Thursday, June 18, 2015

Concrete Steps to Success

One Saturday morning my wife and I went to the community center to watch 2 teams of 8 year old boys play basketball. Watching 8 year old boys do almost anything is fun. For me, listening to what their fathers say during the game is at least as interesting. A father sitting behind us would say the same thing each time his son's team made a mistake. He would plead with them "Come on you guys, play smarter!!!!!!" I wondered if any boy on that team knew what he meant by that. I'm confident they heard him but I am equally confident that the words carried no meaning to them. To say 'play smarter' sounds good but it is too vague to most people, especially little boys. That type of counsel is incapable of moving people forward and helping the process of learning.
In the book Teach Like a Champion author Doug Lemov tells of a time he was playing soccer and while on defense the coach would continually yell, "Defense, you guys, defense." Then he says, "We were pretty aware that we were on defense, though, and also pretty aware we weren't playing it especially well." Then he got another coach who broke down the art of defense into six understandable, sequential steps. During practice the coach would work the boys through the steps. Then, in a game the coach would remind them of the steps with just a few words and the boys knew what those words meant and would adjust accordingly.

Teaching students how to be members of a class and how things are done in the classroom takes time, but far less time if we are able to put things in a series of steps, or practices that will quickly enhance the learning experience. Here is one example for the way we could begin class: when I teach a class I want students to come into the classroom and before they sit down I want them to have three things. I want them to have their books, a notebook to write in and something to write with. The first week of school I will remind them constantly not to sit down until they have their things. Some years I would create a little acronym for them to remember, something like "BBP" (book, binder, pencil) or "BNP" (book, notebook, pen). It didn't matter what it was as long as it urged them, and reminded them, to be ready as they sat down. It was a concrete step for them to follow.

Students get annoyed when I say, "Why aren't you ready for class?" It isn't enough to say, "Get ready." In order to be effective and to give them some way to measure their readiness, I have to give them solid, meaningful steps.

Concrete steps work in a lot of different situations in class. If I am going to put the students in small groups I can't just say, "Get together and talk about this." That is a recipe for disaster. I have to give them something to think about, give them time to think about it and formulate a response, then put them in groups and appoint a leader, and tell them what I want them to do with the thoughts they have just had and how to work together on it. Finally I have to tell them what type of outcome I am looking for from the group and how much time they have to accomplish the objective. In the beginning of doing small groups I would even write the steps down and give them to each student. They could then see step one, step two, and so on and follow along. After not much time they would know how to do things and could follow the steps and have a much better experience.

Setting it up like is initially time consuming, but the result is so much better. Students do better with structure. Classes run smoother with structure. The teacher needs to lead the way to create that structure in the classroom.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Everyone Should Speak

There is an almost perfect formula for classroom dynamics found in Doctrine and Covenants 88:122. If you have ever wondered about how much you speak as a teacher and how much time should be allotted to students to speak, this passage should be of great help to you.

The passage begins by saying that a teacher needs to be appointed. The appointment can come from different places depending on the teaching venue. It could be the school board for public school teachers and it could be a local priesthood leader for a church teaching assignment. Someone makes a decision that this person will teach the class and do all that is inherent in that assignment. One of the duties not necessary to the assignment (and indeed hazardous to the assignment) is that the teacher do all of the talking

Everyone in the class has the assignment to speak and all have the assignment to listen. That sounds so simple but think about it for a minute. If you are a teacher, picture the students in your class and ask yourself if you trust them to say something useful in the class, something that will add to the flow of what happens during the class period. Do you? Do you trust them enough to allow them to speak and stumble through to a useful idea? I was teaching a class recently and a young man raised his hand with something to say. I acknowledged him and he paused for a second and then said, "I have something in my mind to share but the thoughts are still jumbled and unclear. Maybe you should come back to me." I told him that he could think out loud with us and we would all see if something did come clear. He started to talk and was able to formulate his thought and it added to the discussion. Would you have trusted him that he would come up with something useful?

