How to write and teach lessons that move from information to transformation.
by Neil MacQueen
The revised, improved and packed with examples version of this article is now posted at Rotation.org
This article has two sections below: description, and techniques for transformative teaching.
Years ago, Christian educator and author Scottie May shared these transformative words with me….
“We teach for transformation, not just information.“
I pinned them to my bulletin board and brain where they have become a touchstone for my ministry as a teacher, lesson writer, and software developer.
Faith transformation is God’s work. As teachers, we are agents and catalysts of that process.
- Transformative teaching begins when students learn to expect something special when they enter our classroom.
- Transformative teaching speaks to the heart of each student, helping them feel like God is speaking to them through the story and activities.
- Transformative teaching is heavy on life application and reflection. It nurtures a student’s relationship with God, and not merely the text.
- Transformative teaching sends students back out into the world with a desire to share and practice what they have learned.
Transformational teaching is easily undermined by a number of things seen too often in Sunday School:
- boring activities and environments
- low expectations
- teachers who emphasize “what” over “so what”
- lessons whose activities bear little relation to the story or meaning
- and lessons that are easily forgotten
Last but not least, you can’t be an agent of transformation to kids who don’t want to come, be there, or come back.
Insights about Transformational Teaching
It’s easy to identify teaching that is just about the facts of a story. But arriving at those “teachable (transforming) moments” is a little harder to grasp. Here are some observations about transformational-teaching moments:
1. Transformational teaching is when you iluminate what God is doing in the story, and where each of us is in the story. Too often teachers reduce scripture to moralistic conclusions, “be good and play nice.” A transformative teacher, however, helps the kids see where God is in the story, and reveals where we are in that story and thus, what God is saying to us.
2. Transformation is when you realize that God is speaking to you through the story. The transformative teacher asks: How does the story expose you, challenge you, surprise you, and call you to change. Everybody wants to identify with the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but transformation is when you realize that you are the prodigal or the older son. And then you step outside the story and realize God is trying to teach everyone in the story: those who are the fathers, those who are the prodigals, those who are the Older sons. Transformation tends to happen when you realize that you are the lawyer trying to evade Jesus, the one holding the rock, the soldier nailing Jesus to the cross, the Pharisee, or the snake.
3. Transformational teachers help students see the story in new ways. This is especially good to do with Jesus stories. Of course Jesus could still the storm, that’s the information. But why are his disciples afraid, why don’t we trust? Of course Jesus was resurrected (he told them he would be, that’s the information). But look at their varied reactions to it, and what is your reaction? The manna isn’t the big story, it’s that the people complained even though God had repeatedly blessed them (blessed us). Our brains remember the twists. We “see” stories in different ways too, through art and song, drama and visuals. This is one of the reasons we “rotate” each week –to “see” the story in different ways.
4. Transformational teaching STICKS in your brain. It doesn’t let you go. If it isn’t remembered, how can it be transformational? This is one of the big insights of the Rotation Model for Sunday School. A story you don’t know or understand cannot get under your skin. That takes time. And that’s why we teach the same story for several weeks in a row through different media –to help it get under the skin!
5. Transformational teaching asks for commitment and action. It talks about “next steps.” It doesn’t leave life application up to the student’s imagination. It doesn’t leave reflection to the last 3 minutes of the class.
One of the advantages of the Rotation Model for Sunday School is that in slowing down the rate of “story change,” we increase the likelihood that our students will learn more, think and ponder more, and ask more questions as the weeks progress.
Example of Moving from Information to Transformation
Remember those guys on the road to Emmaus with Jesus? They heard him explain the scriptures, and their hearts burned with his words. But it wasn’t until they realized GOD was with them, that they turned it around. In our teaching of the story, our job is to put our kids in the sandals of those disciples. To put them on the road. So we might ask the students, “What road are we on?” and “What are we confused about with God?” “What direction are we headed? Away from or towards life as a disciple of Jesus? That’s the transformative “turn” a teacher makes.
Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is talking about the birds of the air. He says, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”
An “informational” teacher would have the kids read that passage and then conclude, “you are valuable to God, now lets get out the construction paper and make some birds and a sign that says that….” (oy) Or they might show a video or picture of what Jesus was talking about, …or walk the kids through a re-enactment of the passage, —then move on to another activity. A transformational teacher, on the other hand, would ask, “WHY does God value you? And HOW are you more valuable to God?” A transformational teacher might ask each student to come up with a list of things about them that God values in them, and things that would make them MORE valuable/helpful to others in God’s Kingdom. The transformational teacher would then have the students use their reflections as a subject of the art project, or skit.
Ideally, your lesson activities include reflection activities and not just “reflection talk”. But that’s exactly what a lot of traditional lessons do. They get to the life application and start talking! You can make the same mistake with media too. Take drama for example. The informational teacher has the kids re-enact the story verbatim, rather than create a drama/skit based on the personal meaning of the story. Or the computer lab teacher talks about the birds of the air, and then has the kids draw a picture of the birds in Kid Pix (lame).
You may notice in a lot of our software, as we tell a story, we are injecting reflection. That’s because I believe reflection is the objective of every lesson. But some teachers will bypass that type of content just like the kids will, because reflection isn’t easy.
Transformation/Application can happen at every step of the lesson, and shouldn’t be left for the end.
Transform their Expectations as they walk in…
How you greet them, treat them, engage them, make them feel wanted and feel comfortable being around others. You are the agent of God. You are the scripture. You begin to help transform their perspective from one of “Ihad to come” to “I’m glad I’m here.”
Transform them by how you Introduce the Lesson
Are you excited or harried? Do you open with talk or some form of engagement?
Share Your Personal Investment in Today’s Scripture
I always tell my students up-front why I think the lesson is important, -how I’ve experienced it in my own life, -why I need to hear these verses. Faith rubs off.
I call this,”the buy-in.” It’s where you make the case that they should care about what the lesson is all about, and it often happens when they sense that the lesson touches you.
Transform their experience of scripture by approaching its reading creatively.
When the Bible reading is done in a memorable way that makes each student feel the message to be alive and vibrant, not dead and boring.
When you’ve led them to find something SURPRISING going on in the story. Surprises are sticky. They create memorable moments. In almost every story, there’s what we think we see, and then there’s the thing we didn’t see the first time through it.
Transformation is helped by multiple-intelligence informed activities and media.
The activity is not what you do to relieve boredom. Too often, a lesson activity is designed to be “the fun thing” rather than the bearer of the story’s meaning. You see this in a lot of craft projects which come across as “the thing to keep the kids from falling asleep, and their hands busy”. This is one of the things I love about our software, –the story and its content are presented through the software –which is the very thing they can’t keep their hands off of. The software isn’t what we do to revive them, or take a break from talking.
Reflection is transformative, but it often gets the short end of classtime and shouldn’t just be the teacher summarizing the lesson. (See the examples below for using reflection and prayer earlier in the lesson too!)
We are being transformative when the Reflection Contains a Call to Action, a Call to Change.
Reflection is not summarizing, it is taking the lesson to the next level. Students should walk out of the classroom with at least one thing they plan to do, and one idea that has grabbed their imagination. Often, our activities should reinforce that “one thing”. I like to design art projects to convey this transformational note, –something expressive in nature and quality that can go home to reinforce the lesson idea. Yes…even in the computer lab we consider what we can create to “go home”.
Tips for Transformative Teaching with Younger Children
Many teachers and churches are content with reading a Bible story, doing a craft, and having playtime. But we know through experience that preschoolers and non-readers can develop a sense of seriousness and holiness (special-ness), as well as, how they feel about being there with you. These are important expectations to encourage early.
For example, they can easily feel and act out the emotions of a story, if you help them. They love to dress up and imagine themselves in the story. They can do art, and not just crafts (though it may not look like art to you!) “Young” is when we want to start developing their good reflection habits so it will seems natural to them as they grow up in Sunday School. What they lack is a sense of when to speak, and when to listen (structure, and an awareness of others). These too are good things to teach.
One simple reflection technique is to play a “talking” game. Toss a stuffed animal to each student to let everyone know when it is there turn to talk. Another technique I like quite a bit is to have them make “faces” and body motions as we read a story. Sad during the sad parts, stroking their beard when Jesus is talking, etc. This helps connect their heart and hands to the content. At the end of the lesson, I will sometimes give each of them an extra nametag with a “I will do…” phrase on it for their parents to ask them about.
