Monday, July 30, 2007

Help Needed

Recently I’ve been receiving feedback about my blog articles both through the comments section at the bottom of each post and via my email address. I welcome these comments. Often what you say sparks new ideas for columns, so please, let’s make this an interactive blog – or if I wanted to be cute in my use of alliteration – a dialogue blog! Some of my future posts will be based on the ideas readers have shared with me.

Recently a friend emailed me in response to my column about my use of time out. It made her recall one of her early attempts at teaching. Rhonda writes:

“I was teaching 2nd & 3rd graders, or thereabouts. One boy in this class was terribly ornery, I mean TERRIBLY, continually disrupting the class and making me nervous & upset. He was uncontrollable. To top it off, he was a son of one of the teachers at the Jr. High School! So as this went on Sunday after Sunday, I finally got help. Mr. Spence (who was the High School shop teacher) started coming down to our Sunday School class, and he just sat in the classroom while I taught. That really helped. That boy knew better then, and he settled down a lot, and I was able to get through a lesson! Mr. Spence even made good comments on my teaching, which was encouraging. So having someone just ‘be there’ can also be a help when there's a rowdy kid, and it gets ‘beyond bad.’”

Some teachers would be embarrassed to admit they needed another adult to help control a class or a particular student, that they would be seen as an inadequate teacher because they needed someone else. What Rhonda did was not out of her inexperience. It was just smart and,frankly, biblical too.

When Jesus sent his disciples out to proclaim the Kingdom of God, He sent them out two by two. Jesus recognized our need for support and encouragement. He knew that workers would be stronger if they worked together as a team rather than solo. I believe Jesus’ principle applies to teachers as well. Ideally, every class, no matter how small, needs two workers. One person can still be the main teacher, but the other person is available to help, lead smaller groups, organize supplies, take children to the bathroom, handle discipline problems while the main teacher continues teaching, and pray.

I broke this rule myself yesterday. I thought I was organized and had everything I needed, but halfway into my lesson, I realized I had not made copies of my final activity. I couldn’t leave the kids to go make copies and no other adult was around. I had to forfeit my final application activity and adapt my lesson on the fly. My lesson fell flat because I didn’t do that activity. If I had had a helper, I wouldn’t have run into that problem.

Another biblical reason why Rhonda was smart in her request was because it modeled the hierarchy of church leadership to the children. Mr. Spence was one of the elders or deacons at the time. Kids need to know how the church operates, that there are leaders and there are people teachers answer to as well. I remember when I was in second grade, my Sunday School teacher wasn’t sure how to pronounce the biblical name, “Easu.” She said to us, “I’ll ask G.W., who is one of our elders. That’s one of the things our elders do. If you ever have a question about the Bible, you can ask an elder of the church and they will be able to help you.” That made an incredible impression on me and as I grew in my understanding of the Bible, I realized my teacher was exactly right. The elders of the church are the keepers of sound doctrine. They are also, as Rhonda portrayed to her class, the top authority figures of the church as ordained and commanded by God. I’ve been teaching for nearly 30 years and even as recently as three months ago, I asked one of our elders who was passing through Junior Church to “have a word” with an out of control student.

So it’s not a sign of weakness at all if you ask for help in your classroom. You are, in fact, following God’s best plan for teaching His Word.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Memorize The Word

In most Bible lessons, each lesson includes a memory verse. It used to be that this was the verse the teacher helped the kids memorize and often, at least one of the learning activities gave ideas on helping the children memorize that verse.

Memorizing scripture used to be a big thing. I remember how our church had a big box of ribbons with different verses printed on the ribbons. If we memorized the verse, we got the ribbon. Church camp team points were given for scripture memorization, a welcome relief to those of us who couldn’t contribute much to wining team points in sports competition.

It’s tough to get kids to memorize scripture today. Kids aren’t used to memorizing things as much; why should we memorize when we can quickly look things up on the Internet? Many curricula have succumbed to students’ indifference. I’m noticing that often, only parts of verses are given, easier kid-friendly versions of the Bible are used and we call it a “key verse” instead of a memory verse. As a teacher, it’s tempting to gloss over the memory verse activities just because it’s like pulling teeth to get the kids to memorize.