If you are like so many teachers I have observed, the answer to that question is "no." It is a very difficult thing for a teacher to remain silent. We worry. We are concerned that nothing is happening. It took me a long time to learn to stop talking and listen, but once I learned to be quiet in a classroom, my experience became a very different one. I came to understand that students were thinking and formulating a response and if I kept talking they would never be allowed to express themselves. I came to know that they would respond in a rough, fragmentary way because of inexperience and a lack of confidence. Even outwardly confident students would hesitate to speak their thoughts. They rarely came out in fully constructed sentences. They were a jumble and often incoherent. But it was a starting place.

The commandment says "let one speak at a time and let all listen unto his sayings." We expect that when the teacher speaks all will listen. We should also hold the same expectation that when a student is allowed to speak (which should be often) we will all listen, including the teacher. And the teacher should listen intently, without thinking of his next thing to say, but rather listening with the idea of actually hearing what the student has to say. The promise is that all will be edified of all.

What I say as a teacher may be more refined, more directly to the point and easier to understand but it is not more important than what a student says. If we want our students to learn how to speak better they need to have an arena in which to practice. Our classroom can be the place. Even rough and unpolished statements from students can be of immense value to all of us.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Two Different Ways of Teaching

Here is a way to think about teaching the scriptures more powerfully. Do you teach the scriptures "inside out" or "outside in"? Inside and outside both refer to the scriptures and reference where you start and where you spend more time. I will explain both methods.

'Outside-in' is when you use the scriptures as a support for a story or a thought or an experience that you share with the class. You begin class by sharing what you have with the students. A great story will certainly grab the attention of the class - they will be with you and eager to hear your tale. You tell them the story or relate the experience. When the story concludes you say something like "Everyone now turn to the following verses and let's see how they are just like the story I told you."  You have everyone turn to the scriptures to see how your story is strengthened by what you read there.

'Inside-out' is when you use a story or experience to support a clear doctrinal teaching from the scriptures. You begin class by first going to the scriptures. You spend time there and come to understand the context and content, and then discover a principle or doctrine. You have the class chew on it a while, analyzing it together so that it can be understood by all. Finally you move to an illustration of that doctrine in action with a story from the teacher or a student, one that illustrates how it works in real time, today.

Both methods get students into the scriptures but one of them is much stronger than the other. Obviously the 'inside-out' method is stronger because it begins with the scriptures and the lesson is centered on the scriptures and not on my personal life. It starts where the action really is - in the written word of God. Once we have helped students understand a portion of that word we can then help them to rely on it by showing how it works in a real person's life. That person could be the teacher or a student, or both. In the 'outside-in' method the focus is on the teacher and the teacher's story. It could be a great story, one that illustrates a true principle. But if the focus is on the teacher then the scriptures stay unfocused in the minds of the student. They are just there as a backup to a great story.

I have a story that I have used for years to illustrate the doctrine that the Savior has a plan and that His plan will roll out as He has prepared, so we can be confident that we can see the end from the beginning and we have no need to fear because we know how things will end up. My story is about a football game I was watching on TV years ago. It was on a tape delay and so I knew the result of the game as I was watching it. It is a great story and illustrates the doctrine perfectly. I have used that story as the focus of a class and later, when I knew more, I have used it simply as an illustration of a scriptural principle. The second way has worked better every time.

What is needed more than ever is for students to see the scriptures and what they teach as the focus. That would of course include the words of living prophets. The teacher will someday leave the class. The students may or may not remember the great stories but if we can help them learn to dig in and understand the scriptures, they will have that skill forever and it will bless them for the same length of time.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Teaching and Learning is Like a Kaleidoscope

I sat in a class the other day and the teacher posed a question which invited not only responses but perhaps a personal story to illustrate the response. It was a good question and a response came quickly, coupled with a personal story to strengthen it. That was great. Then another similar story came from a different student, followed by yet another of the same kind from someone else and I soon felt like I had reached the saturation point of the same stories. Nothing different was happening in class, just story on top of story, each saying essentially the same thing.

