolts, staples, glue guns, nails, things like that. If I am steadfast then I'm not moving, no matter what is going on around me. That is why Moroni in his first chapter, verse 3 says, "And I Moroni will not deny the Christ." You could read that as a cocky statement, or you could see it as an expression of a man who is steadfast in the right place. When students understand that word they start to get a better picture of what it means to make a covenant and keep it, in spite of everything around them.

Here is one more word to think about: "suffer". The word in it's scriptural form does not mean to writhe around in pain. The definition of the word is "to allow". Now think about the Savior saying "Suffer the little children to come unto me". He is inviting them to come to Him and for those around them to allow it and to help make it happen. When the Savior says that we should be people who are long-suffering, He is not saying that we should be in agony for a long time. He is teaching that we need to allow people time and space to do what is right, to come to understanding in their own way and time. Parents who are long suffering with their children know that it takes time for them to grow up and there will be bumps along way and that we should allow for that. Teachers with normal, everyday students know that too. That clear definition of 'suffer' has really opened my eyes in scripture study.

So what's the best way to get real definitions to words in class? One way is simply for the teacher to tell students what it is. Remember that not everything needs to be student discovery. Sometimes it is more effective and efficient to just say it.

I always had a copy of the dictionary in my classroom. If I knew that a troublesome word was going to pop up, I would look it up and note that there were 3 or 4 definitions for it. Then when it did arise I would give the book to a student and have them read the definitions and ask the class to pick the one that fit the best in this situation. Sometimes it would be obvious and other times there was a good discussion about the appropriate one.

But now that everyone has a phone or tablet or laptop, I can just ask someone to find the word and tell us what it means. They all dig in and find it and we can clarify the meaning of the word and move on, enlightened.

It seems like a little thing to take a minute to define a word, but that little thing can yield much better understanding of any passage. Keep an eye out for words that confuse you. As you encounter such a word try to define it to yourself. If you struggle look it up and be ready to help students do the same.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Non-Talkers Really Will Talk

Here is something I wanted to write about a while back and thought I did, but was reminded by a friend that it never happened. So here it is now.

The question is how do you get more students to open up and speak more often? Teachers will tell me that their students won't say anything in class. I think "That's odd because as they were walking into the classroom they were talking nonstop." And as soon as class is over and they leave the room they continue their non-stop conversations, but during class time they tend to clam up. So how do we get more out of them, or sometimes how do we get even anything out of them.

Here is one way: if you think that the only way to know that they want to participate is by the raise of the hand then you will miss a lot of opportunities. Students tell teachers all the time that they want to participate, but they don't do it by the raised, waving, and obvious hand. They tend to be more subtle with their gestures and if you learn to read them - to become the Student Whisperer - you will get them into the conversation much more.

Rule #1 in my class is this: no one has to participate. No one has to volunteer and no one has to speak when called on. All they have to do is say "pass" or simply shake their head. I won't probe beyond that. That rule tends to make it safe for them and oddly enough increase the likelihood that they will participate. The pressure is gone.

So I'll ask a question to the class. It is never a 'guess what I'm thinking' question and it is rarely a yes/no question. I don't like those questions as they are all dead ends. It is an opinion question because I want to know how they perceive what we are doing. In every class there will be a few students who will raise their hands high and beg to be called on. I appreciate them and use them but I can't have them be the only ones. So I look around for subtle signs. Here are some of the good ones I look for when I ask a question: was the head lifted up slightly? Did the eyebrows arch? Was the head cocked to the side with a pensive look? Did the shoulders shrug? Did the facial expression change? Did a hand come up just a little, as in "I think I want to raise my hand but I'm not real sure and don't want to commit in front of all of these witnesses'?  Was there a deep breath? Was there a wiggle in the seat?

All of these are signs that the student is listening, has heard, and maybe wants to say something. So I just call on one of them. I'll say "Bob, what would you like to say?" In the beginning of the term when I start doing this the stock answer is "Nothing, I don't have anything to say." I'll follow up with "Well, now that I've called on you would you like to say anything?" More often than not he will. He will recognize that I'm serious about wanting to hear his thoughts. But if not I just file it away and think that he will take a little more time. Sometimes a student will initially say "Why did you call on me, I didn't raise my hand?" I'll smile and say something like "I just have a way of knowing who really has something important to say - do you?" Very often that gets them talking.

This method rarely fails. It is incredibly easy. The students know they don't have to talk and I won't reprove them for their silence. They can say no without any repercussions. That frees them to make a decision based on what they really feel and more often than not they will feel like talking.

Here is another way to use this. I'll see someone give a subtle sign and I'll say "Heather, would you like to respond to the question or would you like your friend Jan to respond." Almost always they will call on their friend, but here is the great part. After the friend has said something (and we've done something with it and made something of it) the original person will many times add something to it. She really did want to speak but it took the friend speaking to loosen things up.

If you will go into class with the assumption that students have something to say and want to say it, then you can act on that and they will follow your lead. Learn to look for the subtle signs and don't be afraid to draw, or invite, people into the conversation. It is the very rare student who really does not want to get into the game. And when I leave that one alone he or she will almost always come in on their own terms, sooner or later. In a class I currently teach there is a student who never spoke at all for many, many class periods. Finally one day he raised his hand. There were other hands up too but I ignored them all and called on this student and he spoke, and now he speaks regularly. I think that the vast majority want to be part of what is happening but most of them don't want to be too obvious about it, so watch them as you teach and figure out how they express their willingness and bring them along.

Saturday, November 15, 2014


It almost seems silly to ask if you want to get better as a teacher. If you don't seek improvement, what are you doing? Students change, curriculum modifies, technology grows. If you're not improving with it you are being left behind. I feel contractually obligated to improve and that feels like a healthy thing.

There are lots of ways to seek improvement but one of the best, quickest, and most effective ways is to seek feedback from a trusted colleague. I like the word 'feedback' much better than 'criticism' or 'critique'. Feedback implies that someone watches me teach and then reflects back to me what they saw with some possible ways that I might improve. It has to come from a colleague I trust because I have to know that we have mutual respect. It could come from a complete stranger but I would not know if he had an agenda or not. With a trusted colleague I would know that his only goal was to help me improve.

The feedback also has to be based on standards, not just on personal preferences. That way I have something to measure the feedback against. I don't have to agree with the feedback but I like to know that it's not just your personal feelings. If I give feedback and say "I just didn't like that" that is not enough. My liking or disliking has to be linked to an objective measurable standard. That tells us what the ideal is and then we can measure ourselves against that ideal and work towards improvement. If the standard is "I like it" or "I don't like it" that is just a personal preference.

