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.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Big Question

             The question I am asked most frequently about teaching is this one: “How do I come up with good questions to use in the classroom?”  This is a critical skill for a teacher to have because, “To ask and answer questions is at the heart of all learning and all teaching” (President Henry B. Eyring).  It would seem a simple thing to ask a question in class, and it is if you aren’t too particular about what follows. If, however, you want to stir up thinking and created a lively learning atmosphere in your classroom, you will need to learn how to craft excellent questions.

            When a person tells me about their inability to come up with great questions, my first response is always the same: “You can’t come up with good classroom questions because you don’t ask good questions as you read the material in preparation for the class.  You simply read the material.”  Most people read a text just to read it.  A teacher needs to read it and think about how to use it in class.  I find that the most effective way to do that is to ask questions of the text as I read it.  Here are 3 examples:

1.      I remember the first time I read the Iliad as an adult (this did not happen as I read it in high school because I just sort of faked my way through it).  I was struck with the opening line: “Sing O Goddess, the anger of Achilles…”  Why was he so angry?  How did his anger reach a point where it caused multiple deaths (which the line goes on to say)?  Why is this the very opening line of the story?  I was full of questions from just those seven words and I read awaiting the answers from the text.  Those are questions that could launch a discussion.

2.      This summer I read a book entitled “Empire of the Summer Moon” about the Comanche nation in North America.  For 150-200 years, up to about 1880, they were the undisputed rulers of the great middle section of the continent, from Texas, and New Mexico on the south up through Kansas and Nebraska.  They were fierce warriors, incredible horsemen, and ruled their territory.  Their power kept the Spaniards from moving further north from Mexico and the French from moving west out of the New Orleans area.  Both groups wanted to keep colonizing but were bottled up by the Comanche protecting their lands.  As I discovered that insight in the text, I started asking questions:  how did that help or hinder further migrations by different people?  What caused the demise of their power and did that hasten migration?  How different would America be today if the French had colonized much further west, or the Spaniards farther to the north?   Can you see how questions like that could really enable discussion?

3.      When I read the scriptures I am full of questions.  Recently I was reading in Luke 17 and found this in verse 5: “Lord, increase our faith” and immediately I wondered what is the way to increase faith?  So I read the subsequent verses slowly and found that in 6-10 He uses a story to outline one way and in verses 11-19 He shares a second way to do it.  I would have never seen that if I had not asked a question of the text.

If you struggle to come up with good questions try doing this – have a conversation
with the text as you read through it.  The three examples above all could have just been an ‘ooh and ah’ moment in the reading but I asked questions and was stirred up.  Be full of wonder.  Think deeply.  Probe and push and pull.  The questions that bubble up as you read can be turned into good questions that you can ask your students in class.

      I’m going to devote the next couple of posts to the art of asking questions, both how to do it and how not to do it.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Are you sure you didn't want to be an Architect?

What do you think of this sentence: “The teacher is the architect of the learning experience”?  I like it a lot.  It’s been with me so long that I can’t recall if I thought of it (maybe) or I read or heard it somewhere (more likely).  Either way, it expresses a truth about the classroom and the teaching/learning dynamic. 
An architect has a vision, then commits that vision into detail on paper, and finally directs the execution of the vision.  What he doesn't do is all of the work.  There are lots of people down the line that labor in realization of the vision, but the vision and the details begin with him. 
A great teacher begins with a vision of student learning (not teacher performance) over the course of the term and for each daily lesson.  The vision is “what will my students learn” and the details are “how will they learn it.”  Start with a plan, fill in the details, and then be prepared to modify along the way, if the occasion calls for it.  You’re the architect; you get to pick the materials to use and the quantity.  For example, student participation is one of the materials to aid in the learning process.  It is not the final product.  Don’t get fooled into thinking that just because students are participating that they are learning.  They may or may not be, but if you’re not careful, you’ll perceive participation as an end, not as a means to an end.  The end we want is learning, and participation is useful because it opens up thinking and thinking causes learning.  So we love to see hands go up to respond, but here is a truth that is hard to grasp: not everyone that raises a hand needs to be called on.  If I ask a question and five hands go up I won’t necessarily call on all of them and I generally won’t do it in the order they raised their hands.  If the last hand up is a student who doesn't talk much, that’s the first person I call on.  She needs to be heard and a variety of voices generally makes for a better class.  And if I think that after 1-2 comments we have stirred the pot successfully and people are thinking, then I move on because as the architect of the learning experience, I get to select the materials (in this case, participation) and the quantity (how many students I call on).
You might assume that students will be offended if they are not called on, but here is another truth: when you raise your hand it is a sign that you have had some thoughts, that you have been stirred up sufficiently so that you want to participate.  Whether you vocalize it or not you still have had the experience of thinking and that enhances learning.  And if a student really has something to say that needs resolution, she will let me know by her persistence and she will get her say.
Great teaching is not delivering a boatload of new facts.  It is the ability to stir things up in the minds of students so that they think and begin to see things in ways that maybe they hadn't before and thus learn.  When the Savior taught the two men on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) He expounded all things unto them, spent time with them, and then left, leaving them to ponder and wonder and grow in learning.  He may not have answered all of their questions but He stirred them by leaving some things unsaid.  