Far too often class discussions become a recitation of the familiar. That's fine and it is certainly not offensive but the longer we stay on only the familiar, the less chance there is of learning anything. You may notice that I did not say "learning anything new." I don't put much stock in learning new things. I am much more excited about seeing old and familiar things in a new way. An effective teacher finds ways to teach well known things with just enough of a twist that it will appear new and thus we will learn. When you see the light come on in a student's countenance then you know you have helped her see things differently.

The kaleidoscope appears to be a simple child's toy, but think of what it is: it is a tube with a chamber into which is placed some colored stones or bits of glass. Also in the chamber are some mirrors to cause reflection. As the light enters the chamber it reflects on the bits of glass or stones to create a pattern with the help of the mirrors. Then, as the tube is turned, even ever so slightly, the stones move and the pattern changes. The light is the same. The stones are the same, and the mirrors are the same. The only difference is the turning, the slight rearranging of the stones. Infinite patterns can come from the same materials if they are turned slightly. That becomes the job of an effective teacher - to turn the cylinder just enough to help us see the same things in a different light, thus adding to our knowledge and wonder.

Here is an example. For years I have used a standard definition of righteousness as I've taught: righteousness is being in the right place, at the right time, with the right people, doing the right things. I think it is a good working definition and it is easy to understand. We can get a visual of righteousness just from that sentence. It is not a full definition but it is very useful. Now, would you see it differently if I added Isaiah's metaphor found in Isaiah 48:18 - "...then had thy peace been as a river, and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea." Isaiah has just turned the kaleidoscope enough that it causes us to see in a new way. How is righteousness like an ocean wave? That is not any of those four things I use in my definition. Is it because righteousness can be constant? Because it can rise up to a large size? Because it is powerful? We can play with those thoughts for awhile and learn something new. For that matter we can play with "peace as a river" too and gain some new insights.

If you went home from a class where those things had been discussed and someone asked what you studied that day and you answered 'righteousness', the inquirer might immediately think they knew what the class was all about, but they would be wrong. You would have personally received some great new insights because your teacher had taken the time to twist the kaleidoscope of learning just enough that you were able to see the same things in a new way. That causes learning. Talking about the same familiar things over and over is review and there is a place for it. But to learn and add to our knowledge we need to blaze new trails of thought. Seeing things differently helps do that.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Unanswered Questions

Karl G. Maeser, a leading 19th century educator, once said, "A great question is often worth ten answers." Think about that for a minute. We generally think of getting answers as the goal of asking questions. The teacher asks, the students answer, and we feel like we are making some educational progress. That doesn't appear to be what he is saying. I think he is saying that the purpose of a great question is to stir up thought that could come back in the form of ten different answers, or comments, or other thoughts or more questions.

An unanswered question creates tension. A teacher can see the tension in the students who avert their eyes, who look away, who put their head down. There is tension in the attempted answers, in the one or two word mumblings. The tension is relieved when a brave student offers a response and the teacher accepts it. The other students breathe a little easier and can now look around with some safety. Things return to normal, until the next question is posed.

But what if the teacher asked a question not to find an answer but just as something for the class to think about. What if the teacher says "class here is a question to think about? Don't shout out anything right now, just think about this and at some time we will come to an answer of it, but not yet." The tension is eased because no one is on the spot and the teacher isn't waiting for the answer. A great question is now hovering over the class and it can be more valuable than the ten answers that might have been forthcoming. How?

