#3 – The Classroom Culture & Techniques of Great Teachers

Article 3 of 4 in a series from Neil MacQueen, www.sundayresources.net
Insights for Sunday School gleaned from the book Teach Like a Champion (D. Lemov).
Doug Lemov spent thousand of hours observing, interviewing, and videotaping great teachers in public schools, and distilled their characteristics and strategies in his book, Teach Like a Champion. This series of articles by Neil MacQueen summarizes many of those traits and practices from a Sunday School point of view. I’ve also adapted some of his wording for a Sunday School setting.
In this third article, I’m going to skip some of Lemov’s “49 teaching techniques of great teachers” to get to those I think are most germaine to Sunday School. And because there’s so much to say, I’m going to be brief!  My own comments are in italics.
Note: I’m excerpting and commenting here from a wide-swath of his book. Lots of gems here: discussion techniques, reading techniques, focusing techniques, discipline.
Technique 17:  “Ratio”
One of the most important goals GREAT teacher’s go for is to get the students to do as much cognitive work as possible – writing, thinking, analyzing, talking. The amount they do is called “the ratio”.  Yet in many Sunday Schools, it’s the teacher who does most of the talking!
(Sampling of) Discussion Techniques for increasing the ratio (from the book):  “give me examples”, “rephrase what the character is saying”, “summarize the story”, “why did…”,   “do you agree or disagree?”   Creative writing, creative RE-writing. Interpreting through art, drama. Modernizing the story.    [Note: For years I’ve incorporated these rephrase/rewrite cognitive activities into the software I produce for CE.]
Great Teachers often write “question primers” on the board and assign them to various students in advance of the discussion. [I’ve used this technique in Bible study using written question primers such as:  “What’s weird in this story”, “How I would say that to a preschooler”, and “Why I think this story is in the Bible.”  I’ve even put these questions on the sides of a box and decorated it like dice for the students to ‘roll’ and get their question.  Discussing question primers at the beginning of the lesson is a big technique I include in my software teaching tips.]
Technique 18: “Check for Understanding”
Great teachers regularly check to make sure their students understand the content. They do this primarily by frequently asking questions. During a project/activity, the teacher checks by circulating among the students.  During your lesson planning phase, identify the concepts which are most difficult and create good questions.
Later in Lemov’s book, he describes a ‘reading’ technique used by great teachers -which I think is really important for Sunday School since we do a lot of reading the Bible together. Great teachers don’t assume that the kids understand what they’re reading. Rather, they stop every verse or two and ask about certain words. They also interject questions like, “So what is the name of the little man who is in the tree?  and “Tell me again, what town is Jesus in?” And “So the people thought Zaccheus might have been cheating them on their taxes. What is a tax?” (More about these “reading together” techniques in my next article.)
“COLD CALL” …the best question-asking strategy
Great teachers randomly call upon students to answer questions, they don’t wait for hands to go up.  When students know they may be asked, they pay more attention. Rather than creating stress, democratic cold calling is a positive way to keep kids engaged, reach out to those who may be reluctant, and keep some from dominating the class. If a student has trouble responding, great teachers rephrase the question and help the student work through an answer. In this way the students come to know they aren’t going to be singled out or embarrassed.  There are many variations of cold call. The point is that the kids have to listen in order to be ready, and most students don’t enjoy being caught off guard.
Later in Lemov’s book, he also describes how great READING teachers randomly call on students to read aloud, rather than predicably going around in the circle to each student. This “unpredicability” let’s the students know they need to pay attention because their turn may be next.  Great teachers also vary the amount of reading a student may have to do, and help poor readers pronounce words correctly –giving the teacher the opportunity to unpack the word as well –assuming that even the good students may not know what it means.
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Creating a Strong Classroom Culture
The following excerpts are in his “Classroom Culture” chapter…
  1. Discipline– Great teachers teach their students how to be students. How to work, how to pay attention, how to think through questions, what the classroom expectations are, etc. “If they’re not doing what they’re asked it’s likely because you haven’t taught them.”
  2. Management– Great teachers reinforce behavior by consequences and rewards.  But some Machiavellian teachers over-do this part of the classroom culture.
  3. Control– Great teachers have a positive way of getting students to do what needs to be done. Great teachers ask students for certain behaviors in a respectful, firm, and positive manner. Rather than saying things like “calm down” -they give specific clear instructions, such as, “please sit in your seat and pick up your book.”
  4. Influence– Great teachers inspire students to good behavior. Success is when the student want it for themselves.
  5. Engagement– Champion teachers engage their students in productive, positive work, rather than giving them time to waste.
Technique 28:  “The Entry Routine”
Great teachers start off strong, often right at the door. Students don’t have time to mill around. They have something productive to do while everyone is arriving. [Some Sunday School teachers use this time to acquaint themselves  with the kids, which is an important task and outcome for Sunday School. The point is to ENGAGE them rather than let them (and their minds) wander.]
Technique 31: “Binder Control”
I mention this in this article only to note how many schools use this technique: having students manage a binderof materials/notes/homework for all their classes. The idea is to SAVE VALUABLE TEACHING TIME rather than waste it.  In article 1 in this series, I mention Lemov’s observation of how much time can be wasted over the year in disorganization. Eliminating 10 minutes of ‘wasted’ time in Sunday School each week would be like gaining 6 to 10 additional attendances a year.
Technique 32: “S.L.A.N.T.”
Champion teachers teach their students how to pay attention -often using an acronym like SLANT.  They use this acronym during class to remind individuals what’s expected of them in a non-judgmental, short-hand way. “SLANT” is often a poster on the wall.
  • Sit up.
  • Listen.
  • Ask and Answer questions.
  • Nod your head.
  • Track the speaker.
“Jason, you need to give me some SLANT.” This type of comment remind Jason (and everyone else) of proper behavior without embarrassing them. TRACKING the speaker is one of the most important techniques to teach because students pay attention to what they are looking at, AND their eyes tell the teacher who is engaged or needs some positive prodding. [Yet in Sunday School, the teacher often sits still. SLANT suggests they need to get up and start moving!]