Even in the best of circumstances the feedback tends to sting a little, but you have to learn to get past that. I once gave feedback to a student teacher. I had three things to tell him, all standards based and all given with love and respect - he knew that we were friends. After I gave him the first piece he had a stunned look on his face.  I could see that he was hurt, so I slowed down but his pain was visible. His lip quivered. I realized that he could take no more that day so I thanked him for his efforts - which were good - then said goodbye. The next time I saw him he told me how deeply I had offended him with the previous feedback. I apologized sincerely because I never want to hurt someone in a situation like that. He looked at me very seriously then said "Thank you, I accept your apology." After that was settled I had to tell him the following: "if what I told you that day was so hard to take, then you have absolutely no chance of surviving in this environment because we all give feedback and it is open and honest but it can be painful." He didn't survive.

Once I had an idea for a technique in class that I thought would be very useful. I worked on it in my office then planned to integrate it into a certain class. I invited 2 colleagues to come to the class and observe then give me feedback on that specific thing. During the class I felt like it wasn't working as I thought it might. After class the three of us sat and talked for about an hour. They also thought it missed the mark, but not by much. They both offered some possible tweaks and we all walked out together. As we were walking down the hall I did some quick math and realized that among the 3 of us was over 90 years of teaching experience. We all still felt good about giving and receiving feedback. I integrated the changes that we had all agreed on and tried it again. It worked much better and it was all thanks to honest feedback.

I don't know why teachers are so resistant to receiving feedback. Maybe because to watch a good teacher is to watch something that appears easy to do, but then every talented professional makes his or her skill look easy. Perhaps it is the equipment involved in a building trade that gives it the look of something difficult to penetrate, even though the journeyman makes the work look simple enough. To watch a really good teacher is to watch someone that just appears to be talking - just standing up in front of the class and talking with kids, calling on kids, joking with kids, etc. You think "that's easy, I can talk with kids." Then you try it and find out that there is much more to it than that. But it looks so easy that you can't bear to ask for help, you can't even bring yourself to admit that you might need help. You think "I like kids and I like to talk - I'm a teacher, but it's not working so well and I don't know what to do". The thing to do is to get some feedback.

So get over yourself, gather a little humility and get some help. That's not an admission of weakness, it is a declaration of desire. I want to get better and I am going to find help doing it. It is a great thing. Your students will thank you.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Seasoning Your Lesson with Technology

The proliferation of machinery and electronic gadgetry in and around the classroom has been a real blessing in teaching and learning. I can remember using a mimeograph machine to make multiple copies of something for the whole class; also saving my nickels to go to the library because they had the only copy machine around and if I wanted something copied out of a book for my own use they charged me a nickel a page. I've used record players, filmstrips, cassette tapes, slide projectors, and 16mm films in the classroom. My personal favorite was/is the overhead projector. They were all good in their day but there was a high level of clunkiness involved with most of them (looking at it from our current vantage point).

Today I can use projectors that work with wireless wonder alongside my computer, tablet, or phone. I have PowerPoint and Keynote and other programs that make presentations come alive with an endless variety of typefaces and animation. This is a big step forward and, all in all, a boost to what we as teachers do. I love using maps in class and can now bring up an endless stream of maps of everything and every place.

However (that's just a glorified 'but' and you could probably see it coming), these things have to be used with caution and restraint. I constantly talk to students before and after classes I visit and I hear some variation of this common refrain: "I'm so sick of presentations on the screen". Last summer I taught at a conference for 4 days and after the second day's class a young woman came to me and said "I must thank you". She was urgent and sincere. "Thanks for not using any presentations on the screen. Thanks for talking with us and not turning your whole lesson over to the screen."

Here is my list of cautions and concerns about the over-use of screen technology:
1. Just because it is available doesn't mean you need to use it all the time.
2. If you spend more time creating your screen presentation than the rest of your lesson, it's too much
3. If you find yourself skipping over slides during your class presentation and muttering "we don't need this one, we'll skip this one," then you've made too many and it has become intrusive.
4. If you put up large chunks of text and have students read them aloud you are putting everyone to sleep.
5. If you have become so reliant on technology that you can't teach without it then you probably need to refocus your priorities.

Technology has a tendency to go bad and not work for us. Even old technology can hold us in its grip. One summer I taught at a conference with a colleague and we were checking out our room assignments prior to students coming in. As we walked into his room he looked around and immediately panicked - there was no piano. He played and sang as part of his teaching (and was really good at it) so when he realized there was no piano he said "I can't teach here". I said "You are a teacher - what do you mean you can't teach here?". "Without a piano I simply can't teach." Well, he had become the slave of that level of technology and it hampered his teaching.

Here is another extreme example. Once I was supposed to go to a training meeting where some new materials were being introduced. I was excited to go but was unable to at the last minute, so the next day I called some colleagues to see what I missed. All of them were envious that I had missed the meeting. Here's what happened: the presenter distributed the material, about 80 pages worth, then proceeded to put each page up on the screen - the same pages that everyone had in their hand - and have someone read aloud what was up there. He did that for almost all of the 80 pages and it took about 3 hours. They said that he would occasionally comment about the importance of a particular page or passage, but mostly it was just a reading.

That is bad training and that is poor teaching. When I was in high school there was a group of students that were the Audio Visual guys - the AV crew. They were the ones to bring a movie projector to a classroom and set it up and make sure it ran. Today, everyone is their own AV crew but when you allow that assignment to become bigger than your teaching assignment something has gone wrong. Over-reliance on technology puts it between us and the students, or between the material and the students. It is as though we have moved the screen (or the piano) to the front and moved the teacher to the background. The teacher needs to be a presence in the classroom, not merely an AV accessory.

Technology is just seasoning, just spice. It should enhance, not dominate the lesson. Just as a cook periodically tastes the soup as it is simmering to know if the taste is right, we should do the same on a regular basis. Is my technology usage taking over the class or is it used discreetly enough that it really adds to the mix? Am I wise enough to just use one map quickly to illustrate a point, or one quote to do the same? Most people think that if one quote is good then 10 are better. Today's free tip: successive quotes on the same subject are not better than one good one that hits the point.

Use technology wisely. Be grateful for it and employ it well but don't let it take center stage. Let it enhance the lesson, but don't let it overwhelm you and the students.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Are You Sure You Covered the Topic?

It is satisfying at the end of a class to sit back and think how well I covered the material for the students. Teachers love to cover things and to say things like "we covered that really well in class today and the students are all ready for the test." I think we feel victorious when we can acknowledge that our coverage was great.

But here is the problem with that thought: we really don't cover much of anything and to continue to think we do leads us to a place where we are not teaching well. We tend to pull back and soften our teaching because we feel so confident in our coverage.

For example, I've read the New Testament multiple times and feel comfortable that I understand what it says about the life of Christ. Beyond the New Testament I have in my bookcase many books about the life of Christ.  There are well over 3000 pages of material on His life written by men who have studied and know much more than I do.  I've read those books. Is it safe for me to say that I have now 'covered' the life of Christ in my personal study? Not by a long shot.  In another year, or two, or five, someone will publish another book about His life and there will be more to know. Indeed, the very last verse of the Gospel of John says that if all that Jesus did was written down, "I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written."