So why do it? My mom, who is still teaching women’s bible studies at age 71, sent me this email the other day:

“I wanted to share a praise with you. Yesterday I received a phone call from [name omitted]. She was in my Acts II class 5 yrs ago at PCC. She asked if I remembered her, I did. Then she went on to thank me for my teaching and to say how much she appreciated the memory verses I had given the class with each lesson and she still can remember them. This young woman has had a brain injury and sometimes had to leave class early because of fatigue or short attention span. I was overwhelmed by her call, since I had about decided that memory verses were something of the past. Now, I have decided that I will include them again when I teach Acts (part I) this fall. . . . It made my day.”

My mom’s story reminded me of another young woman who came from an abusive family. She attended a VBS program one year and learned the verse, “When I am afraid, I will trust in you(Psalm 56:3).” She related years later that as her drunken father would chase her through the house, she would run, whispering those words over and over again. Today, Susan has served as a missionary in Chile and now works at a para-church organization translating theological textbooks into other languages for indigenous church leaders to use.

On the surface, our students may resist learning the verses we teach, yet we may never know when a verse might stick in their hearts and change their lives.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

My Best Part of Today

At the end of each day, our family gathers to pray together and share with each other “the best part of the day.” I’d like to share my best of today with you.

Today is my birthday. This year, instead of waiting for others to wish me a happy birthday and hoping my family will plan some kind of celebration, I decided to make my own fun and plan my celebrations. So I invited my teenage daughters to get up early and make one of my favorite baked treats, tea scones, with me for Sunday breakfast; I invited our “lunch bunch” group of friends from church to join us at our favorite Mexican restaurant; and I made cupcakes to share with the children in our preschool and children’s church program.

As I walked into the preschool class and explained that it was my birthday and I wanted them to celebrate with me, one little boy spontaneously broke into song:

“Happy Birthday to you.
Happy Birthday to you.
Happy Birthday . . .” he interrupted himself, “What’s your name?”

I love the spontaneity and openness of children. That little boy didn’t care who heard him. He had no inhibition about breaking out in song for a celebration. He also wasn’t shy about admitting he didn’t know my name. So many times, I don’t recognize or remember someone and I use all kinds of methods to finagle their name out of them without admitting I don’t know. I wish I could just be like that little kid. “What’s your name?” I wish I wasn’t so bound by self pride. There’s a certain kind of freedom to humility. Humility is admitting I don’t have it altogether. I’m not perfect but I’m doing the best I can and I’m in there pitching. As soon as I said my name, that little guy started all over again, singing my name with an extra ounce of robust energy. It made my day. In fact, it was a wonderful day.

I wonder how I could develop that same level of spontaneity, candidness and fervor in my relationship with my Heavenly Father.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Life Imitates Lessons

Many times, as I’m preparing a lesson or have just finished teaching a lesson, something will happen that brings the lesson home to me. This does two things for me. First, it makes me take a hard look at what I’m expecting my kids to do. If I’m not willing to do it, then why should I expect my kids to do it?

It also gives me the why behind my teaching. Often, especially with my older students, I will share my struggles or my encounters with them so I can show them, “Hey, this is for real. I’m not making this stuff up. The Bible really does apply to everyday life.”

Last Sunday was one of those days. Coincidentally – or better yet, Divinely planned – both my high school lesson and my Junior church lesson was on evangelism. In both lessons, I spoke to the kids about the world’s dire need to know Jesus. With the high schoolers, we discussed the parable of the lost sheep. With the younger kids, we talked about sharing with others how we became a Christian. I demonstrated the important facts by allowing them to interview me. Our memory verse for the Junior Church was from I Peter 3:15,16: “But in your hearts, set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.”

