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Our brave volunteer John Rohrbaugh invited us to make him over-not his clothes, not his home, not his parenting style-but his Sunday school classroom.
Meet John Rohrbaugh. John is a 43-year-old husband and father of two. He’s also an engineer with a major semiconductor firm. John has been teaching Sunday school for nine years and currently teaches fifth- and sixth-graders at his church in Fort Collins, Colorado. John shares the surprising revelation that in nine years, he’s never had anyone critique him or give him feedback on his teaching.
John was a reluctant Sunday school teacher years ago when he first signed up. “I never really intended to teach Sunday school,” John says. “But there was a need, and I was asked to strongly consider teaching Sunday school as a means to develop my overall teaching skills for leading an adult small group. My wife and I were newly married and I knew very little about kids, so I chose to teach the oldest class available-fifth and sixth grade. I figured they’d be the most adultlike and I’d have a better chance of success. That was nine years ago.”
John hung in there as a teacher because he genuinely fell in love with teaching God’s Word to kids. Having grown up in a church, his gratitude to the numerous teachers who’d challenged him and taught him made him want to shape the kids’ faith as well. That, and a deep love for God’s Word, became a blessing to the kids at Summitview Community Church in Fort Collins, Colorado.
John remembers the early days. “Looking back on it, my first class was a bigger challenge than I realized,” he says. “Our church met in a hotel convention center, and my Sunday school classroom was a small, corporate-style meeting room with a single long table and comfy chairs. No white board and no space for moving around.”
So where to start? John took an in-depth look at the existing curriculum and asked a few questions. That was his training!
“The Sunday school material I had to work with was rigorous,” says John, and it appealed to his analytical brain, “but it was in very rough form and quite dry. The previous teacher had some brief advice: ‘I give them a quiz on the material every week.’ So I started to teach, and I gave a quiz every week-with questionable results.”
John drew on all the experiences he could remember from when he was his students’ age. “The thing I remembered most was that I goofed off a lot-probably because I was bored. And I saw that my students could easily become bored, too-a discouraging realization. But I also remembered that many times my teachers had made the subject come alive and that’s what I resolved to do.”
The church plant grew and moved to a high school and then eventually to a permanent building. With the removal of the portablechurch challenges, John’s classroom and resources expanded. “Our church discarded the old, dry material in favor of more ‘fun’ material, and eventually settled on material that was a combination of fun and learning. In this new environment, I developed a teaching style that seemed to engage many of my students-but not all of them,” John says. “I had a strong emphasis on lecture, because there weren’t a lot of options in the original small room.”
John found a style that was comfortable for him, but at times he still wondered if his style was good for all his students. He knew something was missing; he needed help.
John identified his most effective lessons. “They were not strictly lecture. They combined teaching with an activity. My original class has never forgotten the Walls of Jericho lesson where we left the classroom and marched around the outside of the tall hotel building and contemplated the height of the walls.”
John was onto something wonderful, but the dream of reaching every child met reality. Remember: He’s a husband, father, active church member, engineer, and more. Time constraints choked out those types of lessons. “Life was busy and I found myself preparing most of my lessons late on Saturday evening,” John admits. “Taking additional time to improve my teaching skills didn’t seem very realistic, especially since the classes seemed to go well most of the time.”
So we have a busy, committed, Christian man in what seemed to him to be an effective classroom. Why invite a makeover?
Ever a lifelong learner, John says, “It was an opportunity to get feedback from Christian education experts and improve my teaching. Since I consider my teaching style to be outside the mainstream, I was curious as to what the experts would say.”
Beyond his curiosity of how he measures up, John genuinely wants to reach kids with God’s Word, and he knew he could improve. He wasn’t going to jump on just any suggestion, though. It had to make sense to his engineer’s brain. “I wasn’t eager to try just anything. In the past I’d seen some Sunday school material with lots of ‘fun’ activities that served to kill time without imparting much value. I wanted to get some good ideas that I could buy into,” John says. And he challenged the makeover experts as well. Tell me why, he kindly demanded, don’t just tell me how. John was a relentless makeover subject. “If the ideas offered didn’t seem valuable to me, I wanted to discuss them thoroughly to see what I was missing (or to refine and rework the ideas).”
John does so many things well. He obviously cares about his students. His love for God’s Word is a great example for the children he teaches, and his ability to help kids learn surprising things about the Bible is a strength. He is able to make things clear for students by defining difficult terms they may not understand. John didn’t need an overhaul; he just needed a tuneup.
There are four things we focused on in John’s ministry makeover: child-friendly room design, reaching every child, asking great questions, and transforming a lesson.
Room Design- John’s room was white, white, white. And it looked like a college classroom with tables lined up, facing forward. What it said to kids is, “This is not a place for you.” We invited our Design Team to turn that around. Read their expert tips at the end of this article. Of the room makeover, John says, “The students were very enthused about their new room. Several brought their parents up to see the room and the photo of themselves.”