Why does the idea of coverage cause us to not teach well? Because it leads us as teachers to stop asking questions which results in no thinking, just mechanical teaching. When you believe that you have written a lesson plan that covers the material for the day, then your thinking usually stops. Even if you think the lesson does what it should do, how do you react when a student raises a question that you had never even thought of ? What do you do when a student gives a wonderful answer to one of your questions but it is an answer that you never considered? Suddenly, there is more to cover.

I read an essay once about the proper way to travel. The author said that most people are satisfied to quickly see the thing they came to see and then leave, grateful that they can now say "I've seen the Grand Canyon" or whatever it was. His suggestion was that unless you spend some time with something and look at it from multiple angles you've never really seen it.

We went to Mt. Rushmore with some friends a few years back. We arrived in the area very late in the afternoon and by the time we got to the monument it was almost dark. We saw what we could see with the remaining light and then watched as the faces on the mountain were artificially illuminated. It was very impressive but we all decided to come back the next day and see it in the sunlight, which we did. It looked quite different and I was grateful that we saw it in another way. We were able to hike around the area and experience more and come to understand it better with more time.

We could have been satisfied with the night time visit and could have honestly said that we had seen it. But to see more of it differently gave me another experience, for which I was grateful.

So it is in the classroom. You can teach a lesson and feel like you've adequately covered things, or you can understand that coverage is an illusion.

So if you can't honestly cover things what then can you do? You can 'expose' your students to new ideas and thoughts. You can 'address' the ideas found in the material for the day.  To address means "to direct to the attention of" or "to deal with or discuss". That's what I want my students to do, to learn to deal with things, to think and to act and to make responsible and valid judgments about issues. They will never learn to do that if I'm busy covering things for them.

Rather than having you the teacher try to cover things, how about this thought: don't try to cover things; rather, seek to have your students 'uncover' some of the material each day, so that they can learn for themselves.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Living and Teaching with Stress

This morning I was reminded of a dinner my wife and I went to with another couple some years ago. This was a young couple, newly wed maybe 2-3 years and not yet with any children.  During the course of the evening the husband made this statement: "Our goal is to live a stress-free life." I wasn't sure I heard him correctly so I asked him to repeat the statement, which he did, word for word. My wife and I kept looking quizzically at each other, as in "Did he really say that?  Did he mean it?" I asked him to explain what he meant by that and he said that their goal was to so order their lives as to avoid any and all stress and to just be able to glide along from day to day, happy, smiling, and content.

I thought it was a teaching opportunity so I asked him if he knew that the very building we were in stood because of stress. The various pieces of wood that made up the walls and the roof relied on being joined to one another in such a way that the stress caused by the weight and the angles actually brought them together and caused for a very strong structure. If the stress was removed then there would be just a pile of lumber - no stress but nothing standing. The stress was necessary for the building to stand.

How would you like to have a stress-free teaching experience?  The students file in, smiling, on time. They sit in order and are prompt in their questions and responses. The each have a perpetually good attitude and are eager to learn. They never speak out of turn and are uniformly polite to the teacher and to their classmates.  Prior to class you have all the time you need to prepare your lesson and after class plenty of time with students and their work. All of your equipment works perfectly. Would you love that? I don't think I would for more than a day or two. There is no stress, no pushing and pulling against something that is so necessary to wake us up and cause us to learn. It would be like flying a kite with no wind, like trying to sail a ship in the doldrums.

Teachers and students need something to lean into. That's why Nephi says that we must "press forward" as we move towards perfection.  He could have said "walk forward" or "move forward". But he uses the verb "press" which indicates that there will always be some kind of opposition or stress as we move towards good things.  That includes teaching and learning.

I've found that most of my stress doesn't happen in the classroom, during class. Being with the students is the fun part. But if I need copies and the copy machine doesn't work, that could be stressful. If the projector bulb is burned out and there is no replacement because someone (probably me) forgot to get one, things could get a little shaky. If I run out of time to prepare and have to enter class feeling unprepared and not quite ready that could cause me to be a little stressed. It is all of the factors around the classroom that seem to do it for me.

So here is how I have learned to handle it: if it is a time issue I take full responsibility for it.  All of us have all the time there is. Sometimes we just misuse it. It is counter productive to blame our lack of time on anything else. To enter class unprepared is my mistake and I have to muddle through and do better next time. If the machinery is down and out and I can't get the copies I need or show the video clip that I want to show, well that's just how it goes. If I'm a teacher, I better be able to teach without copies and projectors. They are nice but not necessary. What's necessary is me, the students and the textbook. And if things really go sideways, I have learned to say "how fascinating" and forge ahead. Feel free to use that phrase. I learned it from someone else and now pass it to you. You'll feel a lot better if you do.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Written Word and the Rewritten Word

We cannot learn new things unless we can connect them to something we already know.  That's why we use metaphors and similes and analogies in our speaking.  If someone is trying to get you to eat frog legs and you have no idea if you will like them or not because you don't know the taste or texture and have never eaten them, the person says "Don't worry, they are just like chicken."  Now you have something to link it to and can make a better decision.

In trying to help students learn something new, we have to do the same thing - get them to see it in light of something they already know.  Scripturally the idea of a 'broken heart' is initially confusing. But if you say "Remember when you had a new pair of shoes, or a baseball glove, and it was very stiff?  You had to break it in - soften it up and make it useful to you.  That's what your broken heart is to God: it is softened up and useful to Him."  Or you could say "If your heart is full of pride it needs to be broken, drained of all pride, then allowed to have the Master Healer fix it so it is pointed to Him."  We understand those things and can then build on them for more knowledge.

A very helpful way to assist students gain new understanding is to get them to rewrite passages that are problematic.  Here are a couple of ways to do it:

1. Define Words - I can't believe how many times I've heard teachers read passages of scripture that contain words that I'm confidant not one student understands and that they should understand in order to learn what the passage is saying.  In the well known story of David and Goliath, I Samuel 17, we read in verses 4-7 of Goliath's size and the weapons he was outfitted with.  In an average class, how many will understand "cubits", "five thousand shekels", "greaves", "target of brass", "weaver's beam" or "six hundred shekels of iron"?  You can solve that challenge by having a dictionary in class so that someone can look the word up, or use the Bible dictionary available in most sets of scriptures, or have them use their electronic devices.  Understanding words is very helpful to understanding context and principles.  Sometimes if it is just one word I will hand a student a dictionary and tell the class that there are 3 definitions for this word.  We are going to listen to all three and then you decide which one fits best in the context of this passage.

2. Translate - Don't think of translation as just language to language but also as idea to idea, from a less understandable form to a more understandable form.  So if we read this passage in II Chronicles 20:20 - "Believe in the Lord your God, so shall ye be established; believe his prophets, so shall ye prosper." - they will all understand the words.  There are no surprises there.  But do they understand the meaning of the passage?  I'll say "I need a translation for this passage" and they will start to wrestle with it and eventually come up with something more understandable for them.