After lunch, my husband and I went to visit two ladies who were dying and their families. The first visit was emotionally intense because the daughter and grandaughter of the family pulled me aside to talk through some feelings they were experiencing. After two classes and this visit, I was emotionally drained. But we had one more to go. The second lady was also near death yet her family was not so open to our visit. We talked to the unconscious lady, prayed with her, tried to offer words of hope to her family, and left, feeling frustrated and wondering if we had done any good.

In the hallway of the nursing home, her two grandsons sat, waiting for the adults. We said goodbye to them, then one of them asked, “Why are you here?”

I didn’t expect that! I was so tired! Yet the words of the Junior church memory verse zipped through my brain, “Always be prepared to give an answer . . . yet do it with gentleness and respect.” I realized I was the one to give them an answer since I could better speak at their level than my husband. It also occurred to me that they may not be aware that their grandmother was dying and I needed to be sensitive to that. So I said, “We go to the same church your grandma went to. Whenever people in our church are really sick, we want to visit them and tell them how much God cares about them and how much He loves them. We prayed with your grandma and reminded her of some Bible verses too.” Then I went on to ask them about their game of “Go Fish” they had been playing earlier in their grandma's room.

These moments will catch us off guard. However, being prepared doesn't mean we'll be able to magically anticipate those moments; instead it means that even when we’re dog tired and emotionally spent and have a hundred million things on our minds, we will know what to say. Knowing what to say means we’ll know our audience and we’ll know what the Bible says. We’ll also know how the Holy Spirit works in the way he brings divine opportunities to us. We’ll recognize that we’re not alone. He is there to help us and enable us, even in our weakess moments. We'll have the bag of tools we need to give an appropriate answer.

Next week, I want to go back to my classes and say, “it’s true. People ARE going to ask you about your faith walk. They’re going to ask, ‘Why are you here?’ “What are you doing?’ ‘Why don’t you do the things the rest of us are doing?’” It’s just like Sam Seaborn said to Ainsley Hayes in the popular tv drama,
West Wing, about crucial decisions made in the White House: “We play with live ammo around here.”

When I Was Just a Kid . . .

This is a column about teaching children. So what was I like as a child? Well, I have a friend who writes a wonderfully whimsical blog called the Chat n Chew Cafe. Recently, she has been featuring various writers in an ongoing column called, "When I Was Just a Kid." If you would like the inside scoop of how my childhood shaped me as a writer and Christian educator, I invite you to check out her entry about me by clicking here.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

The Creative Classroom

In my last post, I talked about the importance of preparation. My family is much happier if I am not running around Sunday morning, frantically trying to gather supplies. My husband is especially happy since arriving 29 minutes before Sunday School begins is late in his book.

So I try to have all my books and supplies gathered in one place in a plastic tub on Saturday. Today, all my supplies are sitting on a table in our sun porch. As one daughter came through the sun porch this evening, she asked, “What’s that bottle with yellow liquid on the table?” “It’s ammonia,” I said. “What’s ammonia doing on the table?’ she asked. “It’s for my junior church lesson.” It’s scary when a teenager doesn’t say anything but simply walks away from you.

Five minutes later, the next daughter came through the sun porch. “What’s my Jenga blocks doing on the sun porch?” she asked. “They’re for my junior church lesson,” I explained. “O-kay,” she intoned. I hastened to explained, “Well, you know what I always say . . .” “I know,” she interrupted me. “Don’t be surprised by anything.”

I strongly believe that it’s important to maintain a routine and structure in your class that kids can count on, that they know what to expect before they walk in the door. In today’s chaotic world, kids need order. They need to be able to anticipate. Maintaining an order in your class will help you maintain order.

Yet I believe just as strongly in having that element of surprise. Always have something different about your lesson that makes the kids ask, “What is she going to do different this time?’ This philosophy has led me to make my family wonder about my sanity. Well, to be an effective teacher, you do have to lose a bit of your sanity. You need to lose your inhibition, think outside the box and be willing to draw outside the lines. It may be in the form of putting on a bathrobe to play the role of the Apostle Paul, putting baby powder in your hair so you can portray the elderly widow, Naomi, or demonstrating how to play hopscotch so you can teach a memory verse a different way even if your foot hurts for two days afterwards because you haven’t played hopscotch for twenty years. When you are willing to add the element of creative surprise, your kids will notice. Those will be the lessons they will remember because you dared to do something different.

