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.

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