3. Seven Words -  In preparation one day I happened across an idea that I have come to call "7 words".  I thought that if I could get students to rewrite a verse of scripture in 7 words it would help them boil down the essence of it so that they could understand.  Why seven?  There is nothing special about it, that's just the number I landed on.  It could be any number you want but seven seemed to have some appeal. Almost every time I do this with a class someone will shout out "I did it in 3 words (or some other lower number) and I have to explain again that the object is not the fewest words but the exact number of words.  It could be a sentence, or a phrase, or just a string of words, but it has to express the meaning of the passage. Working with a precise number of words adds discipline to the activity.  Once they get the idea, they all seem to like to do it and it will often turn into a little competition to see who can come up with the most creative and accurate way to boil down a verse. It can be done with difficult passages but it works just as well with more common passages.  Here's an example from D&C 45:33 - "earthquakes come, hearts harden, men kill others."

Inviting students into the text with an assignment to dig in and get a little messy with it makes class livelier, and makes for better learning.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Learning to be Flexible

For a number of years I worked off and on in the construction industry, mostly as a plasterer. Construction work is satisfying in a different way than teaching. At the end of the day you, and everyone else, can see very specifically what you accomplished. In teaching it may take years, literally, before you really know how things turned out. It seems almost impossible to tell the effect of teaching at the end of a day.

Here is the thing about plastering: it is all hands on, as are all building trades.  You use both hands all day long.  It is a very visual, tactile skill - you learn to see it and feel it.  And, you work on scaffolding almost all of the time, since even when you stand tall you can only reach up about 7 feet and all buildings are taller than that.  You've probably seen scaffolding on a construction site.  It is created with steel frames standing upright, braces holding them in place and with planks laid horizontally from frame to frame.  You can make it go as high as you need it - just keep adding frames. The frames are tied to the building with wire and when the job is finished you tear the scaffolding down one level at a time, cut the wires and patch the spot where they were. If done correctly there is no indication that there was ever any scaffolding there.

Scaffolding looks secure and it is secure but you have to learn to accept this fact about it: it is constantly moving when people are on it. It moves gently side to side as you walk on it and the planks have some give to them so you also move up and down.

Summer is a good time to hire high school and college kids to come do some of the grunt work on a job site and let them earn a little money for school. You learn very quickly who is going to work and who won't be back based on how they do on the scaffolding. Some just can't abide the movement and when they feel it they grab the guard rail to steady themselves. Remember that this work can't be done one handed and they have to be reminded of that. Most get accustomed to it but some never do - the unpredictable nature of the movement is more than they can deal with so they just leave.

Being a teacher is a lot like being on scaffolding for the whole class period.  I have my prep time and use it to create lessons that I hope will be helpful.  I think I know where the lesson is going - where it starts and where we want to arrive. But as soon as class starts there is movement.  It's not unexpected because it happens all the time. Students are antsy, talkative, sleepy, bored, or more or less engaged than I thought they would be.  I have to spend more time gathering them in or less time explaining something.  Some students understand quicker and others take a lot longer.  Learning is messy work and all students move at their own speed. It is rarely a linear path for the whole class.  It is a series of stops and starts and digging deeper and skimming over.  The class is moving side to side and up and down.  If you are a teacher who has to have a high level of order and total control you may be in for a wild ride.  If you can learn to work with the movement that is inherent in every group of students; if you are flexible and can make adjustments on the move, the teaching and learning experience becomes a whole lot better.

One morning I came into a first period seminary class and the students were all quiet. They just stared at me. I had a lesson planned that was going to be powerful - by my own assessment. We started in and I was getting nothing from them.  After about 5 minutes I said "Is everyone all right? You all seem far away."  One of them said "Don't you know?" I didn't, but quickly found out that one of their friends - same ward, different school - was killed that morning in a car accident.  I knew her but had not heard the news. I stared at my lesson, felt the movement in the class, and set the lesson aside. Instead, we switched it up and began to learn about the resurrection in ways that they had never considered because now death was very, very real to them.

In a less dramatic example, one night I had a group of students in the corner of a big class of about 40 students. (Classes of that size can really get moving.) This little group of about 6 just kept talking among themselves, giggling, completely disengaged from what was happening in class.  I knew them all real well and they were very good kids who just happened to be in their own world that night.  I tried all of my normal things to get them to join in. They would smile and acknowledge me but nothing changed. I was scrambling a little trying to figure out what to do and decided that a little humor might help, so as I was still talking and leading a discussion I walked back to that group. I stopped talking long enough so that the rest of the class noticed and there was silence everywhere, except for the little chatty group. Soon they too were quiet and then I began to slowly wave my hand over the heads of the little group all the while staring up at the ceiling.  Finally someone asked what I was doing.  I said "There has to be some extra-terrestrial force coming through the ceiling to cause you all to be so lost tonight.  I'm just trying to feel what it is."  The little group finally recognized what they were doing, everyone got a good laugh and were able to get back on track, the whole class together.

Classes and well planned lessons are just scaffolding to get us to some place higher.  At the end of class we can dismantle it, cut the wires and take it away. If I've done my job, and the students have done theirs, we really won't even know that the scaffolding was ever there.  However, we will have built something together that is good and useful and can last.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

You Own the Clock (the clock doesn't own you)

Teachers like students to come to class on time.  We value their presence when the class starts.  We mark them tardy when they enter late and we remind them of the need to be in their seats and ready to go when the class begins.  We say "we have lots to cover today and we need to get going."  (Just FYI - "cover" is not a very useful word for teachers to use, but more on that in a later post.)  We love a good starting time.  

Most students don't see a great need for a crisp beginning.  However, they do see the need for a prompt ending and that is where many teachers let them down. Teachers are like cars with great accelerators and lousy brakes.  Once we get talking, we can keep talking for a long time.  And even if we don't say it we are thinking "Here's one more good thing they need to know", so we press on.  We also love to say things like "look at the clock, where did all the time go".  So here is the free tip of the day: when you interject the element of time into your conversation with students you have opened the door for them to get antsy and lose focus.  They start thinking of where they have to be next and how long it will take them to get there and I need to pack up my things and I'm going to be late and when will he stop talking.  Every student has a life outside of my classroom and I need to honor that.

The starting time of a class is for the teacher.  Class ending time is for the students.  The sooner you can convince your class by word and deed that you will always honor the hour and that they will be able to leave on time, the more they can relax and trust you and the more engaged they will be.  I watched a teacher one time say to her class about 5 minutes before the ending time "Since you were so talkative at the beginning and we didn't get much accomplished then, we are going to stay five minutes longer.  I prepared this lesson for you and I need to give it to you."  I died a little with the students, who at that moment stopped caring about the lesson and gave even less thought to how much time she spent on preparation.  It was just a hard march to the end.  

What would cause a teacher to go overtime? Often teachers say that they just lost track of time, which is understandable and easy to do. A solution to that is simply to remember that part of controlling the class is to control the time and the pacing and to begin to make it a part of what you do as a teacher. Another reason suggested by teachers is that the class was going so well, or the students were so engaged, that it was just difficult to stop. In almost all of those cases, I have observed that it wasn't so much the students who were engaged but the teacher was engaged in telling a story or sharing some of his thoughts and feelings with the class. When a teacher holds a class over so that he can keep talking, the class generally has descended to teaching-as-telling, and that is a very ineffective way for students to learn.  