I have a dear friend that I discuss gospel topics with. He is very wise and experienced and I trust him. I started this practice with him years ago and this is how it goes. I tell him that I have a question I want to ask but I do not want him to answer. I just want him to tell me if it is a good question, one worth thinking about. We've done this enough that he knows the drill so when I ask a question now he will just tell me either to keep thinking about it or to set it aside because it is not worth the time to ponder. It has been an amazing thing to me to spend time on the questions that are worthwhile. Without an answer they are wide open for inspection. I can spend time over the next days or weeks or even months in many cases with these questions. I can keep a number of them juggling in my mind and then as I read or study other things, as I attend other classes, as I talk to other people, I can start to grab more information that will help me fill in answers. Some weeks will pass in pondering then I will see my friend and tell him that I think I have an answer, or a partial answer, to a certain question. I will share it with him and he will then tell me that I got it or am getting closer. Once in a while I will share an insight with him that he had never considered. The discussion deepens and the conversation continues. He has never told me an answer but has confirmed many that I have shared with him.

That is a long process the way I've described it, but it can be compressed down to a class period or two like this: Ask a question that takes some thought to answer. Here's one from D&C 124:45 - the verse speaks of doing some things that will allow us to "not be moved out of [our] place." The question I would ask is "We know what it takes to not be moved out our place. Where is that place and how do we get there?" Keep that unanswered question hovering as you discuss the verses close to verse 45. Help the class look for hints as to where it might be and what do we have to do to get there. What will inevitably happen is more questions will surface. A multitude of answers will bubble up. The original great question will indeed be more valuable than ten quick answers because it will engender more discussion, more questions, and more answers. It will become a very useful tool to help students understand the scriptures.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Creative Process

                Teaching is a creative process. Teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ is a creative process that must include the influence of the Holy Ghost in order to be effective.

            The creation of teaching starts in lesson preparation. What is the block of scriptures that need to be addressed today? What are the salient doctrines and principles to address? How will adding content and context benefit student understanding? How can I give my students some level of ‘hands on’ learning that will benefit them, rather than just have them listen to me? Answering those and similar question will yield a lesson plan. You can’t just walk into a class without some kind of written plan that will guide you through and make the time meaningful and useful.

            In II Nephi 32 there are two verses that look strikingly similar but are talking about two different things. The first is verse 3 where it says “…feast upon the words of Christ; for behold, the words of Christ will tell you all things what ye should do.” Two verses later, in verse 5 we read this: “…if ye will enter in by the way, and receive the Holy Ghost, it will show unto you all things what ye should do.”

            The verse 3 phrase “tell you all things” seems to indicate that the words of Christ are the scriptures. Those are the standards that hold true through the ages. They guide us – “tell us” – how we should act and what we should be doing. That’s why we feast upon them. The verse 5 phrase that the Holy Ghost will “show unto us all things we should do” is more of an everyday, tactical revelation. Scriptures teach us the doctrines and principles that we need to know to govern our lives, but the Holy Ghost shows us along the way how to implement those in practical ways. We need both sources of input to successfully negotiate our way in this life.

            So it is in a classroom full of students. We enter with a lesson plan that we have created for that particular situation. That plan will ‘tell us’ what to do. We can’t be rigidly bound to it but neither should we just try to talk our way through the hour with no real preparation. We need to have a guide before us. However, rarely does the class go as planned. Detours abound as we deal with real people in their own real situations. That’s why we need the Spirit with us, to show us how to proceed in a class. It may be to stay on this point a little longer, or to move on a little quicker. It may be to call on a student who rarely participates but one who looks like they have something to say. It could be to leave a certain student alone on this day. She may be struggling with something unknown and unseen by the teacher and just needs space. How will we know any or all of these things? The Spirit can show us and with that knowledge coupled to the lesson plan we have in hand we are able to create a classroom environment and a lesson that is edifying and useful for all.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Do You Need a Source or a Resource ?

When I was a brand new, full time seminary teacher I went to a training meeting. I was eager for it. One of the men doing the training had set up, on the table in front of him, a stack of all of the resources available to us as teachers. There were resource manuals for both teacher and student. There were maps and dictionaries and volume upon volume of selected readings that would help teachers. I recognized most of it and was grateful for it. I needed all the help available to me and had studied from most of these sources. The teacher held up each one and described it and the good it could bring to the lesson. There were lots of appreciative nods.

