The Value of Great Questions: We have found that lessons for high school youth and young adults are best framed around real questions—questions that are truly worth exploring. Real questions provoke students to think for they resonate with their own concerns or hidden questions. They can’t be answered by “yes” or “no”. They provoke real discussion, investigation, and dependence on theologians for depth of knowledge, wisdom, and insight. For example, these are some of the questions that anchor one unit of CrossRoad Classroom:
- What is the role of the intellect in the Christian life?
- What kind of culture do we live in? How does this culture affect our understanding of God and His role in the world?
- What is the benefit of practicing an established religion?
- Why was the crucifixion such a problematic concept for early Christians?
Great, real questions serve as an introduction to dig into some amazing Orthodox theology.
Writing: It’s tempting to shy away from having students write anything in a religious education setting because we don’t want them to feel too much like they’re in “school.” However, we have found there are many reasons to have students write in a class/group that outweigh this concern. Here are our top two:
- Writing as discovery: Writing can be used as a tool to discover and learn, rather than simply a way of demonstrating learning. Giving students a few moments to write their thoughts—just for themselves, as a private exercise—gives them space to figure out what they think. Writing helps with the level of thought that students will bring to the class, because they’ll be given space to really think when you ask them to write. Writing makes learning personal.
- Writing builds community: Writing actually creates better class dynamic and increases participation. Without writing, what can often happen is that a teacher/leader will ask a hard question, wait for students to answer it orally, and one or two students will answer the question who naturally think well on their feet and like to talk. The rest of the students won’t answer, and because other students answered right away, they won’t even really have their own space and time to think. By asking the group to write first, you give everyone a chance to individually write their responses. And then instead of letting people volunteer to answer, which usually has those same one or two kids answering first, you come up with the order that you want students to respond in. You can simply go around the classroom, and if someone really doesn’t want to say something, give him/her the option to pass. Over time you will realize a safe, positive learning environment forms where students know that they are given the space to learn and share.
If you’d like more ideas for how to use writing as a tool for learning at CrossRoad, email Dr. Ann Bezzerides.
Discussion Time: The goal of discussion time is for students to process the material/content they’ve been presented, digest it, and begin to make it their own. Often, hearing peers talk out how they’re learning or questioning the material can be a huge teaching element as well. The question is: how do we make group discussion really work where everyone feels comfortable speaking and asking questions both of their teacher and of their peers? This can be especially hard in Church groups where attendance will fluctuate from session to session, so you may build a great rapport with one group one week, and then the next week are missing two involved students and have three other students who were absent the prior week. If the discussion time is painful to sit through, then no one is going to learn from it and they’d be better off just reading the whole time! We have two almost-too-easy solutions to help with this situation:
- Have students do their own personal writing on a question before they discuss it. See above on “Writing.”
- When you ask a question, don’t wait for volunteers to answer. Instead, have an orderly way you go around the classroom and gain responses. Switch up the order for different questions so that different students have to answer first. They will come to expect that this is the way you will engage them in discussion, and will (without telling you) actually appreciate that each one of them will be called on, and they will hear from each of their peers.
It can take too long to comment after every student’s response; so don’t let it become a situation where you as teacher have a back-and-forth with each student. Instead, we find it useful to be listening carefully to each student, and try to find common themes or threads among their answers, and then make a statement at the end that shows you’ve been listening and what you’ve learned from their responses. Exceptions to this will be when someone says something really troubling or confusing—then you should probe and ask for clarification. If a student clearly says something that needs further addressing, affirm them, “thank you for sharing that,” and ask if you can talk about it after class. For any one-on-one conversations with students, be well aware of Youth Protection guidelines.
Group Size: For discussion groups, we think 6-8 students is the perfect number; much beyond ten students, and it becomes impossible to have the kind of discussion we mentioned above, where everyone is given a chance to speak. If you do have a large group, here are two options:
- You can go ahead and say you’ll pick on five students to answer your question. Then for the next question you ask, pick on a different five, and so on.
- Find some co-leaders, and when it comes time for discussion, break out into small groups of 5-7 students. You’ll want to make sure you prep the co-leaders with the ideas here about running group discussions!