Reaching Every Child-We used the multiple intelligences theory with John because we knew he needed strong, research-based ideas to make necessary changes. This theory, developed by Harvard University’s Howard Gardner, helped John learn more about his kids. Kids are “smart” in seven ways, and as we understand that we can create and teach lessons that show kids that God knows them intimately! We challenged John to design his lesson for all kinds of kids-not just the ones who are like him-by paying attention to his kids’ intelligences.
Logic Smart Kids enjoy thinking through deep issues and analyzing truths. (John is obviously logic smart!) Word Smart Kids love to read, create stories, and write! Body Smart Kids want to play games and do dramas…anything that gets them up and moving. Music Smart Kids learn more when they sing or listen to music. Picture Smart Kids want a visually appealing environment and are budding artists. Self Smart Kids enjoy reflection and thought to apply God’s Word to their lives. People Smart Kids are the life of the party because they learn best when they’re interacting with others.
Asking Great Questions
While John asked questions to clarify meaning, he stopped short of digging for deeper meaning and application. We told John to use all of the following types of questions with his class.
Discovery-These questions answer the basic 5 Ws and 1 H: who, what, when, where, why, and how? These are fact-finding questions. For example, “Who was blinded on the road to Damascus?” Understanding-These questions go deeper and help kids see the relevance of what they’re learning as they dig a little deeper for meaning. For example, “How could God forgive Saul for everything he’d done?” Application-Take the questions to the “So what?” level. For example, “How will you apply what you’ve learned to your life?”
Transforming a Lesson
Foundational to Group’s educational philosophy is the acronym R.E.A.L. We encouraged John to make his lessons shine in the following areas.
Relational-John’s class moved from kids sitting in rows to a rearrangement of the tables and chairs in his room, kids talking to partners, and kids working in groups. Experiential-John got his kids involved through creative dramas and a roller-coaster game. “I was enthused about my roller-coaster idea for the final lesson,” John says. “It expressed the flow of the biblical text well and incorporated the new ideas you’d given me about visuals and motion.” Applicable-John used great questions to help kids see how the truth in the Bible could be applied to their lives. Learner-Based-John got kids out of their seats, encouraged them to talk to one another, and made the lesson fun and creative. We encouraged John to find common household items for kids to use in their drama-things like towels, flashlights, forks, baskets, and more.
“The costumes and props gave a major boost to the students’ enthusiasm when they were acting out their roles,” John says. “Ordinarily the skits don’t have much life and some students don’t want to do them.” John’s creativity got kids involved!
We asked John to tell us what results he’s seen since the makeover. “The result is not what you might expect,” John says. “My wife and I went directly into teaching pre-K Sunday school the next week (my youngest son’s class), and decided to try some of the suggestions on students who were 4 to 5 years old.”
That excited our makeover team because the things we shared with John work at all age levels. “Costumes and props were a real hit with our new class,” reports John. “The need to accommodate for the multiple learning styles seems even greater for the younger ages. A mix of activities was crucial.”
John immediately put principles from his makeover to work. “I’m most excited about a method for teaching the parable of the sower,” John says. “I got a bag of grass seed and we took the students outside the building. We found a road, rocky soil, soil with weeds, and good soil. At each stop, the students got a chance to scatter some grass seed, and then I talked about what would probably happen to those seeds.”
It’s the makeover that keeps making over classes! John reports that he and his wife have gotten comments from parents about how well-behaved the class has become. “My guess is that it’s a combination of holding their interest along with high standards for behavior,” John says. “My wife also got a comment from one of the college student helpers (an education major) that she had ‘learned so much’ from us.”
Way to go, John! We’re grateful to you for partnering with us on this project!
Christine Yount Jones is executive editor for Children’s Ministry Magazine.
Meet our Design Team. RoseAnne Sather is the senior art director for Children’s Ministry Magazine. She is also part of a church-planting team in Loveland, Colorado. Craig DeMartino is the staff photographer for Children’s Ministry Magazine, a climber, and a Christian speaker.
Here are the inspiring ideas from our makeover to help you make over your classroom.
Look for new paint color combinations. Find fun paint color ideas at home improvement stores; they usually have color palettes that specifically target kids rooms. Another place to find great color combination ideas is on the Internet. For example, check out www.potterybarnkids.com for great playroom colors, while www.pbteen.com has theme room ideas in addition to current color trends. Use every room feature. When painting your classroom, don’t fear awkward corners or bumpouts. Let them become color breaks. For instance, in John’s room, we painted the bumpouts and walls different colors. This created a fun and bright environment for the kids. Create easy murals. Use an overhead projector or a video projection unit to project your children’s ministry logo or fun graphics onto a wall. Simply trace the image onto your wall with pencil, then fill in your tracing with paints. Create a message center. We used an a 8×4-foot sheet of white board and sectioned it into thirds. On one section, we attached a piece of sheet metal with liquid nails to create a magnet board. On another section, we attached cork board (we first mounted the cork to a piece of foam core so it would be easier to use pushpins). We left the final section of the white board blank. This gave John a versatile message center and a fun place for kids to draw or post pictures and notes. Use kids’ photos for decorations. We shot digital photos of John’s students and enlarged the photos, using Adobe Photoshop. We then used spray mount to put the photos on foam core