Sunday, May 21, 2006

How to Teach Young Men

I'm the Priest's quorum advisor, and was until recently the teacher's quorum advisor. I also attend the 14-16 year old SS class since the teacher is kind of new to being active in the church and often asks me to sub for him anyway. With all this I've gained a little experience as a teacher of young men (and to a lesser extant, young women), and would like to put together a list of ideas for those of us who find themselves in this sometimes unfortunate and sometimes enviable position. If you have experience with this as well, or ideas, please add to it.

1.)There is no silver bullet to teaching youth, but the closest thing that comes to it is this: Know your youth and be friends with them- especially outside of class. If you don't have many opportunities to get to know them outside of class, make them. Throw a class party. If you have a good relationship with them, then class will feel less like class, and more like a conversation, which is what class should be like anyway. They will feel more inclined to ask questions. By knowing them, you will also be able to conlude what their learning style is, and can better taylor class to individual students. Think about your favorite teachers. They were almost always the ones that you had some kind of relationship with outside of class (even if it was just talking after class for a few minutes). Also, there is some disagreement about this, but I find by actually being their friend, and come down to their level and make immature jokes and talk about stuff that they talk about shows them that you can come down to their level, which can help them follow you back up to your level when you teach.

2.)Their questions are more important than your lesson. If someone has a completely off the subject question (but still gospel related), I will usually put the lesson aside and have a conversation about that question with the class. They know a lot better than you what gaps in their knowledge that they have. If the question is not related very closely to the gospel but can be answered very quickly, I usually still answer it. If they ask non-gospel questions just to interrupt and get attention, I just tell them I'll answer it after class.

3.)Use more than one of the five senses. Talking is great, but if thats all there is, you lose them within minutes. There should be (interesting) visuals, something you can pass around to them that they can feel, and if you're really ambitious, something they can eat. Some consider it selling out by bringing treats like that, but if it helps hold their attention, hey why not? I often use the treat as part of the review at the end of a lesson in the form of a contest. Today in fact, I had the whole class willingly stay over ten minutes late because they didn't want to stop our lesson review. (They were competing for a 3 musketeers bar)

4.)As I mentioned in 3, review review review. I review the lesson at the end of class (often in the form of a game or competition), and review the previous week's lesson (and weeks previous to that) at the beginning of class. I always try to be conscious of previous week's material so that I can refer back to it during the current lesson. If they realize that they actually learn something during class, they'll usually like the class. I know repetition has somewhat fallen out of favor in the teaching world, but it works.

5.)Engage them physically. This is especially true of boys. When I teach, I never sit at the front of the class, or just stand at the front (I usually do this with adults too), I'm always changing where I am, often sitting down right next to the student that I am talking too. This really helps with "problem" students. If they are not paying attention, I'll come and sit right next to them and ask them some questions. If you're friends with them, this doesn't come across as condescending or like you're disciplining a problem student, its just one friend talking to another.

6.)Get them moving. Happy time is not just for primary. If you can think of a physical way to get the object of the lesson across, do it. One of the lessons that I remember from my priest's quorum advisor (I have a very bad memory by the way), was to "keep you're eye on the ball". He took us out into the field and had us try to hit a baseball while looking at something else off to our sides. Then he gave the short lesson on staying focused on the imptortant things in life and not getting distracted. Then we got to hit the baseball while looking at it. Nothing too fancy, but I still remember it.

7.)When you use the scriptures, never, ever, ever use them as a quotebook. "Repentence is important because of blah blah blah. To prove my point, lets read this verse from the book of Alma. See? I was right." When the scriptures are used, there should always be context. In fact, I always find it much more useful to use the scripture passage as the motivation for the lesson, rather than giving the lesson with some backup from the scriptures. I've spent entire lessons where all we did was read a chapter from the scriptures, and we talk about it as we read it. This builds a far greater knowledge of the scriptures than just using them as quotes (quotations, for JonnyF, Jared, and Warren).

8.)Don't be afraid to talk about stuff completely unrelated to the lesson, or even to the gospel. Talk about what they did saturday night. If you come into the classroom and find them talking about a certain subject (guns, cars, school, sports, etc.) join in the conversation. It gets them used to the idea of talking to the teacher, which is the whole goal of any classroom setting. During the lesson, if nothing is working to keep their attention, talk about that time when you were on that date with the really ugly girl who smelled funny, or that time when your tire blew out on the freeway.

9.)Change of venue. Sometimes it helps just to be in a different place. If its nice, go outside. Related to this, make sure the classroom you are in is such that you can have a nice compact semicircle. If there are boys in the second row, you've lost them already. If the class room is too big, move to a smaller one, and if you can't, get there beforehand so that you can arrange a small, intimate teaching space.