Here are a couple of tips to help you stay on schedule in a gentle way:
1.       Think of timekeeping issues as you prepare your lesson. Ask yourself some of these questions: “About how long do I think this discussion will go?” “What follow up questions are likely to ensue from this main question?” “What are some of the points I hope will emerge from this activity?” “How much time do we need at the end of class to allow for effective application?” And finally this question may be the most important: “What are we really trying to do in class today – cover a lot of material or help students really learn some important principles and doctrines?”
2.        Make yourself aware of timekeeping issues in a class. Learn to glance at the clock or your watch on a regular basis. Make some small but easily seen marks on your lesson plan of the approximate times that you expect to be at certain spots. Stay aware of where you are and where you would like to be.
3.       Students rarely, if ever, know how much a teacher thinks he needs to accomplish in a given period. We make time our enemy when we play slave to the clock, then verbalize it to the class (“Look at the time – there’s never enough time!”). Be sufficiently aware of where you are so that students will have enough time to digest what is going on and you will have enough to be able to challenge them to make positive changes, all within the framework of the allotted time. Announcing your frustration with the lack of time only serves to pass that frustration on to them. They don’t need it and it doesn't help anything.

Finally, here is something I learned from watching cooking shows with my wife and daughters: let the meat rest.  When a piece of meat has been cooked, it is best to let it sit for some minutes before cutting and serving it so that the juices can re-absorb into the meat and not drain out if the meat is sliced too soon.  I like to stop teaching about 5 minutes before the end of class and let things settle and ask students what they learned and what they are thinking from the lesson.  It gives them a chance to think about the lesson, make some decisions about how they will apply it, and we all end on time.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

You Know It, But Can They Feel It?

When you are a teacher, everyone knows what you do, right?  You teach!  Everyone has a mental picture of a teacher standing in front of his classroom talking, pacing, writing on the board, grading papers, peering over the tops of his glasses, etc.  Those are standard actions of a teacher in his habitat.

But beyond the actions, what are you trying to a accomplish?  What is your goal?  At the end of the day, how will you know if you were successful?

Below is a quote from Dr. Rolf Kerr (Google him - highly successful and influential educator). Notice the 4 things that he says needs to happen in an educational exchange:

"The acquisition of knowledge is merely the first level of learning. This must be followed by our students’ coming to a clear understanding of that which they have come to know. Even knowledge with understanding is not enough. Those we serve must rise to a level of belief that makes learning meaningful and operable in their lives. They must recognize that what they have come to know, what they have come to understand, and what they have come to believe should change their lives, bringing happiness and the blessings of heaven in this life and through the eternities to come."

Think about the relationship of those 4 things.  If we are studying the Gettysburg Address and I teach about the context of when and where it was delivered, then have my students memorize it, I can probably say they know it.  But I also want them to understand it, so we delve deeper and come to see the motivations and reasons for its delivery.  At the end of a class like that you may be tempted to think your job is finished.  "They know it and understand it."  But tomorrow you could do similar things with the Communist Manifesto and then all that your students have is knowledge of two documents without the ability to differentiate between them.  The know and understand them equally well.  

But I want this knowledge to change their lives in some way, or else it is just knowledge stored away for the test.  In order for the change to happen a student needs to be given the opportunity to believe - believe in the goodness or badness of a thing.  I want them to see it, know it understand it, then weigh it out and come to believe it or discard it..  Only in that way will there be enough motivation to make a change.

When I watch teachers teach I see as one of the consistently weakest parts the ability to help students believe something.  I see lots of really good ways to help them get the content and the context into their minds.  I see very creative ways to help them understand what they are studying.  What I see far less is an invitation to believe something, and this is what I think is the missing ingredient: passion for the subject.  

My 6th grade teacher let us all make wooden rifles to teach us about some aspect of American History.  I've forgotten the reason for doing so but I have never forgotten his excitement and urging as he watched us plan and create our little masterpieces.  And I still have a great love for American History.  I had a high school geometry teacher who made angles seem alive and exciting, and......I still love people who love geometry.  I remember different religion teachers who made the scriptures come so alive that I couldn't wait to dig in deeper on my own.  These and others were all teachers filled with passion for their subject.  They weren't detached and they weren't haltingly cool.  They loved what they did and they knew I would too if I would dive in and start to absorb it.  My life has been changed and enriched by encounters with great literature because of teachers (and my mother) who loved literature. Finally, understanding the scriptures has changed and improved my life forever and it was passionate and talented teachers (and my father) who lit the fire.

I see a lot of wonderful technicians in the classroom but some days I long for passion.  I picture a teacher grabbing a student, staring intently at them and bubbling forth with "This is true - it will change your life - believe me!"  (I never suggest the grabbing part, but I do suggest the bubbling forth part).  Sometimes passion is loud and demonstrative, sometimes quiet and evocative, but it is always real, not feigned.  However you feel it and express it, you'll have a better teaching experience - and your students will have a better learning experience - if you interject some of it into your lessons.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A Gift for You

About  10-15 years ago a colleague handed me this little essay and asked me to read it.  He got it from a website ( and was intrigued by it.  He gave it to me right before the start of a meeting.  Well I stayed physically in the meeting but mentally I was in this paper.  It shook me in a good way and has caused me from then til now to think about the role of questions in teaching and constantly re-evaluate how I use them.  I go back and re-read this every so often and it still inspires me, so I thought I would share it with 'you' (whoever 'you' may be out there). Consider it an October 8th gift.

The Role of Questions in Teaching, Thinking, and Learning

One of the reasons that instructors tend to overemphasize "coverage" over "engaged thinking" is that they assume that answers can be taught separate from questions. Indeed, so buried are questions in established instruction that the fact that all assertions-all statements that this or that is so-are implicit answers to questions is virtually never recognized. For example, the statement that water boils at 100 degrees centigrade is an answer to the question "At what temperature centigrade does water boil?".

Hence every declarative statement in the textbook is an answer to a question. Hence, every textbook could be rewritten in the interrogative mode by translating every statement into a question. To my knowledge this has never been done. That it has not is testimony to the privileged status of answers over questions in instruction and the misunderstanding of teachers about the significance of questions in the learning process. Instruction at all levels now keeps most questions buried in a torrent of obscured "answers".

Thinking is Driven by Questions

But thinking is not driven by answers but by questions. Had no questions been asked by those who laid the foundation for a field-for example, Physics or Biology-the field would never have been developed in the first place. Furthermore, every field stays alive only to the extent that fresh questions are generated and taken seriously as the driving force in a process of thinking. To think through or rethink anything, one must ask questions that stimulate our thought.

Questions define tasks, express problems and delineate issues. Answers on the other hand, often signal a full stop in thought. Only when an answer generates a further question does thought continue its life as such.

