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.