Monday, September 14, 2015

Engaging Students on Sunday Morning

Getting middle schoolers to open up and talk is difficult. (Boys especially....) One of the classes I took recently at a local training session was on engaging students in small groups. Too often we talk for 45 minutes to the kids and then expect them to retain everything we covered. (and have fun while they're learning!) Kids oftentimes have an attention span of less than 20 minutes when sitting and listening to a speaker. 20 minutes at the most! We also expect that we can put two chatty kids next to each other and they will not talk to each other. : ) 

One quick thing before we start the list. A key take-away from the instructor was that "anything between you and the students is a barrier." What he meant is podiums, tables, printed materials or a lot of distance is a physical and mental barrier. Get close and speak naturally. Be comfortable and confident. Know your material and make eye contact with the kids.

Here are a few ideas that came out of the training:

1. Learn to be conversational. Talk with your students, not 'at' them.

2. Observe other teachers. Much is to be learned by a wise teacher from observing other teachers' styles and applying some ideas into your own style.

3. Practice your teaching actions. There's nothing wrong with practicing engagement in smaller settings or in personal conversations.

4. Use inflection. When you speak, vary the pitch and emphasis (and volume) of your voice. I also use a lot of hand gestures and motions, but I'm normally pretty caffeinated.

5. Exaggerate conversations. Use relative stories and examples that get the students' attention.

6. Focus on individuals. Call students by name and use relevant examples of things that are of interest to the students.

7. Ask questions. Using a few well-planned questions that start conversation can be great to get the students thinking and talking! When you ask questions....let them answer! Giving them the answer is paramount to letting them off the hook. It's okay for them to think. It's okay for them to look up and research answers. It's even okay for them to disagree. Talk about differing thoughts and opinions. Be sure you circle back around to land firmly on the truth before moving on to the next concept.

8. Provide visual aids. Lots of boys learn through seeing and visual aids like videos, graphs and white-board drawings are things they can relate to. Girls in middle school are competitive and a little more mature than boys their age, typically. Activities are always good like lists or games.

9. Arranging your chairs in the room is something to consider as well. Get at eye level with the learners. If you are sitting with them or at approximately the same eye level as them they will be more receptive. Put them when possible in a semi-circle and sit in front of them.

10. Teach less. You heard me right. If you cover a few key points, engage the students in lively conversation and keep driving the points home multiple times you'll leave a lasting impression on them. Repetition is key! We'd all rather that the students really learn one or two key points than be flooded with 15 points that overwhelm them and cause them to tune out.

One final thought is that we see a lot of kids on Sunday morning that are half asleep and their mind is on food. Sometimes the students come in with Dr. Pepper or candy that their parent has allowed them to have. (Before 9:30 a.m., yes, I don't get it either!) But I digress. I am encouraging each of you to contact your students' parents soon and ask them to help you teach by making sure their students come in on Sunday with a full night's sleep under their belt and a good breakfast in their routine on Sunday morning. Parents want to help and this is a very important way for them to do just that!

I'm leaving out some of the suggestions and I hope you will take a minute to share your suggestions in the comments below. Let's work to really speak love and truth into the hearts and minds of these young people. Thank you for teaching this year!

Scott Burkey