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.