Technique 35:  “Giving Props”

Great teachers repeatedly “give props” …positive reinforcements to individuals and groups throughout the lesson that everyone can hear. Great teachers also encourage the entire class to reward individual students for their positive behavior or contributions.  “A single clap for Brother Joe’s answer!”   “I need an Amen for Candace’s great attitude.”
Neil says: I REALLY like this technique.





“Setting and Maintaining Behavior Expectations”

 In Brief:  It’s all about being consistent, and non-adversarial.
Great Teachers demand 100% compliance. If one student is allowed to act-out, others follow. It can create a “toxic culture” in which some believe “only the good students need to…”    Ignoring mis-behavior will invite more of it.

Intervention should be fast, non-personal, and instructive.  Example: “I need everyone reading along, book in hand.”  Rather than, “John, you’re not paying attention.”

Great Teachers use firm but calm tones and words. They tell the student “what to do” rather than asking them to “stop doing” something.  Schools spend too much time on “what not to do” -leaving the students wondering WHAT to do.  Some students who appear to be defiant are simply incompetent at doing and need to be instructed.

Neil comments:  In Sunday School, we don’t have “grading leverage” over our students and can’t “send them to the office”. Yet we all have to deal with kids who act out. Over the years I’ve tried different things to deal with certain students. One of the worst students I’ve had to deal with was the child of the Director. His disobedience was rooted in his attention deficit and social problems, in addition to being dragged in early and having to leave late every Sunday. His father was aghast at my report of his son’s behavior and started coming to class with him. That helped a lot, probably because it let the child know I was going to do something about bad behavior, but also because it started a conversation between son and father.

I once sent a 14 year old out of class …and then had to deal with his distraught mother who complained to the church leadership. Basically she was saying that I should sacrifice the rest of the students by igoring her recalcitrant son. I simply refused to have him in my class unless his parent guaranteed his behavior.  …and it worked.   In other more typical situations,it REALLY HELPS to have a classroom assistant who can sit with the problem child, or take them out of the room and go sit somewhere boring. This doesn’t always help the problem child, but it DOES help the other students!  …and that’s important.

I believe in the parable of the lost sheep, but even Jesus made sure the 99 were safe before he went out to find the one.

Technique 38: “Strong Voice”

Great Teachers establish “strong voice” control by:
  1. Using an Economy of Words. Being specific, instructive and clear about what to do.
  2. Making sure that when they speak important words, they are not competing with other noise or conversations.
  3. Not engaging in conversation with a student’s explanation for poor behavior. Their excuse for poking another student is irrelevant to their own poor behavior.
  4. Squaring Up and Standing Still.  Your non-verbal posture is a powerful signal of your seriousness.
  5. Quiet Power.  Speaking at normal volume so that students have to listen.  Loud and fast signals nervousness.

Great teachers have a number of “formal teaching poses” and movements which signal to the students that what you are saying is important.

Technique 39:  Do It Again
Great Teachers are not afraid to ask students to improve their work or answers. “Do it again” sets a standard of excellence, not just of compliance” (ie, “doing the minimum to get by”).   I frequently use “do it again” when teaching with software. If the illustration or words they are working onscreen with aren’t up to standard, if their quiz score in the memory verse game is low, or if they can’t answer a question about the story they just saw, —I tell them to “do it again.”  …And on the computer they are usually happy to comply!


CHAPTER SEVEN: Building Character and Trust

Great Teachers use Positive Framing: correcting students in a positive and constructive way.
  • Tell students what you want them to do, rather than accusing them of the wrong.
  • Don’t assume the problem is due to ill-will.
  • “Plausible Anonymity” …don’t call out students’ names to correct them, rather say something like “I need everyone following along.”
  • “Narrate the positive” “…Some of you are not paying attention, okay, now some of you are, I need one more person to pay attention… Okay!”
  • Challenge students to prove what they know (contests) and to take their behavior up a notch.
  • Tell students what you are hoping for… and praise them when they achieve it. 
Great Teachers “praise loud, fix soft.”

Great Teachers have “The J Factor”
–they offer up their lessons with generous amounts of joy, energy, fun, and humor. This includes creative teaching methods (drama, song, dance, games).

Technique 48: Explain Everything
Great Teachers explain the day’s objectives, what they want the students to learn, and how the students will be better upon learning it!   I often recommend teachers do this at the beginning of the class… outlining the lesson, and telling the students what I hope they’ll learn, -rather than treating it like a secret.

Technique 49:  Normalize Error

Great Teachers don’t make students feel bad for getting it wrong. They work with the student to get it right. (How many times in a class did you get something wrong and the teacher said, “No, that’s wrong, does anyone ELSE have the right answer?”  Great teachers work with the student who got it wrong to get it right.)


This summary is part 3 of 4 from www.sundayresources.net/neil


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