Recently I have been reading a lot about visible thinking.

Visible thinking is about encouraging and helping students to think more deeply by making their thinking visible to themselves and others. Lots of strategies are described to help a teacher with visible thinking.

Sentence-Phrase-Word is one of these strategies that can help students think more deeply. I used sentence-phrase-word this week with my college class of Christian Education students, and with a year 6 class where I was the visiting teaching. I loved how, in both classes, the students were deeply engaged with the text we were reading.

Here’s what I did:

  1. Give each student a copy of the text we are exploring. For both groups we were looking at a Bible passage.
  • The college students used their Bibles.
  • I photocopied the passage for my year 6 students.
  1. Students followed along as the passage was read out.
  • In the college class, a student volunteer read out the passage.
  • In the year 6 class, I read out the passage. If I had known the students I would have chosen someone to read.
  1. While the passage was read out students had to look for the sentence that they believed was the most important one for the passage. I gave the students another 20 seconds after the reading was finished.
  2. Each student read out their chosen sentence.
  3. Students discussed with their neighbour what they noticed about the sentences that were chosen. I asked a few students about what came up in their discussions.
  4. I gave the students more time to look through the passage and choose the most important phrase. Once again every student read out their chosen phrase and discussed with their neighbour what they noticed.
  5. Finally I asked students to choose the most important word in the passage.
  • In the college class I chose two students to write the words on the board as they were read out.
  • In the year 6 class I wrote the words. Again, if I had known the students I would have used volunteers.
  1. Finally we had a discussion about the relationships between the words.

This was an excellent strategy for looking at the meaning of a passage. It worked equally well with college students as with year 6 students. It also gave all students the opportunity to think about what the passage meant for them and to find the relationships that were in the text.

It would be interesting to consider where else this strategy could be used.

God bless, Kaye

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Craig Groeschel leadership podcasts

`People would rather follow a leader who is always real than one who is always right.`

Craig Groeschel

I have recently started listening to Craig Groeschel leadership podcasts while I run on weekend mornings.

I really love them. They are short, practical and very easy to listen to. There are some good suggestions, a few helpful illustrations and each podcast ends with homework – 2 or 3 actions points to work on. There are even notes that you can download from his website.

When I started listening to the podcasts I had never heard of Craig Groeschel. He is the senior pastor of Life Church, a huge church in the United States. Obviously someone who knows about leadership who is willing to share his knowledge and experience. I strongly recommend listening.

You can find them here:


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Using your gifts for children’s ministry

In 2012 I wrote a post about a Writers’ Group that we ran at the church where I was the children’s minister. You can read that post here.

When I left the church, Cindy continued to run that group for the children who had been attending. She faithfully continued the work to a dedicated group of children until they moved to high school.

Cindy is an author of a great book called The Pounamu Prophecy (you can read my review of it here). I am writing about her here because she is a great example of how people with all kinds of gifts are important in children’s ministry. She used her gift as a writer to nurture the writing skills of the children in the writers’ group, and to nurture their faith. Cindy is also one of those great pray-ers who you can trust to faithfully be praying for the children, the ministry, parents and so on.

I recently caught up with Cindy (that’s when she gave me a copy of her book) to ask her if she would be willing to share her skills again. I am currently involved in a big project to produce high school curriculum for SRE (if you don’t know what that is, read about it here). In one unit we are looking at the different genres of the Bible and we wanted to start each lesson with a mystery written in the different genres to help review what had been taught the week before. Cindy has generously agreed to write these stories for us. I am so thankful for the way that she uses her skills to nurture and support children as they grow in their faith.

There are so many different things that we need to do in children’s ministry, perhaps there is a Cindy at your church who can become part of your ministry and use unexpected gifts to nurture and care for the children and young people we teach.

If you would like to read more about the high school curriculum that I am involved in writing, you can read more about it here.

God bless, Kaye

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Learning our students’ names and other posts

Life has got pretty busy and it has been a while since I have had the time to post on my website. I do occasionally blog for my work at It’s a great site, and you will find lots of posts there written by the children’s and youth ministry experts that I work with. Three recent posts you might be interested in are:

God bless,


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Telling the same old story

I was recently on a plane preparing for take-off. I had a good book to read and was happy to ignore the safety instructions. I know they’re important, but I have heard them many times before. I’m pretty sure I know them. And I certainly know how to put my seat belt on.

