I want to teach my children how to be active participants in group discussions.
This skill will bless them (and everyone around them) at the dinner table, around the board table, in the Sunday School class, on public transportation, in the dugout, at the office, in the Senate, and just about anywhere the Lord will lead them.
I had seen snippets of some beautiful candle-lit discussions from Jenny Rallens’ middle school students and I thought, “I want that.” I loved the way the students were prepared for the conversation, listened to one another, offered thoughtful responses, referred to the text, and referenced one another’s comments.
I love great discussions when everyone is engaged and offering their own nuggets of gold. Very few things thrill me like the magical occasions when an entire group of people works together to understand the truth. (Didn’t Socrates love that, too? And the Apostle Paul, for that matter?)
These humble yet meaningful conversations are gold fibers in the tapestry of our lives – and ultimately history itself.
I could clean 3 bathrooms, puree a freezer-full of baby-food, and change out all of the Spring/Summer clothes for Fall/ Winter clothes on the energy that I get from a good conversation.
So, I began scheming about how I could teach these conversational skills to my children.
One particular day, I wanted to begin intentionally teaching them how to listen to one another, affirm one another, and connect their comments to one another.
Start with snacks…
I thought I’d start with snacks. (Snacks are “Step 1” to learning almost anything.)
I gave each child one ingredient for a Trail Mix + an empty snack bowl.
Explain the rules…
I told them that we were going to make Trail Mix together by talking. Every time they participated in the conversation and connected their own comment to someone else’s comment, they would exchange a handful of ingredients until they had a bowl full of Trail Mix.
For example, Malachi might say, “I agree with Viv that the fox should have been kinder. If he had been kinder, he would have survived.” Quite practical, my lad! Then, he’d give Viv a handful of his raisins and take a handful of her almonds.
Lia might chime in here and say, “But Malachi, survival is not as important as the kindness itself. We can’t be kind for selfish reasons alone, but because Jesus is kind toward us and tells us to be kind to one another.” (No joke. This is something she would say. She’s that sweet.) Then, she’d give Malachi some of her pecans and take a handful of his raisins.
Gradually, as we all work together, each child will have a nice mix of ingredients in their snack bowl.
Then read a short story…
I read a fable (a picture book would have worked just as well) and… we discussed. Each child made observations about the story, guessed the meaning, and worked to connect their comments with one another. They ended up with bowls of Trail Mix and I considered it a good first step.
How’d it go?
Afterward, we chatted about the experience. How’d it go? What’dya think?
They were happy with their bowls of Trail Mix, a little of this and a little of that. And they were pleased with our interesting conversation.
But, Lia was a little downcast.
“Well, because no one really seemed interested in the pecans. Everyone seemed to want to connect with your comments, Mom… because you had the bowl of chocolate chips,” she confessed.
“Ah. You’ve made a very good observation.” (How’d I miss this??)
Then I continued, “Come to think of it, this reflects a reality about most group discussions. Usually, there will be a certain person that everyone wants to connect with more than others, for all kinds of reasons. I think the secret is to be generous when you happen to be the girl with the chocolate chips and humble when you’re not. But never give up. Besides, pecans are much healthier for everyone in the long run.”
(So, note: if you happen to try this lesson at your kitchen table or classroom, consider giving the chocolate chips to the wall-flower in your group, the one who never participates, the one who is typically over-looked or forgotten. He will suddenly find himself in a new and interesting position. This could change everything!)
This is just the beginning of something great…
Of course, we’ll have several hands-on examples like this with glass beads, yarn, Skittles, what-have-you. We sure need to practice often, but we’re on our way toward profitable group discussions… and that is a treat.