Monday, October 12, 2009

Customizing Your Curriculum

One day, several years ago, the beginning activity of my weekly lesson suggested I prepare a blind taste test. I was to put several foods, both desirable and undesirable, like peanut butter, lemon juice, and icing in small dishes, blindfold the kids and lead them one by one to taste the foods. I particularly remember one of the suggested foods was horseradish.

Now I have never tasted horseradish in my life. From descriptions, it does not sound like something I want to taste. I wouldn’t know where to find it in the store and even if I could, I didn’t want to buy an entire container for one little spoonful. So, I asked various people in my church to donate some of our supplies, including the horseradish. One lady gave me a jar that she said was a couple of years old. If it had gone bad or if horseradish can go bad, I wouldn’t know it because I have never eaten horseradish.

So I set up our little taste test. Wouldn’t you know it? That was the Sunday we had two visitors! The horseradish was a big hit. Everyone appropriately hated it and it was a great jumping off point to drive home the lesson application, whatever it was.

But my two visitors never returned. Ever since that day, I have felt badly. Was I responsible for driving two children away from church because I made them eat horseradish? In retrospect, following my curriculum guide to the letter that day was not a wise idea. I never should have insisted that everyone participate.

Your curriculum is just that – ONLY a guide! It is not meant to be followed to the letter. A wise teacher will read the suggested activities and think, “Will this work? How can this best apply to my group?” If the activity bombs, a humble teacher will ask, “Why didn’t this activity work? Was I prepared? Was it age appropriate? Were the children ready to learn? What would I do differently next time?

How do you know beforehand whether an activity will work? You don’t. Sometimes you have to customize your planned activity as soon as you walk in the door and see who you have to work with that day. Even then, only experience will ultimately teach you what works and what doesn’t. However, until you arrive (and none of us have), use these guidelines in choosing appropriate activities for your lesson:

1. Consider the audience. If you have a group of shy, non-competitive children, an active, competitive relay is not going to work for them. In the case of the horseradish, many children do not like trying unusual foods. I should have chosen familiar foods.

2. Try the activity yourself if possible. If it’s something you wouldn’t do, don’t pull it on your students. It’s the basic Golden Rule. I would not like to be blindfolded and ordered to eat something I had never tasted especially knowing it might be unpleasant, so perhaps that is a red flag of caution that I may not want to do that to my class.

3. Be extra considerate of visitors. I should have immediately excused those two girls from participating. Everything is new to visitors! Let them set the pace. Gently encourage them to be involved but don’t force it.

4. Don’t totally discount the activity. If you aren’t sure the activity will work, ask yourself, what will work instead that will still get the point across. In the case of the horseradish, my solution would have been simple. Ask for volunteers. The older boys in my group loved it. The rest of the students would have been content watching their reactions! The taste test was a great activity and the application was strong. My point of failure was in the logistics.

5. Keep the main point, the main point. You know what is really sad about my horseradish experiment? I don’t even remember the point of the lesson! I suspect every child attending that day will only remember, “Miss Karen made us eat horseradish.” I love zany, off the edge activities that get my student’s attention and get them interacting with the lesson material. However, I’ve seen so many fun activities in curriculum books where the activity was so long, complex or energetic, the students would not have been able to connect the fun activity with any Bible application. Remember always, your main purpose, your prime directive, is to teach the word of God, not to entertain the troops. You can have fun teaching the Word of God but if the fun overshadows the lesson, you’ve lost your audience and the opportunity to proclaim Jesus as Lord – which is why we teach in the first place.


Carol said...

Great point, Karen! We need to be message-driven, not curriculum driven.

Karen Wingate said...

Well said, Carol. As ministry teachers, constantly, we must ask ourselves, "Why am I doing this? How is THIS building the Kingdom of God?" No rationalizing either!

Thanks for responding.