While Bible classes taught by volunteers don’t seem to have much in common with secular school classes taught by professional educators, there are some tools of the trade that make both classrooms more effective. One of the problems with religious education as it is handled by most churches and ministries is that there is an underlying assumption that one curriculum will meet the religious educational needs of all of your Bible students.
The sad reality is that your curriculum can do more harm than good if it is either too easy or too difficult for your students. When Bible lessons cover familiar territory with nothing for students to learn, they quickly become bored and see Bible class as a waste of time. Even worse, they may begin to believe they know everything they need to know from the Bible and have no interest in reading or studying it independently. On the other hand, if your Bible lessons are too difficult for your students, they may decide the Bible is impossible to understand and there is no use in reading or studying it independently.
Every church and ministry is different. I’ve visited congregations where even teens have had little exposure to the Bible and the average curriculum is too far ahead of what they need at the moment spiritually. I’ve also visited congregations where all of the children got lots of Bible at home and the average curriculum would bore them to death. For most though, your classes will have a range of student knowledge and understanding of scripture. Differentiating curriculum is complex, but there is a quick test you can do to make sure you add extra background information if some of your students need it and provide extra challenges if you have some students on that end of the spectrum. Best of all, it encourages students to share what they do and don’t know about the Bible with some anonymity.
You will need three large sheets of paper taped to the wall or individual sheets you have printed in advance. You want three large sheets or three clearly marked sections on individual sheets. One should read “What I know for sure about…”, the second should read “What I think I remember about….”, and the third “What I want to learn about…”. The week before you start a new unit on a Bible person or topic, have students write as many things they can think of for each category. For student purposes it doesn’t matter if they are right or wrong in what they put down for the first two categories – misunderstandings will be corrected in the course of the unit. It also doesn’t necessarily matter if you know who wrote what.
Introduce the activity at the beginning of the class and instruct them to write on the sheet during the activity time or before they leave class. If you have a lot of students, you may want to put the sheets up a couple of weeks in advance or give them individual sheets to complete. For pre-writers, you can complete the sheets as a class, like an anchor chart.
After students have finished the exercise, explain that their input will help you adjust the unit you are about to teach so they are learning new information that will help them. You may want to leave the sheet with “What I want to learn about…” up over the entire unit so students can continue to add new questions that come to mind as you teach the unit.
Take the sheets home and analyze the content. How much of what you are about to teach is already familiar to your students? (Note:If you are using shared sheets, encourage them to write down everything, even if somebody else has already written it.) What do they think they know about the person that is not quite right or totally off base? You won’t point this out to students, but you need to make sure these misconceptions are subtly, but clearly corrected in your lessons. Finally, what excites your students about this topic or person? Curiosity is key to the success of any lesson. You also don’t want to avoid answering student questions or doubts that could later become stumbling blocks. (If something is way off topic and you know which student asked the question, you can have a private conversation about their question.)
Taking a few minutes to gauge student knowledge levels before a new unit can make your Bible classes more helpful to students and give them what they really need to grow spiritually.