Then he held up a set of scriptures in one hand and with his other hand pointed to all of the things on the table and said "Which do you really need?" I remember thinking that I really needed them all. He let us think about it for a bit then said "Could you teach effectively if all you had was your set of the scriptures and nothing else?" I knew at that time that it would be very difficult for me to do it that way.

Fast forward now many years ahead. Our stack on the table would be much higher. It would include not only all of the printed materials available but also everything you could find on the internet. You and I both know that we can search on the internet for anything and find mounds of information. How much of it is useful and true is open to debate but there is no debate that there is more than we can possibly study and incorporate into a lesson. So how do you decide how much to study, how much to incorporate, and how much time you will allot to your lesson preparation.

I'm going to suggest that most of what we see as resource material is not very useful in lesson preparation. It may be useful in study and pondering for ourselves, but when it comes time to prepare a specific lesson for me to teach to my specific class it is not useful. So much of what I have seen on the internet is someone else's interpretation of a lesson, someone else's idea of what the scriptures mean and how to present them. I can't teach that with any power. I can only teach with power what the Spirit teaches me to teach that day to those students.

In very real ways we cheat ourselves and our students out of a personal experience when we delay our study and preparation and then at the last minute take something that someone else has created and try to make it our own quickly. One of the great blessings of being a teacher is to have so many people from whom to 'borrow' ideas and things. I've used lots of things that I've taken from others but only after I've allowed it to soak into my thinking and given it enough pondering to own it and make it my own.

We should not allow the resources to take the place of the source and the source is the scriptures. That is where we turn and that is where we should spend the bulk of our time. Resources are useful as backups, not as the beginning of preparation. When we turn first to the source we position ourselves to be able to teach with power and authority. That will carry into the hearts of students and all will be edified of all.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Why Make a List

I recently was in a class and watched a teacher do a very 'teacher-like' thing: he made a list on the white board. He had the students read a passage, then went back with them to pick out certain things from the passage that answered a question he had posed, and he then listed the responses on the board and he had his list. He stood and looked at it and looked at the students and said "There it is - there are the answers".

That is something we have all done. There is something comforting about a list, something that says 'we have done our digging and right before our very eyes is the organized result of that digging'. I liked his list and thought that the digging had been fruitful to this point - but then I wondered what he would do with the list, because if you don't do something with it, it is not very helpful at all.

When I was a boy we would go to Knott's Berry Farm and every once in a while would be allowed to pan for gold at the little attraction set up for that. The operator would give us a pan and show us how to dip the pan into the running water and sand and gently shake it to find the gold flakes. They would appear and then the nice man would put them into a little clear container with some sand and we could show the world that we had indeed found our gold flakes. We could take the container home and put it on a shelf and look at it. But that was all and after a short while it was meaningless. It would have been more meaningful to take the gold and create something, but there was never enough and even if there had been, who knew what to do with it?

Lists are like the little flakes of gold. Unless we do something with them they lose their meaning after a very short while. 

Making lists seems like a good exercise to help students dig but it is only the beginning of a good thing, not the end. The next question is what will you do with the list on the board? Here are a couple of ideas.

1. You could ask students to identify the most meaningful thing on the list for them and then discuss how each student sees it a little differently.

2. You could use the list to illustrate a progression in the thinking of the writer, to show how an idea goes from a starting point to a fully developed idea.

3. You could create the list at the beginning of class and then use it as the outline for your teaching, following point by point the lessons you want to highlight.

4. You could use 2 lists from similar passages to do some compare and contrast exercises and see how an author views things differently at different times.

I know that there are other things you could do with a list but the important thing is to do something with it. Otherwise, you just have a little container with unused flakes of gold.