Tag Archive: teaching tips

Repetition – I Repeat – Repetition is Critical

            Part of our missionary assignment in Brockton has us teaching English classes 2-3 times a week. We have about 10 students, some coming every time and others just coming as they are able. Some are very serious about learning and others just come for the social aspect of the gathering. We have tried a lot of different ways to teach a foreign language (English) to this wonderful immigrant population. We have used a program supported by the church called Daily Dose. We have done a lot of reading and vocabulary building. All of it works to a certain extent but we are just not seeing real, lasting progress.

            Last week we decided to do something different. We brought a box of everyday things: silverware, plates, cups, staplers, a ruler, etc. As the class began I said that we would only be speaking English tonight. I would not say anything or answer anything in Portuguese, only English. They were all puzzled by it but we began. We only worked on four sentences. I would hold up something and ask “What is this?” They would be required to answer “That is a spoon.” We were trying to teach them the difference between “this” and “that” so I had to move around the room, showing them distances and the difference between something close and something farther away, and which words to use in each case. We were also trying to teach them how to construct a sentence. When I ask “What is this” the tendency is to simply answer “Spoon”. We continually required that they respond in a full sentence and this took a lot of effort on their part.

            We did this over and over. We made them pronounce correctly, repeating constantly. We made them say “this” and “that”. We must have used the question “What is this” a hundred times that night and they consequently had to answer “That is…..” an equal number of times. We made steady corrections. By the end of the night they were asking and answering each other correctly. It felt tedious. But by the time class ended, they all had it. They all understood and could ask and answer that basic question. And they all said it was the best class ever. They loved it and want to do it again. As a follow up, last night was our class and we started with a review. I held up a knife and asked “What is this” and they all answered with a full sentence: “That is a knife.”

            Whenever I read about any kind of learning that says “…and no tedious memorization” I wonder what it is they are going to do in place of repetition and memorization. There are just certain things we have to commit to memory and the best way to do that is through constant repetition. I have been working since January trying to recapture the use and fluency of the Portuguese language since it is required for the work I do here. Obviously the best thing to do is to speak it and I do speak it a lot. But I spend a good chunk of time each day memorizing verb conjugations, vocabulary lists, reading aloud, and peppering the Brazilian missionaries with language questions. And the only way I can keep a new concept in my head is by repetition. I have to say and use it over and over again. I have to write it down, refer to it, say it, use it, and make it a part of what I do and say each day. It is the dull tedium of repetition that makes learning come alive. 

            If you’re ever tempted to say “I just don’t want to memorize this or have to repeat this again”, what you might be saying is “I just don’t want to learn this.”

The Leaf Hackers

“For every thousand hacking at the leaves of a problem, there is one striking at the root”

            That quote is attributed to Henry David Thoreau and I’ve seen it rendered in a few different ways but the model above is the most common and expresses well the idea. Every evil has a root that allows it to grow and then be expressed in a variety of ways. The expression of evil is the leaves. It is useful to trim the leaves to curtail the expression of evil but evil will always exist until we can identify the root and take action against it.

            The evil of slaughtering innocent people is growing in our nation and in the world. There is a large segment of our society – politicians, educators, entertainment types, religious leaders – who have seen the evil and misidentified (either purposefully or ignorantly) its root as the proliferation of guns. Obviously the use of guns can kill people, but they really are not the root of the problem. Guns in the hands of those who guard our political leaders and their families are seen as a blessing. Guns in the hands of law enforcement and military personnel are good not evil. A gun in the hands of a father or mother protecting family during a home invasion could be seen as a good thing.

            Since guns can be used for both good and evil purposes, what is the deciding factor?  You have to add in the other element of the equation which is the person using the gun. If the person using the gun is evil then the gun (or knife, or lead pipe, or poison) is used for evil purposes. Logically, (and the amount of logic required to reach this conclusion is minimal) the gun – the inanimate object – cannot be good or evil. It is the person using it that determines the nature of the usage. To assign evil to an inanimate object is pure nonsense and a diversion from the real problem.