This is why it is true that only students who have questions are really thinking and learning. It is possible to give students an examination on any subject by just asking them to list all of the questions that they have about a subject, including all questions generated by their first list of questions.

That we do not test students by asking them to list questions and explain their significance is again evidence of the privileged status we give to answers isolated from questions. That is, we ask questions only to get thought-stopping answers, not to generate further questions.

Feeding Students Endless Content to Remember

Feeding students endless content to remember (that is, declarative sentences to remember) is akin to repeatedly stepping on the brakes in a vehicle that is, unfortunately, already at rest. Instead, students need questions to turn on their intellectual engines and they need to generate questions from our questions to get their thinking to go somewhere. Thinking is of no use unless it goes somewhere, and again, the questions we ask determine where our thinking goes.

Deep questions drive our thought underneath the surface of things, force us to deal with complexity. Questions of purpose force us to define our task. Questions of information force us to look at our sources of information as well as at the quality of our information.

Questions of interpretation force us to examine how we are organizing or giving meaning to information. Questions of assumption force us to examine what we are taking for granted. Questions of implication force us to follow out where our thinking is going. Questions of point of view force us to examine our point of view and to consider other relevant points of view.

Questions of relevance force us to discriminate what does and what does not bear on a question. Questions of accuracy force us to evaluate and test for truth and correctness. Questions of precision force us to give details and be specific. Questions of consistency force us to examine our thinking for contradictions. Questions of logic force us to consider how we are putting the whole of our thought together, to make sure that it all adds up and makes sense within a reasonable system of some kind.

Dead Questions Reflect Dead Minds

Unfortunately, most students ask virtually none of these thought-stimulating types of questions. They tend to stick to dead questions like "Is this going to be on the test?", questions that imply the desire not to think. Most teachers in turn are not themselves generators of questions and answers of their own, that is, are not seriously engaged in thinking through or rethinking through their own subjects. Rather, they are purveyors of the questions and answers of others-usually those of a textbook.

We must continually remind ourselves that thinking begins with respect to some content only when questions are generated by both teachers and students. No questions equals no understanding. Superficial questions equals superficial understanding. Most students typically have no questions. They not only sit in silence; their minds are silent at well. Hence, the questions they do have tend to be superficial and ill-informed. This demonstrates that most of the time they are not thinking through the content they are presumed to be learning. This demonstrates that most of the time they are not learning the content they are presumed to be learning.

If we want thinking we must stimulate it with questions that lead students to further questions. We must overcome what previous schooling has done to the thinking of students. We must resuscitate minds that are largely dead when we receive them. We must give our students what might be called "artificial cogitation" (the intellectual equivalent of artificial respiration).

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The 5 Minute Lecture

One night in graduate school I went to the opening session of a new class.  It was a bit of a different schedule - 2 nights a week for 4 hours per night for 4 weeks - so I had to get mentally prepared to endure the length each night.  Little did I know the adventure that awaited.
The teacher walked in at the appointed hour, called the roll, then said "Let's begin".  He opened his very thick notebook and started to read..... and read for 4 straight hours, minus the mandatory 15 minute break in the middle.  This was a lecture in it's darkest, most numbing, most monotone form.  If I said it was horrible, that would be a very kind upgrade.  I don't think I was the only student in the room hoping for an earthquake, a flood, a fire alarm, or the zombie apocalypse - anything that would stop the torture.

At the end of the evening I wrote the teacher a note which in essence said 'thank you for your efforts but could we please be able to ask questions and have some interaction'.  I handed it to him on the way out with my signature on it.  The next meeting (I should have done some deep meditation, yoga, or tai chi in order to prepare mentally and physically for it) he began the session by saying "On Monday night one of you handed me a note asking for time to have questions, so, do you have any questions?"  He looked around for about 5 seconds and when no one said anything he said "I didn't think so" and he opened the notebook and started reading again.  And for the next month, that's what we did each night.

That is a true story and I think it captures the general perception we have about lectures.  If a teacher says "We're going to have a lecture tonight" most of us shrivel up and shut down.  We have been trained to think that lecture is a bad form of teaching.  But in the right doses and at the right times, it is very useful.  Think of it as teacher presentation - a way for the teacher to get some information out, some facts and figures that will provide a necessary and useful baseline in the class period. 

Not everything in a class should be or needs to be student discovery.  Sometimes I just need to tell them something but I struggled for a long time to do it effectively and in a timely manner.  Then I discovered the beauty of something I came to call The 5 Minute Lecture.  I just stumbled onto it one day in lesson preparation.  Here is how it works:

1.    The lecture goes no more than 5 minutes. I appoint a student to be the time keeper and commission her to stop me at 5 minutes and not a second longer (I have never gone over).
2.    I speak in a regular pace - it is not rushed to squeeze things into 5 minutes.  And during the lecture I am the only one that can speak.
3.    I will have outlined some part of the text to lecture on - a chapter or so that the class needs to be exposed to - and that is the basis of the lecture.
4.    The students have to have the text open so that they can follow along and mark things.  Obviously they need a pen and paper handy.
5.    I tell them that during the lecture I will highlight the information they need to be aware of and pose some questions for them to chew on - they need to mark the text and take notes as necessary.
6.    Their last assignment is to come up with one question related to the lecture and text so that after the lecture is over (no more than 5 minutes) they can start asking questions.  Sometimes they will not have a question but just a comment or thought.  That too is acceptable.

When I give the timekeeper the nod she and I start together.  I will have practiced it once or twice beforehand so I know I will keep within the time and still say all I need to say.  The lecture becomes the basis for that class period and perhaps one or two more.  If done right it exposes the class to information and serves as a tease to get them to wonder more. And the students generally enjoy it because it is short and effective. 

I only use the technique 3-4 times per semester because I don't want it to become stale but when used well it is a wonderful tool to get things going. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Smartest Student in the World

In many classes I've taught, I've had the same student that you have had in some of your classes.  I've had The Smartest Student In The World.  This student is generally bright and engaging and very, very willing to answer every question and offer a comment on every situation.  I actually love this student because he is engaged, thinking, and willing to dive into the work of learning. Often it is a blessing to have him because if the class lags a little I can just nod in his direction and he will start talking.  The downside of his presence is that he will continue to talk and work his way into things when others want to, and need to (by the way, this student shows up in youth, young adult, and adult classes - he is everywhere). So how do you help this student learn within the context of a whole classroom of students, all of whom need to learn?  How do you help without killing his enthusiasm? Here are some observations

Many times I have put a student on "comment restriction".  Sometimes I pull him aside before class and say, "You make so many excellent and useful comments but I have 20 other students who also need to talk, so I'm giving you room to make just 3 comments during this class period - make them count."   Most take that seriously and I can see them measuring their thoughts and metering out their comments.  I think it makes for better comments.  Once they hit 3 comments I don't call on them anymore and they understand why.  Other times I don't tell the student up front, I just mentally keep track and when he hits 3 comments I stop calling on him.  If he approaches me after class and asks why I didn't call on him, I explain the restriction rule and thank him for his willingness, but help him see the need to create space for others.  I've never had a student get mad about it.  They all seem to get it and most laugh as they realize the truth of it.