But my attention was caught when the announcement started with something like “We know you’ve heard this all before, but watch your screens for something different”.

And so followed a very clever retelling of the same old safety story. The words were the same, but the people talking were different. Each section of the information was told in a different iconic part of Australia with interesting Australian characters speaking. So, for example, when they wanted to remind us to count the number of seats between us and the nearest exit, two people walked through a vineyard and counted off the rows of vines. There were people sliding down beautiful waterfalls to show us how to escape from the plane, people doing yoga with a beautiful view showing us how to get into the brace position, and so on.

The information was told in an interesting way, but the story was the same as always.

And of course it took me to thinking about what it means to retell the same old Christian story as we teach. With a bit of creative thinking we should be able to come up with more interesting ways to tell the same old story again and again without our students losing interest.

There are many ways to creatively tell God’s story. But there are also ways to think outside the box about how we help students to engage with the big ideas that we want them to interact with. We don’t have to do things the way we have always done them, we need to be willing to take risks, try new things and keep finding ways to tell the same old story in new, interesting and challenging ways.

I want to keep telling the same old story, and I am excited about thinking about how to do this differently.

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Assessment is not a dirty word

Did you do a good job in your class today? How do you know?

If we don’t assess in some way what is happening in our classrooms, or what learning is taking place in our classrooms we will never really be able to say whether we did a good job. We might be able to say that the lesson went well, that we did everything we planned to do and it went smoothly. But teaching is more than fulfilling our plans, teaching is about students learning something.

Assessment is essential in a classroom that focuses on student learning. Whether you are teaching in a church or school setting I believe that there it is essential that we assess what is going on in our classrooms. Assessment does not have to mean 3 hour exams or major written assignments, assessment can be as simple as looking around your room to see if everyone is with you, or stopping at the end of the lesson and reflecting on what took place.

Assessment in the classroom is important because it helps us to be accountable to the people who care about what happens in our classroom. When we take note of how students are going we are able to tell the stories of success and challenge to parents, prayer and financial supporters, and other stakeholders who ask us how it is going.

Assessment is also important because it helps us to develop our skills as teachers. It is not enough to look back over a lesson and say to ourselves “yes, I did everything I planned to do”. We need to look back over the lesson and ask “did the students in my class learn what I wanted them to learn today?” As we reflect on our teaching we will be able to identify the things we do that help or hinder learning in our classrooms. And then we will be able to modify our teaching accordingly.

Assessment is important because it attaches importance and value to the work that students do. We might not like it, but young people have learned that the important things in their classrooms get marked. At worst this results in the question: “Why are we doing this?” or “Does this is go towards my final mark?” While teaching and learning should never be all about the marks, assessing student work helps them to value what they are doing. So if you use worksheets, mark them. If you have creative activities tell students what you think of them; acknowledge and celebrate well thought out answers. Help your students know that what they do matters to you.

Perhaps most importantly, assessing student understanding helps us to know what they understanding and what is really confusing to them. Assessment helps us to know when we should repeat key ideas or spend more time on something. As we do this we may discover that the things we thought our students knew are not the same as what they actually know.

There are three main kinds of assessment we do in a classroom.

Summative – this is probably the one that comes straight mind when we think of assessment. This is the judgement of what a student has learned at the conclusion of a lesson or unit of work. This kind of evaluation:

  • Is evaluative
  • Often results in a grade
  • Is based on students creating high quality work

Summative assessment may be the least significant in our classrooms. It is unlikely that we are writing reports or giving final marks for a course. However, there may be times when students have worked really hard on a project and they would like to know what you think of what they have done.

Diagnostic – this assessment typically comes at the beginning of a lesson or unit of work. We use this assessment to work out where students are at when we start teaching. This kind of evaluation helps us to

  • Check students’ prior knowledge and skill levels
  • Identify misconceptions
  • Work out how we need to modify our lessons for students to get the most out of them.

This is important because it helps us to know what to teach. By finding out what our students know when we start to teach we can ensure that we are targeting the learning at the right level. Diagnostic assessment helps us to modify the teaching resources we have to make them just right for the young people we teach.