            We live in a time and place where standards have largely been thrown away. It becomes increasingly difficult to tell right from wrong. I wonder if those concepts can even be taught anymore in schools. To teach right and wrong is to hold up something as better or worse than something else and that will inevitably offend someone or hurt someone’s feelings and is therefore not allowed. We live in a time and place where religious teachings have been thrown aside, where they are rarely allowed to be expressed or considered in a public place. And yet, what is the basis for morality if not religious teachings? How do we in the Western world know that it is not right to kill someone if not for the Ten Commandments and a clear understanding of them?

            The root of the problem of slaughtering innocent people is not an excess of guns. It is the vacuum created by not allowing moral truth to be taught in society. That vacuum will then be filled by whatever feels right to an individual even if what they feel is completely and fully wrong. Murder is wrong – completely – but without the teachings of religion you would not naturally know that.

            So if these teachings are not allowed openly in the public square then one key part of the solution – the striking at the root – has to be that we teach them more clearly in the home. We need more homes with parents that understand their duty to teach children to understand truth and to act on it. We need more homes and more parents who teach right versus wrong, truth versus error, and good versus evil, and who teach their families to act forright and against wrong. Only then will we begin to see this evil of slaughter (and similar evils) fade away. The longer we keep misidentifying the root and offering solutions that allow us to feel good about trimming the leaves, the larger the problem grows. Feeling good about your solution doesn’t solve any problem, it’s only a diversion. Often a real solution is painful and takes serious courage. 

            We all see the same things. How we interpret the data has long term ramifications. We are in the midst of watching national leaders and opinion makers continually misinterpret the data and thus try to correct a massive problem in a way that will never fix it. We are being led by a stunning array of self-congratulatory leaf hackers who feel good but solve no problems.

            A return to morality, to the teachings of the Savior of the world, is the only real and lasting way to make the correction. 

The Real, Genuine Teacher

            As a classroom teacher I always wanted to control the teaching/learning atmosphere as much as possible. I would arrange the room, use the media well, and ensure that the walls had appropriate things hung on them. I worked under the belief that if the physical atmosphere was well managed then both the teaching and the learning would be elevated.

            Teaching as a missionary brings a whole new dimension to the teaching atmosphere because a missionary can rarely control the physical aspect of it. You are invited into someone’s home and you just go with what is there. Here are 3 experiences I had last week. The first was in the evening. A mother and her teen-age son are studying with us. We went for a lesson and she was trying to get dinner ready, keep her other 3 younger daughters under control, keep the television off or at least keep the volume down, answer the phone, and be engaged in the lesson. Not an ideal situation.

            That was followed by a lesson with a single man who lives in a hotel. We taught him in the lobby of the hotel. There were 2 chairs in the whole lobby. He sat in one, I in the other, and the two young missionaries stood. People were coming in and out, the desk clerk was right by us and there was the usual commotion associated with a public place. Again, not ideal.

            Two days later we went at 10 a.m. to a home to teach a single woman. She lives in a 3-story, 6-unit building, the type that are so common in these parts. She couldn’t invite us in because one of her roommates had started drinking earlier in the morning and was well into his first six pack of the day and not in a good mood. So we stood on the porch and taught – we in our white shirts and ties, she in her bathrobe. We competed with her phone, the trash trucks, a fire engine, lots of neighbors flowing in and out of the building, and the general noise of the street. Far, far from the ideal.

            All three of these situations would never be considered excellent teaching venues, but here is what happened. The first woman and her son were on their fourth discussion and it went well. She shared with us some experiences from her life where she felt the Spirit but didn’t know what it was that kept guiding her towards better things. We helped her see what it was and she was filled with the Spirit again. The second man had already committed to baptism and this was a little tune up lesson for him. He accepted it very well. He was edified as we all were. The third woman was very agreeable to the message, accepted a Book of Mormon, committed to read it each night, and invited us back.

            What made these lessons come alive and overcome very poor ‘classroom’ set ups? Of course, it was the presence of the Holy Ghost. Nothing makes teaching too difficult for Him. When we pray and invite His presence, real teaching and learning occurs no matter what the setting and situation. Now, what will happen with these people and their relationship to the church only time and experience will tell. But I do know that on each of those particular occasions they were given the best opportunity to hear and accept the message because of the presence and active involvement of the Spirit in the teaching process 

Find a Way to Reach Them All

            Teaching is a very simple thing to do, when it appears in the hands of an accomplished teacher

            Teaching is more complex along the path to becoming an accomplished teacher. Part of the complexity is who are the students in the class and what baggage have they brought with them.

