Monday, December 31, 2007

Well, we're back in the groove of teaching Sunday school.
This quarter, we've begun using Bible Study Guide LINK, which is really excellent. A number of teachers have come to me saying that they didn't understand what I disliked so much about the old curriculum, but now they get what I was talking about. This is what Bible class should look like. Sherry mentioned that her class is having a hard time getting through all the material because there's just so much good stuff. She suggested that we consider going back to teaching the same lesson on Sunday and Wednesday, with Wednesday being the "application" portion. There's a lot of merit to that idea. I've found that I hardly have time to cover half of what I'd like to in the Sunday class and also I end up having to recap the Wednesday portion of the story for the kids who don't come on Wednesdays. I'll remind her to bring that up at our next teachers' meeting (I don't want to be the only squeaky wheel!). The amazing thing about this curriculum is that it takes six weeks (if we implemented Sherry's suggestion, twelve) to get through one story. Currently we're working on the story of Joseph, one chapter at a time. When you go that slowly, you really have time to read the whole thing and talk with the kids about the hard words and make sure they understand every little thing that is happening--and they don't get bored. The curriculum is set up so that each lesson ends on a cliffhanger (this morning, we left off where Joseph finds the cup in Benjamin's sack, and Judah offers to take Benjamin's place as a slave. Our student groaned when we told him that we'd have to leave it there until next time). The kids follow only one set of characters for a long time. They get to know them, and I think they retain the information better too.
We've actually been doing it since early December, but I've been so swamped with holiday cheer that I've hardly had a minute to write about it. Due to the grade turn over, the only one of our original students left to us is Josh. He's pretty cocky, being the oldest kid there. In addition to him, we have Gracen, who is very smart and definitely well-educated, and Ben, who is a quiet boy, but definitely is aware of what goes on. Josh and Gracen are pretty solidly "good kids," and Ben is easily led to good behavior or bad, depending on his classmates' prevailing attitudes. Last week, while JC and I were home for Christmas, Amy taught our class. Unfortunately, Gracen wasn't there, and in her place were Corey and Justin. JC and I haven't taught either of them before--they don't seem to come very regularly. From what Amy told us, those two managed to swing Ben to the dark side. She had a really rough time with them, unfortunately. I felt bad about that because she was doing me a favor, in taking the class for us.

In response to this deplorable behavior, JC and I decided to give them a quiz today. Amy had told me that the boys told her they'd done that week's lesson the previous week (which was not true--two of them hadn't even been there!). Unfortunately, Ben was our only student that day. He did very badly on the quiz. It consisted of six questions, plus one bonus, and he didn't get any of them entirely right--although several should have been very easy if he had been paying attention in class. That said, he really tried. He thought about each question before deciding that he didn't know the answer. When he was done, he knew he hadn't been successful. He hadn't even guessed on several of the questions. He looked really defeated.
"Are you done?" I asked. He nodded. "Okay. Let's talk about this. First, I want you to know that I'm very pround of you for trying so hard. You didn't give up or tell us that you didn't want to do it--you tried, and that's important. At school, you get quizzes so that your teacher can give you a grade, and you can take it home to your dad, and he can say, 'Ben, why don't you work harder?' or 'Good job!'" At this, Ben smiled briefly. He has a really great smile, but it's rare. His dimples are a great reward, the more so for their rarity. "In Sunday school, we have quizzes so that you know what you don't know. We won't talk to your dad about this. This is just for you, so you know what you still need to work on. What we're going to do now is talk through this quiz, and talk about what the answers are, and why it's important to know these things. I bet you'll do much better next time."
We then talked through each question on the quiz. We explained what the right answer was (and yes, most of these did, in fact, have "right" answers, like "Where was Joseph taken when he was sold into slavery?"), and why it was important, in the context of the big Bible story, to know these things (if you don't know where Joseph was taken, it doesn't make any sense that Moses and his people were in Egypt to begin with!). By the end of it, Ben was smiling more. I think he felt better about the whole thing. I felt bad for putting him on the spot; class is much easier when there are several children.

We then read our text for the day--Genesis 44. We stopped frequently to make sure that Ben understood what was going on in the story--he had forgotten that Joseph hadn't revealed himself to his brothers yet, but when he understood the joke being played, he laughed out loud. By the end, he was so interested in the story that he didn't want to stop. That's the kind of interaction I think children should have with the Bible. I consider today a successful class, because Ben had that immediacy.

One thing I would like to explore is how to help the children read a little better. Even in children's translations, there are some tough words in the Bible, and apparently modern schools don't teach children to sound out words. I understand that phonics can produce some bizarre spelling and pronunciation habits, but they can open the door to children who would otherwise be limited by their "sight words," right? Ben got to words that I knew he knew, but he couldn't interpret them, and he lacked tools for breaking them down. I don't have enough time with the children to teach them to sound out words--particularly if that's the opposite of what they are being taught in school--and I feel awkward jumping in to help them when they are just on the cusp of figuring it out. Josh almost always interrupts, providing the word, which I am sure makes the other children self-conscious. I try to reprimand him for that, but, having been a fluent and early reader myself, I understand his frustration.

I guess the other question I have is how to instill classroom discipline in children who don't have any at home. I don't know about Corey, but I have it on pretty solid authority (as well as personal observation) that Justin has very little discipline in his home. I never know what to do with kids who just won't behave, for the sake of not behaving, often with a fairly malicious bent. Any ideas?

I've been interviewing people quite a bit--I'll post about those soon.
I read this great article from Scientific American called The Secret to Raising Smart Kids. The premise here is that praising children for being smart actually cripples them, while praising them for working hard at something sets them up for further success. I totally believe it (and some of the results of the study this article is based on are pretty astounding). It makes me think alot about how to apply this in my teaching--both in Sunday school and at the community college where I work as an adjunct. One problem, though--how do you praise effort in people who won't put out any?

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