Formative –a range of formal and informal assessment conducted during the learning process in order to modify teaching and learning activities to improve student learning. The main point about formative assessment is that it occurs at the same time as instruction.

This is the most important assessment that goes on in our classrooms. It is assessment that helps students to do better as we guide them through clearer understanding. Formative assessment is grounded in good feedback. Feedback should be provided early and often. It should help students understand how to do better the next time. It should be:

  • Timely, feedback needs to be prompt so that it can be changed
  • Specific – explain what is good, what could make it better
  • Understandable – in language that works for the student

Formative assessment should be taking place all the time in our classrooms. We should be constantly checking for understanding by the visual cues our students give us, by the way they answer our questions and the questions they ask, and by spending time talking with them to find out what they think and what they are learning.

We should never be scared of assessment. Rather, we should use it to help us enrich learning opportunities for our students.

God bless,


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Helping students find their voice

I was recently in a seminar with 30 confident, competent professional people. After a few excellent presentations the floor was opened for discussion, it started slowly, partly because of the layout of the room and perhaps also because the floor was too open. That is, there was no driving question, so it was a meandering stream of consciousness from a few participants.

Gradually we picked up steam and a number of people spoke. I can’t tell you where the discussion went, or what the salient points were. I really lost focus because I suddenly realised one startling thing. The only people who spoke were men. To be fair, there were 20 men and only 10 women. But not one woman spoke.

Fast forward to a few days later. I was speaking with a student and teacher. The teacher was making the point that the student needed to participate more in classroom discussion. He explained that these discussions were an important part of the learning that took place.

We threw around a few strategies to increase the student’s participation, but she just didn’t seem that convinced. After the teacher left, the student turned to me and she said “the class is almost all boys. They talk all the time and there is no space for me.”

Of course, two anecdotes do not constitute valid or reliable research. However, the two events stopped me in my tracks. Why were the girls/women silent? Are the silences in classrooms of today, the silences of workplaces tomorrow? And what can we do to help our quiet students, whoever they are, to speak up?

While there are systemic things that our institutions should be doing, here are few thoughts on things that can be done in our classrooms to help students find their voice.

Be intentional – look around in your classrooms and ask yourself “who are the quiet students”? They have probably already come to mind as you are reading, although you might not be able to name them because (brutally) you don’t actually know their names. Who are they? Are they mainly girls, perhaps in your class it’s the boys, or the disinterested, the school-haters, the students with English as a second language. Perhaps it is not a discernible group, just a few students spotted around the room. Whoever they are, the first step is knowing who they are.

Thing about your behaviour – do you create an uneven culture of power and participation. Is there something that you are doing that says, for example, that boys’ opinions are more important. Do you tend to always ask the same students for their opinion, or cut some students short. Are you wary of some students’ answers and so don’t let them talk for long?

Look at your room – how does its layout support the sharing of ideas? Can students see each other, or is it easy for them to fade out? Can students hear each other? What can you do to make the room a better space for discussion? If you’re fortunate you will be able to reorganise the seating plan. But if you teach in a room where you can’t move the desks you will have to think more creatively about this.  Perhaps you can move the chairs, or ask the speaker to stand, or walk to where the speaker is seating so that you guide the rest of the class where to look and listen.

Work out your role – does everyone face you and wait for you to control what happens, or do you stand to the side and offer no guidance, refocus questions or encourage quiet students. We need to find the right balance between abrogating responsibility and taking over. I believe that it is important that a teacher provides plenty of guidance and direction in a discussion, and works to keep the whole class focused. My favourite question: “what makes you say that?” Is a useful tool for encouraging more thoughtful discussion and may help silent students speak up.

Provide easier ways to be involved – speaking in front of a large group can just be too difficult for many people. Breaking into smaller groups and using think-pair-share are both helpful. Also asking students to indicate their opinion non-verbally, for example by showing with “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” what they think of someone else’s statement, will help silent students have a voice.
Train students in discussions – somehow we seem to expect students to know how to participate in a discussion. But there are lot of skills required for an effective discussion to take place. By training in specific skills, we help students to be more courageous in their participation. For example, you can:

  • model questions and responses for students to use by joining in on the discussion
  • provide students with specific roles to play in the discussion
  • give students a set of tasks they must complete in the discussion, for example everyone must ask a question, answer a question, add to what another person has said.
  • ask students to write down their ideas prior to the discussion so that they can read their notes
  • help students develop personal goals for discussion time. For example, I am aiming to give one opinion in today’s discussion

Praise students – this is not just a generic “well done today”; this is specific praise that explains what the student did well so that he or she can build on the skill. For example,  say something like “I really like the way that you gave an example from the book we have been reading today.” Or “Thanks for explaining to John why you agreed with, that’s really helpful in a discussion.”