            I’ve been teaching a seminary class 1-2 days a week in our ward here in Brockton. There are 7-8 students. For convenience and proximity we meet in the basement of the home of a member of the ward. The class meets from 5:45-6:30am, and then the students catch a bus one block away to get to the high school. These are good and bright kids whose faithfulness is witnessed by their willingness to be in this class at such an early hour.

            However, my first 4-5 times teaching I could not engage them. They were distant and nothing I did could bring them closer. We are studying the Old Testament, the second half, and it is a real challenge. I would go home each morning thinking I had failed them because I hadn’t reached them. They had just endured the class. I was reminded of a scene from the 1995 movie, “Mr. Holland’s Opus” where the coach is begging Mr. Holland, the music teacher, to find a way to teach Lou Russ, his star wrestler, to play the drums so he could pass his band class and stay eligible to wrestle. Mr. Holland is explaining that Lou simply can’t find the beat. The coach then says, “You’re a teacher and you have a willing student and you can’t find a way to teach him? Then you’re a lousy teacher.” (If you want to see that scene, go on Youtube and search Mr. Holland’s Opus and find the scene Lou Finds the Beat.)

            Those words kept ringing in my ears – “You’re a lousy teacher” – so I spent one morning just thinking of ways to teach them. It came after some time pondering. The challenge was the physical Bible. It is big and I think to them impenetrable. I don’t blame them because among many adults in the church the last half of the Old Testament is difficult to grasp. Add to that challenge is this fact: English is a second language for all of these kids. They grew up speaking Portuguese Creole as their first language. They are fluent in spoken English but the written word is tough.

            So I did a few things different the next class. I removed all of the copies of the scriptures from the tables. In their place I had prepared a one page sheet with 6 verses we were going to focus on. I modified the words slightly so as to make them more easily understood. I rearranged the tables in a new configuration to signal to them as they walked in that something was different about this class. And then instead of standing to teach I just sat at the tables with them. When the class began I told them that our goal was to simply understand what was written here and learn one gospel principle from this page. It took some gentle leaning on them but at the end of class they got it. I was elated.

            The next class I did essentially the same thing and the results were even better. It was a real class with talking and exchanges and challenges and laughter. It was a great seminary class even though it lacked a class presidency, a devotional, scripture mastery, and 50 minutes of instruction. It was just a class stripped down to its essence – students, scriptures, teacher, and especially the Spirit. Two of the chronically tardy students even came on time.

            This whole experience reinforced the idea that some students and classes are easier to reach and others take more time and effort, but all can be reached, and all are worth reaching. 

Simple and Clear

I sat in on a missionary discussion the other night. It was with a woman and her son who both had recently joined the church. They were being taught a follow up lesson on the Plan of Salvation. I was with two really good missionaries. They teach well and they teach well together, almost seamless in their transitions from one teaching to the other. After the lesson we three talked about it and they both agreed that it wasn’t their strongest teaching effort. I offered, as I always do, to give them some feedback and they readily accepted, as they always do.

The feedback was this: they taught the Plan of Salvation in an unnecessarily complicated way. They taught it in the standard way that we all seem to use, with circles and lines representing different spheres of existence and transitions to and from those spheres. But it took over 30 minutes to get all of that on paper. And the reason it took so long is that there were dozens of digressions.

The Plan is vast and it touches at the very heart of what we believe. It helps us understand where we came from, why we are here, and where we are going. As we begin to talk about it and teach its truths, we are easily distracted by another example, another appendage to it, another story we’ve heard about one of the facets of the plan, by any number of things that keep us from communicating simply and clearly what that Plan of Salvation really is.  We, the teachers, are not bothered by the digressions because we understand the basics, but those trying to learn them get confused by what is really important and what is less so. And when the lesson is over they are not really sure which points are critical. If we can’t teach the Plan in a straightforward way, we lose people who can’t hack their way through the dense forest of facts we have built for them in order to see the truth at the center.