As you teeter on the edge of insane creativity, I suppose it is possible to go over the edge. I still wonder if that new group of three or four kids never came back after their first visit because that was the week I fed my class horseradish.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Double Duty Teaching

This next month, I will be teaching both the high school Sunday School class and the Children’s Church group, grades 1-6, for my small (100 attendance) church. Now, many wonder how I do this, and frankly, I don’t recommend that a teacher teach twice on a Sunday, especially to two such diverse groups. But, in a small church, sometimes you do what you gotta do.

How do I keep everything straight? Well, I admit, I don’t. It’s not easy even for an experienced teacher. But I have learned some tips that make teaching two completely different groups back to back a bit easier.

1. Start preparations early. Sometimes we can get away with working on a Sunday School lesson last thing Saturday night. Not now! Read through both lessons, at different times, early in the week. Make a list of the supplies you need and try not to wait till Saturday to purchase or gather supplies.

2. Work the Bible Study portion of your lesson into your own quiet time. Since you won’t be able to hear preaching or teaching for yourself, you need to be responsible to be self fed. This is the one time your quiet time becomes even more necessary than usual. If you are going to give out, you have to take in.

3. Do final preparations Saturday. I gather all my supplies in a Rubbermaid tub. I go over to the church to lay out papers and set up games. I purposely get up early Sautrday morning to study and prepare while the rest of the family is asleep. This way, I’ll have uninterrupted time to study and prepare activities.

4. Write out your plans. I use a legal sized note pad to write out an outline of each lesson – the activities I’m going to use and the key talking points I want to make about each activity. I can’t rely on my brain to remember two completely different lessons and it’s hard to look at my teacher’s book during the lesson, especially when I have altered the lesson or when the book gives me more activity options than I’m going to use. You also could use a highlighter to highlight the activities and talking points in your lesson book.

4. Get help. There are a lot of people in congregations who don’t want to be in charge, but they are glad to be a helper. Ask an adult who isn’t teaching the first session to be in the classroom fifteen minutes before the second session begins, giving you time to wrap up your first session, go to the bathroom and grab last minute, forgotten or extra supplies for a larger than expected class. If your groups are large, get helpers. This will keep the entire responsibility from being on you. Yes, you can handle it, but you won’t be so utterly spent afterwards if you have help.

5. Ease off on the rest of life. This is not the time to invite guests over for Sunday dinner! While eating out with church friends sounds inviting, my preacher husband and I sometimes feel that we are so tired after a full morning of responsibilities that we’re not fit for social consumption. Keep plans light. Go home and take a nap. Part of our Sunday worship should be Sabbath rest.

6. Pray. Yesterday (Sunday), I woke up early which was fine with me because I didn’t quite feel ready for my high school Sunday School class. I wanted to study a bit more. As I tried to study, I kept thinking of kids and I started praying. I didn’t get my studying done; instead I prayed for both my classes. Yesterday was one of the smoothest two session days I’ve ever had. In addition to that, two families came that I had prayed for and who haven’t come in a long time. So, try to find time Sunday morning to pray that the Lord who teaches all of us will partner with you throughout the morning.

Jesus recognized that His kingdom lacks workers when He said to His disciples, “the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few (Luke 10:2).” So add to your prayer to pray along Jesus’ command to “ask the Lord of the harvest therefore to send out workers into his harvest field (Matthew 9:38).”

Yes, I come home tired. I ought to. Teaching is work. I figure if I don’t come home tired, after two sessions, I haven’t given it my all. Sometimes it’s tempting to wish there were other people to help do the job. I miss visiting with my friends because I’m stuck downstairs for two hours. It would be nice to come to church and just soak in the worship experience without having any responsibilities. But when I stop and think of the lives I’m influencing for Jesus, that I have the privilege to tell classrooms of kids the most important message in all of time and space, there’s no other place I want to be.