Some Techniques for Moving from Information to Transformation
Here are a few techniques I used in my lessons to give transformational teaching a boost.
THE OPENING “WHY”
One of the first things I do in Bible study with my students, especially older ones, is tell them why the story is important to me, and why I think it should be important to them.
-What it says to me.
-What I need to hear in the story.
-What I wrestle with.
-An experience from my own life that this story speaks to
I share my emotional and spiritual investment in the story. I tell them what I hope they’ll learn today, -what’s “good” about the news in the lesson. Too many teachers ‘save’ the point of the lesson until late in the lesson. I tell them what I want them to be looking for!
Teachers are role-models and mentors, and that requires that they see your heart.
Ask: Where is God in the story? What is God doing, thinking, feeling, trying to say?
God is the main character and subject in every scripture, even if his name or point of view is not explicitly mentioned or provided. There are many scriptures where God’s point of view needs to be drawn out.
- Why does God want us to hear this?
- What do we learn about God’s character, personality, and values from this passage?
- What did you expect God to do, vs. what actually happened? (Jesus stories often need this question.)
- If God had a line’ in this story, what would it be? A good example of this is the story of Jacob stealing Esau’s birthright. God isn’t mentioned, but surely God has a point of view. What would God say about the idea of one person stealing another’s blessing? What would God say to Isaac?
- What is God thinking when Jonah jumps overboard?
- What do you think God says to Peter in his heart after Peter betrayed Jesus?
DRAMATIZE THE READING
I’m a big believer in dramatizing the reading of scripture to make it jump off the page. Emotion, humor, inflection, and tone are strong memory hooks. Even a simple passage can be re-read in various character voices and enhanced with props. Even in the computer lab, I often start my lesson with a dramatic reading around the table.
Unfortunately, many of our traditions and practices have us reading the Bible FLAT, without feeling or emotion or inflection. And yet these are the very things which often make the Bible come alive and sound real. You can learn a lot by debating “what tone” Jesus should be speaking in. God’s patient tone, for example, plays big in the Jonah story.
When Peter yells “I’m sinking” -we really yell it. In fact, we make take TURNS yelling it! When Jonah complains to God, the reader will shake his/her fist and try to sound as gruff and whiny as possible. When John the Baptist addresses the “Vipers Brood” …we might go around the table to see who can say it with the best disdain.
Humor, by the way, either in the story, or about the way we are attempting to dramatize it, is often the precursor to those God Moments. And its a great memory hook for your lesson.
USING REAL ART PROJECTS instead of “assembly” crafts.
Transformation requires memorable and impressive ideas, and expressive activities that leave an indelible impression. Art is an expressive medium. Craft is a “make it look like this” medium. Craft lacks personal investment and insight. If my lesson plan calls for a quick craft, such as making a puppet so we can dramatize a story, then I’m fine with it. But if the main “art” activity is merely a quick craft, then Houston we have a problem.
Another problem with many art or craft projects is that they focus on the Information found in a story, rather than work on expressing the MEANING found in a story. Here’s an example of an art project (I’ve used it before): making wire sculptures of the Prodigal Son and Forgiving Father. The kids can pose and bend their sculptures to represent attitudes, feelings, outcomes. Here’s the craft project version found in traditional curriculum: cut out the picture of the Prodigal Son and paste him on a popsicle stick.
FEELING YOUR WAY THROUGH A STORY
Mining the Emotions of a story is another way to move from information to transformation. Emotions are all something we can internally relate to, and emotional content STICKS at a deep level in memory.
“Have you ever been embarrassed, or felt like all eyes were on you?”
“How did the man feel when Jesus told him to get up and walk? What was going through his head?”
“What risk did the man’s friends take by bringing him up to the roof and cutting a hole in it? What might the townsfolk or owner done to them?”
“What were the disciples back in the boat thinking about Peter?” “How do you supposed God felt about Pilate when Pilate condemned Jesus to death?” “How did Elijah feel when he finally got to the cave at Horeb?” “What do you think Elijah really wanted to say to God at that moment?”