It takes a classroom architect with vision and skill to make that happen in a great teaching way that leads to great learning.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

I Love Teaching, But Must I Also Love The Students?

I walked into the first day of a 10th grade history class at Bellflower High School.  The teacher took the roll and then said this (not an exact quote but an adequate paraphrase): 
“I am Mr. ……  I am the teacher, you are the students.  My job is to teach and your job is to learn.  I am not here to be your friend, just your teacher.”  This was not good for me.  I was 15, had acne, very little self confidence, and was just trying to fit in. I was not cool - that social level was always just out of my grasp.  But teachers had helped cover up my social deficiencies by being my friends.  From kindergarten through the ninth grade I had many really good teachers and never had I been told, right up front, that I should not expect some level of friendship.  I quietly revolted by deciding not to be his friend, and not to do much of anything in his class.

Is it necessary to like students?  I say yes and I would further add that it is critical to love them, to care about them, and to be concerned about them as people not just numbers (that is, if you want them to learn anything).  Someone told me once that a good working definition of ‘charity’ (real, pure love) is to love the unlovable.  I like that.  It is easy to love the lovable – the students who come in with work done and with eagerness to do more, the pretty ones, the handsome ones, the smiling ones, the confident ones.  It is much harder to love the unlovable.  Those are the surly ones, the bored, the disengaged, the lost, those that drag in late and stare at you and dare you to teach them.  The easy thing is to emotionally dismiss them and just work around them.  The hard thing, and the right thing, is to find a way.  Work your way into their life.

I've heard a teacher or two say something like this: “They don’t show any concern for me and I really have all I can do to work with the ones that seem interested.”  If you are going to wait for students to show interest in you first you are going to wait a long time.  That is not the natural order of things.  In the New Testament, I John 4:19 we learn the proper order and it is this:  We love the Savior because He first loved us.  The person with the most power in the relationship has to begin the process.  Sometimes the process is quick and often it drags out but I can hardly recall a student (teen-ager, young adult, or adult) that I could not be friends with, and then learn to love, after I made the first move and stayed with it in a variety of ways until we were friends.

Monday, September 1, 2014

I Love Teaching, However...

I love the process of teaching.  I love to think about teaching, to prepare lessons, to stand in front of a class and watch things get stirred up, and finally I love to watch the light bulbs come on and see students begin to understand something that was heretofore a mystery in their lives.  I love what I do so much that if I am not careful, I just do it for myself.  I focus on what I am doing and what I am going to do next.  I get a little dialogue going in my mind where I say to myself "you didn't say that right; say something else; you're losing them, be more creative or funnier".  In other words, I just worry about me and the role I'm playing.

   I've been in that mode many times and it is as though the students fade into the background.  It is as though they just exist to support me and the carefully crafted show that I have put together and am now delivering to them.  And it is usually a pretty good show, but if that is all it is, it's not good teaching because learning has taken a backseat.

My daughter Rachel helped me create this blog.  She is a blogger and a good classroom teacher.  She got me onto the computer, showed me which buttons to push, and then let me practice a few times.  Each time I practiced she would ask if I understood what I was doing.  I did and the blog was created.  Later that evening I thought that I should practice one more time while she was still around, just to make sure.  I opened the page and immediately got stuck.  "Rachel, I'm stuck here - what do I do?"  She smiled and said, "You know what to do.  Just think and remember."  I thought "What a cheeky child I've raised who won't help her father" but in her refusal to come running to my aid she helped me more.  I did poke around and I did remember what to do and I learned.

This blog is dedicated to the idea that teaching and learning are linked and need to be approached as twins.  To separate them is to do a disservice to students.