10.)Stories are fun. We're all human, and most of us like a nice storytime, as long as the story is engaging and you have the ability to either tell it or read it in an engaging manner. Bonus if its funny. On the flip side, reading something out of a book is the worst thing you can do if its long, if you're not an engaging reader, or if its wordy and sermonlike.

11.)Never read anything out of the lesson manual during class. If you involve the lesson manual at all in preparing for the lesson, make your own notes and refer to those during the lesson. Seeing or hearing the teacher read something out of the lesson manual just reminds the students that you're only there because the bishop asked you to, and are not putting effort into the class. When notes are prepared (if you even need any: I try not to have them so the lesson seems more like a conversation to the class), keep them short and concise so you're never reading anything to yourself for longer than 3 seconds. Deacons have been clocked losing their attention at 1.2 seconds of teacher inactivity.

12.)If you have a monotone voice (like I tend to have), lose it, at least for class. Who wants to listen to a monotone? Make your voice varied and interesting.

13.)Never ask stupid questions. This is condescending and the students will lose their respect for you as a teacher. I'm talking about questions like: "So, is it good to steal?" "Are we supposed to respect our leaders?". Stupid questions tend to be yes/no questions (though not always). If the answer to a question you are about to ask is painfully obvious, don't ask it. If you were going to ask it to progress to another point you wanted to make, do it in a way that avoids asking a condescending question. "So we all know we're supposed to respect our leaders, but what if our leader is obviously wrong about something. What do you do?" Unfortunately, many of the lesson manual questions are like this, which is why I rarely use the manual, except as a guide as to what the subject matter is.

14.)In the spirit of the previous point, expect the most out of your students intellectually. Spend as little time possible on plot and basic lessons of morality and behavior, and go for the meat. You'd be surprised how much your class responds when they realize you're not just giving them gospel milk anymore but are throwing out meat. If you treat them like adults intellectually, they often respond with adult thoughts. When I was 12, our SS teacher (your average gospel milk distributor, complete with warm fuzzies) was replaced with our stake patriarch who just got back from serving as a mission president. Those lessons were amazing. He took the intellectual gloves off and actually challenged us. I still remember his lessons. Obviously, this assumes that you are very, very prepared for the lesson, and know the subject matter inside and out, on many different levels.

15.)And to finish up a rather long post with a touch of irony: less is more. My worst teachers in college have been the ones whose goal in a class was to get as much material on the chalkboard as humanly possible. Quantity is most definitely not quality, and I've found that the more material you cover, the less they remember about any of it (especially true of the more factual lessons).

As I write this, more ideas keep coming to me- some that I currently do, and some I don't yet, but this is quite long enough. Please add to it as the ideas come to you too.


JonnyF said...

This is good for me. My lessons with the youth (I substitute often) are hit and miss. Katie and I have already come to some of the same conclusions. You have to be their friends and respect them intellectually. And it always helps to have a good story..

Warren said...

Number 13 - no stupid questions - applies to more than young men. I don't like the simple questions that are used to fill time and you don't gain anything from.

Nick said...

Reading over these again, I realize that most of them apply to adults too, even the snack bribery.

I realize that the manuals are put there by the brethren as teaching aids and to ensure uniformity of doctrine, and I do not mock people who use them more than I do. I only meant to warn against having your nose in the manual during a class, or your nose in any book or sheet of notes.

erin said...

I love this post, Nick. I think I've mentioned that I teach 12-14 year olds for Sunday School. I think it's a good think I don't have any kids because I just have a hard time balancing freedom and rules--I err so far on the side of "freedom" sometimes that it becomes stifling chaos. I usually get better with practice, but once a week at church is not very often. Sometimes our classes are great and sometimes they are...well, bordering on dangerous, really. For example, last week I had all the boys in my class and none of the girls which doesn't often happen. Usually it's easier with the boys, but this time I had my ADHD boy plus an easily antagonized boy. Beyond that we had no classroom, just the stage (we just moved back into our recently remodled building and at this point it's first come, first serve when it comes to classrooms). Also, on this stage there was everything that didn't wind up with a regular place when the chapel-moving was over--things like old projectors, huge rolls of carpet, dolls with no heads, filmstrip, etc. Plus, this is an old building with a facelift and the stage has numerous doors and stairways and ladders and passages which I assume lead to the catecombs beneath Paris if you follow them long enough. All of this together plus my desire for Bohemian creativity in lessons was a recipe for disaster. In one corner, three boys were putting together a magnificent skit about Samson killing 1000 Phillistines with the jawbone of a donkey while in another corner ADHD and easily-provoked were throwing pencils, photo slides, and headless dolls at each other, two boys had disappeared into the walls, one was drawing pictures of Dalilah as some kind of a Troll, and one boy was reading the story of Gideon. I don't even know if I got everyone back by the time class ended. I hope all these kids don't go apostate from the effects of my class.