You as the teacher are not obligated to call on every person who asks to be recognized.  I want to include all voices so I pick those to speak.  And I don't feel bound by who had their hand up first.  This is not a 'pull a number at Baskin Robbins and wait confidently for your turn' experience so I am free to call on whomever I want - whomever I think will add to the discussion.  Sometimes I look at a student who is very hesitant and gently say "Did you have your hand up?"  When they say "No" I follow with "But did you want to have your hand up?"  More often than not they will say yes and then offer something.  That gets more voices in the mix.

Here are two good phrases to have in your back pocket - "I see a lot of the same hands up - I'd like to hear from people who have not yet spoken".  That works.  And this one - "Let's just take one more comment and move on." 

I love to ask students for personal experiences that illustrate the point we are trying to make.  They are generally willing to share such stories, but after about 2 stories, we don't need anymore illustration.  It just becomes a redundancy that stops the discussion from moving forward, so I'll simply say "This is the last story we need".  And I like to emphasize that we need personal stories, not hearsay stories.  So when a student says "This happened to my uncle's neighbor's boss's son", I'm obligated to cut him off - with kindness of course.

Remember that participation is not the goal - it is a means to an end.  The end is learning, which is enhanced by stirring things up in the minds of the students. More voices help the mix so you can't let The Smartest Student in the World - or his partners - dominate and you at least have to offer the quieter students a chance to join in.  And if you can do it in a fun way it works a lot better.


Sunday, September 28, 2014

Learn to Work with What They Give You

I once sat in an adult Sunday School class and heard the teacher ask a question.  I formulated a response but didn't immediately say anything.  I tend to talk too much in class and don't like being that guy, so I held back.  When nothing was forthcoming from any other student I raised my hand and offered my thought.  The teacher smiled at me and very kindly said "That's wrong - does anyone else have a thought?"

Well, that stung, but not because she thought I was wrong.  I may or may not have been but the deeper issue was this: I wanted to be in the game.  I wanted to play and she just kicked me out.  My answer didn't fit her game plan and I was eliminated.  For the rest of the class I sat there silently, wondering if I was wrong but also wondering why she wouldn't let me explain my thinking.  The pain wasn't permanent and by the next class I was back to talking, but I keep thinking of how many people have been scarred deeply by such an experience and decide never to play again.

If you haven't read Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink, you should.  It is full of insightful little essays about how and why we make the choices we do every day. In one of the essays he speaks of watching an improv troupe one evening and being fascinated by their ability to create something dramatic out of almost nothing and keep a steady flow of humor in their work.  In trying to discover how they did it he was taught this lesson: "One of the most important rules that make improv possible is the idea of agreement, the notion that a very simple way to create a story - or humor - is to have characters accept everything that happens to them."  That is, when one character offers a line (and this is all impromptu) the other character has to accept it and do something with it.  For example if one of the characters says "Doctor, I broke my leg" the other character can't say "No, it looks just fine".  He has to accept the idea of a broken leg and build from there.  To refuse the line is to kill the action.

That is true for the classroom too.  Great teaching and learning are hastened as the teacher listens to and accepts what the students offer in conversation, even the things that you initially find absurd. By learning to accept what is said and then doing something with it, you validate student thinking and help in the learning process. You can take what they give you and help shape a response. Here are some ideas how you can do that.

If a student offers a comment or thought that meshes well with the lesson and /or the conversation, give that student thanks.  It can be quick or extensive as the occasion and the student require.  It could just be a smile or a nod of the head.  It could be a pause, followed by “Wow that was great.  Thank you.”  You will know what to do and say with each student and in each circumstance.

If a student gives you something that is tentative or slightly askew in relation to the direction the class is flowing, ask him for a little more.  Try to discover what he was thinking as he said it.  Students like to show just the tip of the iceberg and usually have more to say if we invite them to say it.  Make the invitation.  Ask him for more, to add to his answer or to expand on what he just said.  It is initially surprising to the teacher to find out such things.

If a student gives a comment or response that seems miles off, I like to say something like “You know, I've never thought of it that way.  Help me see what you see.”  If they were just saying something silly they will usually admit it and we all have a good laugh and move on.  But many times they have something to say, something important to say, and if I don’t give them latitude to say it and explain it, we all have missed out on something important.

It's not the job of a teacher to catch students being wrong.  That benefits no one.  It is the teacher's job to teach so that students learn, and one real good way of doing that is to take what they give you and do something with it.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

You Can Talk, but Can You Converse?

In recent years there has been a welcomed trend towards inviting students to do more in their own learning.  This is a very good thing as mental immobility rarely results in learning.  But as with all trends that feel good, we tend to keep pushing it until we go past the point of usefulness and enter into something just as weak as the thing we are trying to correct.  In this case, if we require more and more of students, the false corollary is that we need to require less and less of teachers.  You can see that the end of that thinking is for teachers to be deemed unnecessary (some with little understanding would cheer that result).  However, to eliminate the teacher weakens the class as much as having a teacher who does everything and asks nothing of students. 

So what is the real value of having a teacher in the class?  It is the experience, the wisdom, and the voice.  Students can replicate everything that happens in a class except hear the voice of the teacher.  They can read the text on their own, organize their own little study groups and talk things out.  They can make up review sheets and give each other little quizzes and tests.  The only thing they cannot do on their own is hear the voice of the teacher and get her point of view and her experience and her synthesis of a situation.  

Years ago a colleague made this comment, almost in passing: "Great teaching is a great conversation with your students."  I liked it then and agree with it more now.  This is a place where great learning can occur. 

What makes great conversation (as opposed to hanging out and talking about nothing)?  It is friends sitting around talking about things that matter.  They may or may not come to a conclusion but interest is stirred and thinking ensues.  Some of the most meaningful conversations I have ever had have been in a class, with students. We are friends, and the topics before us are meaningful.

Just a few things are necessary to begin a great classroom conversation. It is almost always initiated by a teacher leading the class in a purposeful direction.  It generally starts with a real question or a real problem that needs a solution. It should be clearly understood that effective classroom conversations are more than just one teacher and one student talking.  There needs to be that but there also needs to be student to student talk. When these elements are present there can be real discussions.

It took a long time in my marriage for my wife and I to figure out our conversational patterns.  When she asks me a question, I rarely respond quickly.  I pause a lot because I want to respond well.  But in the early days she interpreted my silence as a sign for her to say something else.  We just had to work out the details of when we are ready to speak because I don't like being cut off in the middle of an idea, even as I am muddling my way through it.  She doesn't either.  Neither do you, so if you want a great classroom conversation, allow students to muddle their way through.

I have sort of a deliberate pace to my speaking and I don't like someone to steal the punch line of a joke or to complete my sentences before I get to them because of that pacing.  Do you?  Probably not.  Allow your students the same courtesy.

