The following comes from our January 2015 Email Newsletter. Subscribe!
A Few Good Discussion Techniques
for helping kids share in Sunday School
from (Rev.) Neil MacQueen
Discussion is not a lecture. Here are some techniques from my own “Bag O’ Tricks” that can help students participate more in discussion.
☺Ask questions using an Open~Dig~Reflect strategy:
Open: “Which person in the story said or did…”
“Open” is softball question to establish a fact and prime the pump.
Dig: “Why do you think that person said/did that?”
“What was their reason for…?”
“Dig” questions often get into who the person was, their motivation, excuse, need, point of view.
Reflect: “How would you have reacted differently if you had been there?”
“Reflect” is Life Application…putting the student into the story. What the story says to us.
Open-Dig-Reflect seems obvious, but a lot of teachers ask ONE “opening” or “intro” question then move on to the next subject and yet another “opening” question. They save up all their “life application” comments to the end of the lesson. And by then, the kids (and teacher) are often burned out, and ready to move on.
☺ Use “Game” techniques to ask questions.
Use a “question ball” or wheel which randomly selects who’s turn it is to answer the question, or randomly selects from your set of prepared questions. Asking questions randomly, rather than going around the circle, makes everyone pays attention (because their turn may be next). Roll a large dice that has the name of the story’s characters, then roll another dice with phrase like, “what could they have done differently?” and “what would you say to them?” Arrange chairs with questions taped under the seat, or let the kids tape questions under the seat, then play a seat-moving game.
“Gaming” some questions is a bit of “mis-direction.” In addition to making discussion fun, it directs student attention away from their self-consciousness.
☺ Ask “Compare & Contrast” questions
(it’s a familiar concept) Example: Compare Peter’s response to hearing about the Empty Tomb to Thomas’ response. Writing their responses on the board under the headings of “Same” and “Different” helps discussion and creates a visual reminder & focal point.
☺ Use Movement & Ask for “Less”-Verbal Responses
Movement: Start by asking students to “vote” on possible answers by moving to a certain answer location in the room, then ask they why they chose that answer and didn’t chose the others. Example: When Peter ran to the tomb, what do you think he expected to encounter -stand over here if your answer is “Jesus” or over here if your answer is “empty tomb,” or over here if your answer is ….. Less-Verbal: Invite students to type their answer into the computer program Let’s Talk –and have their animated character speak their words to the class. Less-Verbal: Write out a list of 10 or 15 key words on the board, ask a question, then ask students to “write down 1 word” (or 2) that sums up the story, …then “write down 5 words” from the list they’d share with someone to explain this story. Share what you wrote. Movement + Less-verbal: Students “pose” how they think the crowd or Zaccheus responded that day to various things Jesus said. How would you pose/react/freeze-frame if Jesus asked to come to your house? (This kind of question is also a lot of fun!)
☺ Don’t Mistake Eye-Contact for Paying Attention
I learned this lesson teaching with software “by the side” of students. You aren’t looking at each other, you’re looking at the screen. This is very similar to teaching with art, where there can be lots of good discussion while hands and eyes are manipulating the material. Away from the computers, look for things to help students FOCUS their eyes on and make them feel less self-conscious.
Questions can feel aggressive, stressful, and even punishing to some children. Some don’t respond well to prolonged eye-contact or feeling physically exposed. Here are some ideas for change:
Use friendly approaches, such as, tossing a stuffed animal as your “question animal” or tossing a hat full of questions (variation: toss a hat full of answers! …and see if the kids can come up with the question!)
Re-direct eye-contact by having the child focus on something on the board, or a picture, or a prop, -instead of you staring at them. If your question is met with silence and nervousness, rephrase the question with an easier opening thought (a.k.a. a “leading” question), rather than skipping the student.
Pass out questions in advance on slips of paper so they don’t feel put on the spot. Invite them to discuss their possible answers with you before presenting to the class.
Change tone and expectations by changing your setup. For example, I often have students move away from the computers when it’s time to discuss..
If you’re a big or loud person, get smaller! Practice tilting your head to the side when you talk, smiling, and leaning back. If you’re a small or quiet person, lean-in to the conversation and use nods of approval to show you are engaged and leading.
How to Get Kids to STOP talking 🙂
We all have them… the DISTRACTORS. Some are nervous, highly verbal, have poor internal filters, or are TRYING to be disruptive. They may have emotional or medical issues. It’s important to know which type of “distractor” you have, because you don’t want to lose a student for being who they are at this point in their life.
Have Agreed-Upon, Non-Confrontational Verbal Cues
Saying “Chill for a second” in a fun but direct way that works really well for me.
Kids often just need verbal cues. Sometimes they need clear friendly INSTRUCTION, such as, “please sit down,” but I almost always deliver that in a firm but humorous voice, combined with a calming hand, or gentle move in their direction. (Children often calm down when you approach them, instead of sitting still.) And importantly, I almost always follow that up with a reward to the student, -if they listen, such as, “Okay, now that you’re sitting, it’s your turn with to spin the wheel.” This way they don’t feel punished or embarrassed, and get positive reinforcement for doing what I asked.
Watch Your Physical Presence and Tone
Some teachers exude a poor physical presence, -which is like “chum in the water” to some distractors. Good teachers know how to command the room with their physical presence and voice, without resorting to intimidating movements or tone. Often, a gentle hand on the shoulder and kind word, while avoiding eye-contact, does wonders. Especially at the computer, a “guide right by their side” will cue their self-control. Many times in a group discussion, I will stand to make a point, or physically move next to someone and look at the board with them. Providing them with a visually moving target (you) also takes advantage of their mind’s need to pay attention to whatever moves. This is why I will often use props in discussion, just so I have something to move, pass around, and keep them focused.
Get them to work with you so they don’t work against you.
Many distractors are leaders-in-training. Other students are attracted to the distractor’s charisma. Harness that charisma by giving them responsibilities and leadership opportunities.
Have a nice non-threatening talk after class
It’s surprising how well a friendly chat after class works to help kids WANT to come back. Let them know that their distractive nature doesn’t affect how you feel about them. Let them know that even when they are distracting, you will be good to them, even when you sometimes need to be stern. Distractors often just want your ATTENTION, so I make sure I’m giving it to them before, during and after class, -as long as they are not working against the class.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but hopefully it is a helpful one!
Neil MacQueen is a Presbyterian minister and Christian software developer. He has been teaching children and youth for 30+ years.
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