Everyday Lean: Sunday School Edition

I’ve been a Sunday School teacher for high school aged kids for about six years. Initially I taught a class for Freshmen and Sophomores. When I first began teaching I was struck by how quiet the kids were in class. These kids were very vocal and lively during the gathering time, and the boys in particular had been lively as Jr High kids – even in class.

Initially I couldn’t figure out why this was. This happened during the same period of time I was becoming Lean Black Belt certified. In that training I was learning about silent brainstorming techniques, and the benefits of using them. And then one day it hit me: High school freshmen are like company new hires.

High school freshmen are like company new hires

Let’s take a look at the similarities: both are new to the environment, unsure of themselves, wanting to fit in, and not sure of the expectations. The last thing either one wants to do is commit some faux pas that will stick with them for years.

New hires at a company, or even someone new to a role, will often take a passive approach as they get grounded – not wanting to risk making a mistake or saying the wrong thing. Often they will have the right answer or a good idea, but not voice it, potentially leading to a lack of confidence in themselves or from others.

Additionally, more introverted people will often not get an opportunity to speak up, with more extroverted people dominating the conversation. If they do eventually speak up, they are often left with an “I was thinking that” response.

Quiet brainstorming works well as it gives everyone the time and headspace to think of ideas, and the opportunity for every idea to be presented equally. To facilitate this in the class I handed out colored note cards that would correspond to each question from the lesson.

Colored note cards with responses

As we got to each question in the lesson, I asked the students to take 2-3 minutes to quietly think of their answer and write them down on the cards. Once the time was up, I would collect each card and read the responses anonymously.

Initially the students were surprised to find out that in most cases they weren’t the only ones with a particular answer or response. You could see the relief crossing their faces as they realized they were having a shared lived experience.

Even in instances where a student hadn’t written the same response, they would affirm that other response and say how they understood it, or possibly hadn’t realized that point of view until now. Even when someone held a sole opinion, they were affirmed as part of the group.

As part of my Black Belt training, we were instructed on the practice of doing “Plus/Deltas” to assess a meeting, training, event or change. We specifically didn’t do “Pluses and Minuses” as people tend to get hung up on negatives.

And, a “delta” simply looks at something you would change. It could be fixing a negative, enhancing a positive, or just looking for something different. The idea of “Plus: The coffee was great” and “Delta: We’d also like coffee after lunch” presents a different tone than, “The coffee was good, but we need more of it.”

Knowing that this new classroom style would be a big change, I asked the group of students for feedback. I was doing something radically different, and I wanted their buy-in to ensure it succeeded. Using the same anonymous method, I gather their input. You can see it in the pictures above, but I will quote some of it below.

Plusses (What did you like):

  • I liked how everyone had a voice
  • I think it helped us focus on the lesson
  • I got my response out
  • Quiet
  • Conversation was very on task, but everyone could speak their opinion
  • I think it helped us focus on the lesson
  • We had better conversations and there were more answers
  • We got much more engagement than usual and (possibly) more people weren’t scared to share their ideas
  • I like the silence and that there was no pressure to talk

Delta (what would you change):

  • I liked the process – easier to get my opinion out there 🙂
  • We could try writing down comments as well as thoughts
  • It was more boring than the other method with more conversation
  • <3 It seemed like an excuse for people to zone out. <3
  • It be easier to keep it on cards, but I think there’s a website called “Socratic” where students can join a room and submit electronic answers electronically

So, not everyone was a fan of the new process. With some insight, I was able to discern that these were likely the extroverted kids who dominated the conversation, and often took it off topic. But, the overall feedback was positive, and there were good suggestions to make it better.

Based on the feedback, I did make some immediate changes to the new format (which they had readily embraced). For each question I now passed out two notecards. The first one was used to answer the question in the traditional manner. The second was used for them to collect additional thoughts and comments.

While I read out the series of initial responses, each student used the secondary notecard to write their thoughts and comments about those responses. They then verbally shared those thoughts they had on the initial response to the question.

This “hybrid model” brought us the best of both worlds. It allowed the students the quiet time and opportunity to gather their thoughts and responses to the initial question, and have those shared anonymously as a corporate group.

They were then able to collection additional thoughts and comments to the corporate response without interruption, and share them in conversation. The students who needed quiet time to collection thoughts had that, and the students who thrived on verbal conversation had that. In all instances students and the comfort and security to share their authentic thoughts and feelings.

I have no idea what I want to do, and that scares me…”

Within a couple of months the students had built enough community and trust with each other that they asked to stop using the index cards. They had built up the process and routine of giving each other space to speak, and respecting each other’s opinions to the point where the index cards became a hinderance to the lesson flow, and were not longer a help.

When this day finally came, it was wonderful to see manifest. But there was a day, some months prior, that I knew we were well on our way. We had a lesson that asked the students to imagine where they would be in five or ten years. As I collected the cards and read through the answers, one stuck out.

It read, “I have no idea what I want to do, and that scares me.” I knew from the handwriting and the card collection process that this index card came from one of our very popular and athletic freshman boys that every student look up to, and that every teacher and parent thought “had it all together”.

Him admitting that he didn’t have all the answers, or have his life already mapped out was a major moment of vulnerability. (And why do we expect 14yo to have all these answers?) I’m absolutely certain we never would have gotten in a purely verbal discussion.

This is the power of silent and anonymous responses – community building, authenticity, honesty, and vulnerability.