It finally punched me in the gut as I watched my junior high students walk out the door that day.
As they walked out in a well-behaved, single-file line, each one of them did the exact same thing: they crumpled up the worksheets they had just diligently completed, and threw them in the trash can as they walked out of the classroom.
It was the wake-up call I needed to understand that my lessons--pulled straight from an expensive and well-respected resource book--were totally bouncing off my junior high students.
They weren't thinking. They weren't discussing. They weren't applying.
They weren't engaged at all.
It was then that it dawned on me that my duty as a youth leader--in charge of the spiritual education of my young students--was not to sit at my desk and cram books or lessons down my students' throats, regardless of whether or not the material was applicable to their lives.
Instead, I realized it was my job to know my students, to learn their struggles, and to come alongside and provide them with rich, thought-provoking materials and experiences that would fan the flames of their personal faith.
I am, in effect, the "filter" that screens lessons and experiences and tailors them to my students' particular struggles and situations. It's the difference between shooting a pellet gun and hoping the spray hits someone, and aiming carefully with a sniper rifle and knowing that your bullet is well-placed and powerful.
One of the most important things I've learned about working with middle school students is that you can't just grab a lesson off a shelf and expect that it will capture your youth or apply to their lives.
It's important to know your students and their culture--to know what affects them, what their friends are talking about in the hall, and what they're looking at online--in order to be able to speak Truth into their lives in the most applicable way.
Often, leaders ask me how to tailor material--or write lessons from scratch--for their students. In order to craft a good lesson, it's helpful to employ some well-known lesson-writing principles. A plethora of different methods exist, but the one I consider most helpful is the easy rule-of-thumb I learned in college: the "Hook, Book, Look, Took" method.
What does this method look like when you're writing a lesson?
In the "Hook", you use an activity, question, or experience at the beginning of the lesson to grab your students' attention and "hook them". This hook doesn't have to be biblical in nature, and shouldn't be answerable with a yes or no. Some great lesson openings include dramatic or thought-provoking movie clips, songs, objects or off-the-wall questions.
One idea for a Hook could be holding up a $20 bill and having the students compete in a paper, rock, scissors tournament to see who wins the money, then discussing how our culture chases wealth even though it doesn't lead to guaranteed happiness.
Next comes the "Book". This is where you help lead the students to discover biblical truths and make observations about Scripture--in other words, where you get into your nitty-gritty Bible study. It should relate to the Hook, and should help guide the discussion into the facts or information of your lesson. Questions such as "Who?", "What?", "When?", "How?", or "Why?" are usually found in this portion of the lesson.
An easy example of what this looks like is questions such as "Where did this take place?" or "What in these verses gives the author happiness?"
In the "Look" portion, students are guided to summarize what they've gleaned from the "Book" portion and formulate these ideas into principles to which they can respond. It reiterates the important discoveries, facts and truths you've discussed and helps clarify and point them to where a life application can be made for the students. For instance, "Why were the disciples struggling with these circumstances? What can we learn from them about the importance of attitude?"
When you're talking about the "Took", you need to know that this is your intentional effort to give your students something to take home with them. And no, I don't mean sending them out the door with a little trinket or a completed worksheet--this is all about leaving them with a powerful question or mind-melting truth that they'll continue to think about long after they've left the youth room or classroom.
This is the time to make the lesson personal, giving specific applications of the truth you've discovered together and talking about personal application. It should help a student see how the learning can be applied to his own life. It's not vague or general--it needs to be detailed, personal and specific.
One word of caution--it's easy to turn this into a works-oriented focus. Don't end with telling your students that they "need to be better"--that they need to pray more, or serve more, or trust more. You see this often in children's lessons, where students learn all about Jesus, and then are booted out the door with a hearty, "Remember, you need to be more like Jesus and not hit your brother this week!"
Sure, the message isn't bad--but it's important to understand that good works flow from Jesus' grace and forgiveness, and the message of that grace and forgiveness is crucial. Ask questions such as, "How do you plan to demonstrate faithfulness this week, specifically? What happens when you fail at it, despite your best attempts?"
The other important consideration in writing your lesson is to remember to engage multiple learning styles. As far as a variety of personality styles in your lessons, it's quite simple: think like a toddler.
I know, it's a strange image--but consider this: when I wander into the nursery or watch my friends' children, I see high-energy toddlers running around, looking and listening and touching and moving non-stop
In the same way, utilizing different activities, discussions and experiences in your lessons will help all of the students in the group engage in the material.
Kids who are visual learners need to see information, and are keen on looking at notes on the board, charts and taking notes themselves. They'll watch your body language closely to gauge your feelings about what you're teaching--in other words, they'll notice when you're confused, bored or excited before you even realize it yourself. They like to read, write things down and generally enjoy a quiet and clean place to learn and study.
Auditory learners, on the other hand, love to hear and discuss new information. These are the kids who will ask a lot of questions, spark debates and get the class involved in talking about a subject...not to mention ask a lot of questions. They don't like to take notes or read, and sometimes appear to lose interest when these things do occur in a group setting.
Those students who are tactile learners tend to learn best when they can touch or fiddle with things. They love to jump in and have hands-on experiences, and learn best when they can do something. Interestingly enough, these are the students who tend to doodle while they listen--just to keep themselves engaged.
People who learn best by kinesthetic experiences are motor-driven and comprehend best when they are involved in hands-on, multi-sensory experiences. They're often accused of acting before they think, but they crave the opportunity to do things as they learn new concepts. They tend to do well with direct eye contact, so it's important to engage with them when you're teaching a lesson, and not just read out of a book.
Knowing these simple principles will help you plan well-rounded lessons that hit on the key areas for junior high students to experience, understand and apply important truth that the Creator of the Universe loves and cares for them to their lives. Like I said earlier, it's the difference between a pellet gun and a sniper rifle--a one-size-fits all lesson versus a tailor-made, powerfully relevant lesson.
Just don't bring in one of those weapons for your "Hook", though...that's one attention-getting tactic I definitely wouldn't recommend.