The lesson of the feedback was this: the best teaching is clear and simple. It is always clear and simple. The circle and line drawing can be put on paper in 10 minutes. It can be clearly explained in not much more time than that. If we teach it in that manner and the Spirit is present, the student/learner will have questions. She will begin to ask questions about the parts and pieces she is interested in and that she doesn’t understand. We can then address those. It will be a much more useful learning experience.

I’m not short-changing the beauty of the plan in suggesting that we can teach it very well in a much shorter time. What I am saying is that this particular subject is so filled with details that we could talk about it for hours, explaining more and filling in more with scriptural backing. That is not only unnecessary but confusing to a beginning learning of these things.

If we lay it out simply and clearly it will be easier understood and will create in the learner an increased desire to understand more.

One of the marks of an effective teacher is this: can he teach simply and clearly.

Ken Alford on Tardiness

This information was originally published at http://kenalford.com/semlist/2002/02jan13.htm and sent out as part of Ken Alford’s email list to Seminary teachers.   It’s helpful for teachers who may be struggling with tardiness in the classroom: Punctuality always seems to be a challenge in the church, but it is especially so when you add teenagers and early mornings to the equation. I feel punctuality is an important trait to possess, and it’s a personal…
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Help Them Understand

I have mentioned before in this blog that the style and quality of teaching is not really important if no learning is taking place. The whole purpose of teaching is so that people can learn. If that is not happening then we need to readjust our teaching so that the outcome is achieved.

Yesterday I went on a teaching appointment with 2 of our elders. We went to the home of a woman who is committed to being baptized in a week and a half. She was a delight and is so full of faith and hope that I was more edified when I left her home than when I entered. During the course of the lesson, which was on commandments, she asked a question about tithing. One of the elders opened to Malachi 3 and read to her verses 8-10, which as you know is the classic biblical reference on the subject. She listened as he read and when he finished she said “I don’t understand a word of it.” It wasn’t said in a mean way, just a factual way.

He then handed her the book and invited her to read the passage, thinking that her own voice might help in understanding. She did read and when she finished one of the elders immediately said “So what do you think it means?” She hesitated, then stumbled a bit in her explanation. Eventually, with the help of these excellent missionaries she came to understand the passage.

As we drove away the Elders asked me how I thought the lesson went. I told them that I would give them a tip about scripture reading. “You could go to any strong, well-established ward and read that same passage and there would be many adults and youth who would tell you that they don’t understand it. Scripture language is in some sense a foreign language until we pay the price in time and effort to understand the language. Not everyone has yet paid the price, even people with strong testimonies. So my tip is this: don’t assume that people automatically understand the scriptures, just because they were read aloud.” I shared with them the reference in D&C 68:25, the one that says that parents in Zion need to teach their children the basics of the gospel. But the sweet spot in that verse for me is the line that says “…and teach them not to understand…” It is not just the teaching that is key – it is teaching to understand. That takes more time and more effort.

When I teach, my first question after reading a passage of scripture would not be “So what do you think that means?” because my steady assumption is that they didn’t fully understand what was read. That is not a comment on a person’s intelligence. It is rather a feeling I have about what it takes to learn to understand things of the Spirit. And if they truly didn’t understand then we put them on the spot and they mumble something and hang their head and learning stops. We don’t want to embarrass people. 

My first response after reading is to comment on it myself and pose a few simple questions to aid them in understanding. After reading “Will a man rob God…” I might say, “Did you catch how God talks about us robbing Him? Can you see in that third (or fourth) line what He says is robbery in His eyes?” I want to summarize and point them back into the passage so that they grasp the meaning of it for themselves. They will begin to understand. They want to understand, they just need help and we, as teachers of the gospel, are in a prime position to help.

It takes listening and sensitivity and a great desire to see people learn in order to help them get the most they can from a lesson. Think of every student as the Ethiopian described in Acts chapter 8. He was reading the scriptures and wanted to understand. When Phillip approached him, he asked “Understandest thou what thou readest?” The response is a classic: “How can I, except some man should guide me (verses 30-31).” Here was a student who wanted to learn and just needed a little help. We can be that help.