You’ll notice that a lot of the content I’ve tucked away in our software deals with the emotional content of the story. I know that such content is often overlooked by over-anxious kids. But I put it there for the TEACHER to grab onto and run with.
Processing the Scripture through new words & creative media helps a lesson move from information to transformation.
This is the lesson of Pentecost: using different “languages” to share the Gospel. This is also good multiple-intelligience-informed teaching: we learn through many learning senses, not just teacher-talk.
Video, software, art, movement, drama, gaming, writing, singing, listening, –these activities light up the student’s brain, literally & physically transforming their brains from dull to interested.
Opportunities for Reflection are often missed by the improper use of media.
Drama lessons that are heavily scripted, merely recapitulate the story, and place the emphasis on correct performance allow no room for reflection until the drama is over. When leading a drama, the teacher should be able to “pause” the performance and talk to the characters. Retelling the drama in modern terms begins to unlock the story for each of us.
Simply playing a Bible move without pausing is INFORMATION not transformation. In my video manual I remind teacher to pause often, get inside the character’s heads, motivations. Rewind to look at a character’s reaction and ask, “What could the Pharisse have done differently?” This is harnessing the MEDIA, images, the dialog, the acting — to help stoke reflection. And yet, many teachers simply let it run, waiting for the media to be over so they can talk. They do the same thing with software, “wait until the kids are done” …and then start talking.
Getting kids to reflect can be challenging.
It’s even hard with adults! But it is one of the reasons I like teaching with software. Software drops barriers. At the computer, kids are less self-conscious, and more open. They are distracted from focusing on themselves. They’ll express themselves a little more freely when they’re not put on the spot in front of everyone. –When the teacher isn’t staring them directly in the eye.
In our software, I have tried to include expression and reflection in the software activities, rather than simply producing stories on teh screen and giving the teacher 5 questions to ask after the software is done.
Here are some great all-purpose reflection questions for use during your Bible Study:
- Circle the one word in this passage that makes you feel good, sad, mad, etc.
- Circle the most important word to you in this passage.
- If you had to pick the most important/strangest/hardest verse in the passage, what would it be, and why? Read it out loud to us.
- What’s the most surprising thing in this scripture or behind the story?
- How could this story have turned out differently if __________ had done/said something differently?
- Name one thing this passage is telling you to change about… yourself, the world, our church.
- Condense this passage into just 3 or 4 words keywords chosen from the verses, and share them. (why did you choose them?)
- What’s the Good News in this passage about God? What’s the Bad News about people?
- If you were ________ in the story, what would you have done/said differently?
- What would you have said to ________ in the story?
- Which character in the story do you identify with?
- Look at the worst person in the story and think if you’ve ever acted like that person. Have you ever seen a person like that at your school?
- VOTE: On a scale of 1 to 10…. how easy/difficult would it be to do what Jesus said, at home, among friends, at school, at the mall.
- How would you tell your little sister what this story is about?
- What’s the most unforgettable thing in this story?
- What one thing can I do in my life to show God I understand these verses?
And here’s the thing: no matter WHAT a student says, I’m going to affirm something in their comment and follow up on it with a follow-up question.
Table Technique: “Writing Out the Talk”
aka “Follow that Marker!”
It’s really powerful to WRITE DOWN KEY WORDS and PHRASES which your students have spoken –as they speak them. This affirms their participation and encourage them to offer more. Even more importantly, it gives everyone a visual reference and record of everyone ‘s comments that you as the teacher can begin to connect.
Sometimes I’ll cover our study table in butcher paper, and put a can of markers in the middle. Then, during the study/questions, I’ll illustrate my words and theirs. It’s a nice visual distraction and memory helper. Some kids don’t feel comfortable looking at an adult when they are speaking, but will follow that purple marker! Even non-readers will follow that marker. Toss a few props and puppets on to the tabletop and you can create a map of the story, add question marks, add emotions, add extra dialog, and then draw a big arrow pointing to the central point: a large empty circle marked: “So What?” that they must help you fill. There are a hundred variations on this practice, and each of them is far more interesting and transformative than sitting around staring at blank faces staring back at you.
Okay, this is an “article”. Time to say good bye! I hope you’ve found this discussion helpful to your own.
<>< Neil MacQueen, firstname.lastname@example.org