Create a classroom that is safe, caring and compassionate – When we work at making the classroom a place where students feel safe enough to say something, we are more likely to create a space where they are confident that all people will respect their right to speak.

Let’s work hard to give every student a voice in our classrooms.

God bless, Kaye


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The Starfish and Christian education


I just read The Starfish: On Creating Academic Thresholds, by Katie Yezzi. You can read this interesting blog here

Katie Yezzi writes about a middle school science lesson she observed where the students had the opportunity to dissect starfish. She observes how the students were not that excited by the opportunity, when she felt that considering what they were doing there should have been a little more excitement in the room.

She puts this down to the teacher who didn’t:

  • Give some reverence to the task by her tone and introduction.
  • Expect the students to demonstrate their understanding of the task before starting.

Yezzi describes how we should help our students to see that what we are about to do – whether it is dissecting a starfish, learning a new maths skill or opening the Bible – “is a precious moment. Something we would want to do slowly with reflection and respect.” She uses the term Academic Threshold to describe how a teacher would establish such precious moments.

Academic Threshold is set up when:

  • There are signals that say what you do in this classroom is special.
  • Students are told at the start of the lesson what is at the heart of the lesson.
  • We create benchmarks for students that mark progress AND make sure we support our students so they can reach these benchmarks.
  • Students need to show that they have demonstrated understanding of what they have to do before starting the activity.

This article strongly resonates with me as I think about teaching students about Christian faith. I love the idea of creating the idea that this lesson is special, and that students cross the threshold with a sense of reverent and excited expectation. But there are challenges in the Christian education classroom. In particular,

  • How can a teacher help students to have a kind of reverence about the lesson they are about to participate in, especially if they are there as unwilling participants?
  • How can a teacher help students who do not have Christian faith have a reverence for the material they are studying?

Actually, this is really no different to teaching any subject. Some of our students will be excited and some will need to be provided with reasons to be excited.  We need to think about ways to help students enter our classrooms regardless of whether they think our subject is the most interesting, awe-inspiring topic, or the most laughably ridiculous subject. I think we do this by creating lessons that:

  • Are educationally challenging.
  • Are clear in their expectations and goals.
  • Are interesting.
  • Allow students to express ideas and opinions that are contrary to ours.
  • Provide feedback and help students to think deeply about the issues that are being raised.
  • Develop skills that are useful beyond the Christian education classroom and across the school’s curriculum.
  • Allow students to engage, explore and express.
  • Can have application to the world beyond the classroom.

Finally, I think we need to help students to approach the issues of faith with reflection and respect, regardless of whether they agree with what is being taught. A good direction for making this happen is being sure to treat their ideas with reflection and respect, so that the faith-based classroom becomes a place of dialogue and not teacher monologue.

What do you think?

God bless, Kaye

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Are our discussions just an ‘exchange of ignorance’

I have been thinking a lot about how to encourage student discussion – the skills that teachers and students need, and the support that teaching resources can give. I love Jackie Walsh and Beth Satte’s work on using better questions in classrooms, and have just discovered their writing on leading discussions in classrooms.

Most productive discussions take place only after students have had the opportunity to build or access the knowledge base required for an informed exchange. If this condition is not met, then the discussion may devolve into an “exchange of ignorance.”

Jackie Walsh – Scaffolding student discussions

I have sat through classroom discussions (either as the teacher, as an observer, or as a participant) that were probably more like an exchange of ignorance than anything else. There is so much in this short quote that I thought I would unpack it:

Productive discussions – this is important because it assumes that there is more than one kind of discussion: productive and non-productive discussions. So we need to start by asking ourselves:

  • Why do I want the students to discuss something?
  • How will I make sure that everyone gets involved?
  • Where do I want the students to get to?
  • What questions can I ask to help students think more deeply about the ideas being discussed?
  • How will I evaluate the discussion?