Don’t Just Talk About It, Really Do It

Sunday morning before the church meetings I was met in the hallway by our bishop. He was holding in his hand a printed article five or six pages long. He held it up to me and asked “Did you write this?” It was something I had written a while back about teaching, and I confessed to it. He told me, “I have been studying this for weeks and am going to teach it during the 3rd hour today to the adults and youth of the ward. Now that I know you are the author, you are going to help me.” My wife and I have vowed in the mission field to only be ‘yes’ people: anything we are asked to do, we will agree to do it. So I told the bishop that I would help him but I preferred not to diminish his preparations. He said for me to just come to the front when he started and we would do it together.

I thought that this was a good thing because he has told me that he wants to strengthen the teaching in the ward at all levels. I was a little nervous as this is a Portuguese speaking ward and we’ve only been here a few weeks and I am still knocking the rust off of my language skills after 45 years of inactivity with the language. It’s coming back though and I thought I would have a good shot at being understood for an extended time. There is an additional language challenge in this ward in that 90% of the members come from Cape Verde and they speak Creole, which is a variant of Portuguese. And most of them understand English to some level. It is really a 3 language ward.

The bishop started the class and said a few things, then I did some teaching in Portuguese. When the bishop took it back from me, a sister in the back of the room said “We need this either in Creole or in English,” so we agreed and proceeded with each of us in our native tongue.

Here is where it got tricky. This was a class about teaching and improving your teaching so that students can improve their learning. Our good bishop was so excited to have a resource to help him teach about teaching that he wanted to share the whole thing. So he started simply reading it. I knew that this was a recipe for boredom among the members of the class, so I jumped in each time I thought it appropriate and modeled what he had just read and then, to the extent possible, had them practice a bit. It all turned out well and the bishop thanked me for the help and I thanked him for his desire to improve and share it with the ward.

Here is what was re-emphasized again to me: if you want to teach about teaching, you have to teach well. You can’t just talk about it and hope it will help. Talking just won’t help all that much. The teacher teaching about teaching needs to teach with excellence and that includes explaining, modeling, practicing, and giving feedback. It takes time. It is a process. It is well worth the effort but the effort has to be real and meaty and true. We rarely learn anything simply by listening. 

We Stagnate Without Feedback

            I have not posted anything in this space since last June. When I retired from my teaching career that month I stepped away not only from teaching but also from thinking about it. It was just a natural response to not being directly connected with the teaching/learning process professionally.

            Last week my wife and I began a 2 year mission for our church – The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – and will be in the Boston area for that time. Since missionary work is real teaching work I now have a new motivation to begin seriously thinking about teaching and learning again. I am going to write about things that come to me as a full time missionary, related to the subject at hand. Here is the first one.

            When we were in the Missionary Training Center (MTC) last week I had forcefully come to mind two very basic thoughts about teaching the gospel. The first was that a teacher can never improve without practice and feedback. It can’t be done. We can watch and listen and observe all we want. We can go into our classrooms and try on our own. Nothing will change until we open ourselves to an observer who loves us and cares for our progress and is willing to be bold enough to tell us what was seen and offer some ways to improve. Lacking that, we will limp along forever in our old habits, perhaps trying very hard but not making any real improvements.

            In the MTC we had to role play at teaching on 3 of the 5 days there. Most people did not want to do it because it is a new thing and becomes painful when we have to discover that we missed the mark, either slightly or by a lot. But we all had to participate – no one was exempt. When the little teaching session was over, there was competent feedback and by the end of the week there was obvious improvement seen among many people. The cycle that leads to this improvement is: instruction, practice, feedback, and correction – repeat as often as necessary until competency rises. If you are a teacher who wants to improve, there is no short cut around this process.

            The second thing driven home again to me is how much the Spirit is involved in gospel teaching. My wife was nervous about the role playing but once she opened her mouth and allowed her reliance on the Spirit to shine through, she was great. One time our instructor was listening to her specifically and when she finished the instructor started to applaud. It was that good, from a woman who didn’t think she could teach very well. On our own, none of us is very good but with the Spirit we can all rise up and be very effective.

            Keep practicing, continue to seek competent feedback, and remember where the power comes from in gospel teaching. Learn to trust the Spirit in the gospel classroom.

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