The inherent danger of a conversation is that it tends to drift quite easily.  If you like your students and feel at ease in the gentle banter that accompanies such friendship then you really have to guard against such a drift. Remember that the purpose of a discussion is not simply to get students talking.  The fact that they are talking is no accomplishment at all.  The purpose is to come to an understanding of a question or problem.  The purpose is to counsel together and mutually arrive at a place where we see clearer. The teacher needs to be one voice in the room but not the only voice and perhaps not even the dominant voice.  

So converse with students and make it enjoyable.  Let them hear your voice, and position yourself to want to hear their voices.  In the next few posts there will be some ideas for helping accomplish that.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Virtue of Patience

For a long time I've believed that if I can create 2-3 very good questions during my lesson planning then those questions will carry me through the lesson.  They won't be the only questions I ask, however, because other good questions will spin from the responses they provoke.  My well crafted questions have to be real questions that invite a response, not an answer.  They have to provoke thought and hopefully involve feeling from students.  And, I have to be willing to wait.  This is the teacher's challenge: can you pose a very good question and have the self control and the confidence in your students to wait for their responses to begin to come in?

In his book What the Best College Teachers Do, author Ken Bain teaches this important principle: "I cannot stress enough this simple yet powerful notion - the best teaching is in the attitudes of teachers, in their faith in the students' abilities to achieve and their willingness to take their students seriously" (pp. 78-79).  There are a lot of things I can do to show my students that I take them seriously.  One sticks out - I can trust that they will respond to the questions posed, even if it takes them 15 seconds to do so. Or more.

As teachers we don't seem to value silence for pondering.  We value silence for discipline and obedience but we don't have much use for it as a tool for pondering but we should.  Consider this thought: if I ask a serious question of my students, they will have to go deep into their minds, and perhaps their hearts, to come up with an response.  That takes time and thought. "Ponder" is a different form of the word "ponderous" or heavy. Some questions are light and answers to them fly from the top of my head.  Other inquiries are serious, weighty and thick with meaning. They will involve my head (logic) and my heart (feelings).  Light questions dance in my head - I just need a second to answer. But weightier ones sink through my head down into my heart and join the two. Those need pondering to formulate a response.  I have to give my students the time and the trust to process and think.  I cannot rush in to fill the silence with my answer or my experience.  My attitude has to be that they will come through.  My experience is that with a clear question (sometimes restated) and enough time they do begin to answer, and the experience is wonderful.

For example, I could ask them to share with the class which battle of the Civil War was the most decisive for a particular side, and why.  They need time to think of the battles they know about, process the value of each one, come up with some back up arguments and then formulate a response.  That requires more than 2 seconds.  And did you notice in that question the opening for just about anything they want to say.  All can participate but few can do it quickly.

I could ask them a question about the Savior from John 8:4 as the adulterous woman was brought to Him.  I could say "If she was 'caught in the very act', where is the other guilty party?"  I can think of a number of possible responses to that question, but all take some time to put together and then express.

Don't be alarmed if their initial expressions are halting and not completely formed.  To me that is a good sign. They are thinking and are willing to think out loud.  I love that and encourage that and feel like I need everyone to give them space to create on the move.

Teach your students to think.  Honor their wrestling with words and ideas. Give them the necessary time to ponder and to respond.  They will be tentative at first, because you may be the first teacher who has trusted them enough to do this.  Don't give up. I always notice that in certain classes students on the way to that class talk freely with their friends.  Then, as they cross the threshold of the classroom and the teacher calls the class to order they disengage.  After class they start to talk again.  Why?  Could it be because their friends take them seriously, listen to them, and engage them in a back and forth conversation, with no time limits involved?  We should be more like their friends.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Big Question Revisited

Would you like to know why most students won’t answer your questions in class and in fact are hesitant to participate in discussions at all?  It’s because for the bulk of their educational lives they have been asked questions that need a specific answer and they have learned to be very hesitant about raising their hands to offer a simple thought.  Even if they are semi-sure that they know the answer, they also know that the possibility exists for error and they will probably be wrong and the teacher will not hesitate to point it out.  When they (or you or me) are publically called out for being wrong we will hardly try again; hence, the resistance to classroom participation.

But students almost always have something to say and it takes the right kind of question to bring it out, and it takes the right attitude from the teacher to bring it out.  The attitude is this: “I know you have something to say and I really, really want to hear it.”  But the teacher can’t just say that; it has to be demonstrated.  You have to show them that attitude. 

The right kind of question is the one that requires a response rather than an answer.  An answer is a very specific type of response that corresponds directly to the question.  Think of a math class (“The square root of 16 is…?”).  There is only one answer to that question.  Think of a science class (“The 15th element on the periodic table is…?”).  Only one answer will do for that question, so we watch students furrow their brows and puzzle over it, looking down and hoping not to make eye contact.  Very few are brave enough to answer and when no one does the teacher continues to assume that questions are not very useful in class and “I should just stick to my lecture notes.”  So much for questions that need an answer.  They rarely bring one and when they do it comes without much thought.

But what about asking a question that begs for a response?  A response is any comeback that keeps the conversation going.  It could be an attempt to directly answer the question, but it could be a follow up question from a student, or simply a thought, or a wonderment.  What if the teacher asked the kinds of questions to which there are no wrong answers?  How about this one: “The Russians launched an earth orbiting vehicle before the Americans, but the Americans were first on the moon.  Why?”  There could be lots of reasons and lots of thoughts about that, but all can participate safely. 

Here’s another one: “Joseph Smith received his first vision in 1820 but the church wasn’t organized until 10 years later.  What was happening in those 10 years that made the wait necessary?”

Often you can start a question with this simple phrase: “In your opinion…”  There is a slight danger with that question because you don’t want to create a huge pool of shared ignorance, so the teacher needs to listen and guide and help reshape the responses, but everyone can eventually share an opinion.

I read of a science teacher who gave each student a barometer and asked them to use it to discover the height, in feet, of a certain tall building.  I suppose there are a lot of useful scientific ways to figure that out but the one that intrigued me was the student who had the correct answer and when asked to explain his method said, “I went to the building superintendant and told him that if he would just tell me how tall the building was that I would give him the barometer.”  The teacher’s original question created enough room that a wide variety of thoughts and responses were acceptable.

So if you want to get students talking in your class – and it works for both adults and kids – stop asking them to recall names and dates and numbers.  That closes the door very quickly. And please stop asking this question “What did we talk about last time?”  I can barely remember what I had for dinner last night.  I just know that it was good and I liked it but I generally can’t recall it on cue anymore than I can recall the content of yesterday’s lesson (or last week’s).  If you need to spend a brief little time reviewing what you did last meeting, just ease them into it by reminding them – “Remember yesterday that we talked about some of the main reasons America entered World War II?  The reason that I thought the strongest was…..  Which was yours?”  As you ease them into it, they will remember and start to talk and then you can begin asking them questions that really generate thought and discussion, questions that need responses not answers.