After – this little word seems really important to me. It is a reminder that discussions come after content, not before. We need to give students the information they need to be able to participate in the discussion. So we don’t start the lesson with a discussion, unless the aim of the discussion is to draw on students’ existing knowledge.

Build or access knowledge base – this means providing students with the knowledge they need to be able to participate in the discussion. It could mean:

  • Giving students the discussion questions beforehand and letting them write down their answers prior to the discussion.
  • Giving students something to read, watch or do before the discussion.
  • Allocating a point of view to different groups of students and asking them to research that position.

Informed exchange – the informed exchange comes from building a knowledge base before the discussion, and exchange comes from setting up the class so that exchange can actually happen. Can an exchange of ideas take place when:

  • Students are sitting in rows?
  • Quiet students are too wary to speak?
  • Confident students do all the talking?
  • Students cannot hear each other?
  • The teacher is controlling everything that happens and is the conduit for all ideas?

To support the exchange required in a discussion we need to think carefully about how we set up the discussion. We can do things like:

  • Use think-pair-share.
  • Give students roles for the discussion.
  • Use silent discussion.
  • Students have to comment on the previous student’s comment before saying something.
  • Work out when we intervene, and when we remain silent.
  • Ask “what makes you say that?” (in my opinion one of the the best questions for any teacher’s repertoire)

Condition not met – if we don’t work hard at setting up discussions in our classrooms then there is a very good chance that our discussions will at best be an exchange of ignorance, and at worst be no exchange at all.

What do you think?

God bless, Kaye

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Teaching and Learning using Expert Groups

Using Expert Groups, also called Jigsaw, is an excellent teaching strategy for getting students involved in both teaching and learning.

When I listen to people talk about Expert Groups it seems to me that there is some confusion about what they are. If you divide your class into small groups and get each group to learn about a particular aspect of a topic and then report back to the whole class, this is not using the Expert Group strategy. This is a form of group work, but it is not Expert Groups. You lose the best part of Expert Groups which is that everyone is teaching and learning.

Okay now that I’ve got that off my chest, here is how Expert Groups work.

Firstly, divide the class or group into these 4 or 5 groups. And ask students to sit with this group. These groups are the students’ home groups. Then choose a topic that has 4 or 5 subtopics. Examples are:

  • A long bible passage that can be divided into 4 smaller sections.
  • 4 subtopics of a theme such as “cities Paul visited”, where different cities are researched by each home group.
  • 4 subtopics of a discussion topic such as “Jesus is the Son of God” where each home group considers a different aspect of Jesus being the Son of God.

Give each home group one of the subtopics of the topic that you are covering, a question sheet each, and any resources they need to research their subtopic. These resources might be:

  • The bible passage
  • An article or page from a book
  • Some kind of artifact
  • A short DVD clip to watch
  • A picture to look at carefully

Give home groups a time limit (whatever is appropriate for your class) to answer the questions on their sheets. Ensure that all students participate in the discussion and write down answers on their sheets.

Take one student from each home group to form new “Expert Groups”. In these groups each student is an expert in one aspect of the topic being explored. In the Expert Group every student has the opportunity to share what he or she has learned in the home group. I’ve drawn a diagram that hopefully makes it clearer.

home and expert groupsThe advantages of this approach is that all students must participate in the learning because they will all have to share with their Expert Groups what they learned. No one can sit on the sideline and watch another student do the work for him or her.

Of course, some students will need a bit more guidance and support. And that is your job to wander from group to group encouraging and guiding the students both during their Home Group and Expert Group time.

There are at least four advantages of using Expert Groups in teaching.

  1. All students have to participate so that they can share their newly found expertise.
  2. You get to walk around and see how students are going. You can quickly monitor who needs extra help and be there for them.
  3. It is less stressful for students because they don’t have to speak in front of the whole class.
  4. You can cover more material because the students are doing the work.

Expert Groups can work for all ages. It is up to you to ensure that the work is at the appropriate level for your students.

One warning is that this can get noisy because you have lots of students talking at once. But working noise is wonderful noise in a classroom.

God bless, Kaye



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