Elements of an Effective Hour
The goal of our planning is to provide an effective learning experience – to teach a lesson our students will learn and remember and respond to by applying the message to their lives. Thom and Joani Schultz, authors of The Dirt on Learning, use the term “authentic learning” to describe this.
Authentic learning is built on these characteristics:
• It is learner focused. No matter how well prepared and knowledgeable teachers are, it doesn’t really mean much unless learners learn. Our individual teaching strengths will impact our perspectives, but the needs of our learners must determine our approach.
• It takes a thinking approach. Critical thinking skills are important to encourage at any age. We should require our students to recall facts and figures only as a gateway for questions that probe real life applications.
• It involves active learning. Active learning encourages experiences that touch all learner styles because individual learners are able to perceive and process the experience in their own unique ways. While some activities may be geared to particularly grab one learner style or intelligence, each activity is valuable for the whole group’s understanding. By “debriefing” the students – guiding conversation in a way that encourages them to apply the experience to their lives – we can heighten the impact.
• It includes interactive learning. Learners need opportunities to share their perspectives with others. We can encourage interaction by allowing learners to verbalize their thoughts, have conversations, participate in group discussions, work together cooperatively, and try out each other’s ideas. All interactive learning has a learner-to-learner component.
To help ensure authentic teaching, each lesson you plan should include the five E’s: Engage, Explore, Expand and Express, and Evaluate. Most likely, these elements are addressed in some way in your teaching guide, although each curriculum may express them a bit differently. Whether or not they are listed for you, it is still wise to write them out for your own purposes.
As children first arrive in the classroom, you should engage them by providing some pre-session activities. These can be related to the lesson or may simply be focused upon a particular task. The idea is to avoid random behavior that often leads to discipline problems.
Often churches have a break between the Sunday school hour and the worship service hour, but the children stay in their classrooms. The first-hour teacher may be cleaning up while the second-hour teacher is waiting to set up. This can cause confusion and a lack of structure that some children respond to with discipline problems. Your pre-session activities are invaluable during this time.
I wish every teacher could have observed one of the teachers I worked with, whom I will call “Mr. Carlton.” He always got to his classroom early and had at least ten interesting things for the children to do as they arrived. He had paper on the wall for drawing, clay for creating, puzzles to assemble, pictures to color, felt board lessons for kids to do on their own, games he had recycled from his old resource packets – a veritable haven for the child on the move! Then children entered his room with excitement and curiosity, wondering what treasures awaited them that day. If only we could clone the Mr. Carltons of the world!
Once all your children have arrived, gather them together to do something of high interest that will focus them on the single point you want to teach – and get their minds off the fact that they got up late or had a hard time finding matching socks. Through this “engage activity,” you get the kids to “sign up” for the rest of the lesson.
You also lead them into an awareness of their need. Here’s what I mean. Let’s say you are teaching a lesson about the Good Samaritan. Your engage activity might be a game in which the children are on their way to a goal (say, moving from one part of the room to another) and something or someone gets in their way. They either have to deal with the obstacle, push it aside, or go around it. As a result, they have the opportunity to actually experience what it feels like to encounter an obstacle when they are focused on a goal – much like the characters in the story of the Good Samarian, who were so focused on their goals that they forgot what was really important and failed to stop and help someone in need.
Children who hear this story often seem sure that they would be like the Good Samaritan in a similar situation and would stop to help a person in need. They don’t recognize the behavior of the priest or Levite in themselves, nor do they see their own need to work more diligently at caring for their neighbors. I’ve seen those same “Samaritans” go out and knock each other flat on the playground to get to the slide or swings first – without noticing the correlation between their behavior and what they just learned in class. But once children, through the engage activity, have been led to see that they, too, are tempted to avoid or ignore an obstacle when it is in the way of their goal, their hearts are prepared for the message of that important parable.
After such an active experience, you can ask open-ended questions that will help kids identify themselves when you read the Bible story for later. For example,
• What went through your mind when you first saw the obstacle?
• What did you choose to do with the obstacle?
• When has something like this happened to you in real life? Were you stopped by the obstacle, or did you rush past it?
We have to meet the students where they live in terms of their own life experiences. Often children see a Bible story as having happened long ago and thus having no relevance to their own situation. It is our job as teachers to help them see that our hearts have not changed since Bible times. We all struggle with sinful attitudes and behaviors. The “sin nature” may manifest itself in different ways, just the same.
Remember, at this point the Bible story itself has not been introduced – only the need situation presented in the story. And while kids are absorbed in the significance of the human conflict, you can move to the exciting part!
In my next Heartprints post, I will share the other E’s: Explore, Expand and Express, and Evaluate. Try some new Engage activities this week!