The Gift of Knowing Your Strengths

IMG_20170221_164716924(Fourth in a series on tutoring.)

Focusing on what is right about ourselves and the people we work with is key to both success and joy. This is a truth that runs deep, but cynical people like me think, “Right – I’m trying to work with a kid who’s cussing me out and running away from me and I’m supposed to concentrate on her bravery and zest?

Yes, as a matter of fact. Yes I am. That doesn’t mean I don’t pull a consequence on her for cussing and running, but during and after the incident, I will employ my strengths to stay connected to this child and call out her strengths. This will keep me from quitting kid ministry!

The Mayerson Academy in Cincinnati, which trains and supports learning communities, has employed research findings in the field of positive psychology to give educators character strength curriculum all over the world. They use a 120 question inventory from the VIA Institute on Character to help us discover our character strengths. Click here to link to the survey.

Just knowing what we’re strong in can help us channel our efforts more successfully. Then we’re equipped also to teach kids their strengths and help them succeed. In a tutoring setting, we can teach character strengths as vocabulary words, we can discuss examples of them that we see in others, we can play games that put them into practice, we can tell our students when we see one in them. Relationships grow stronger in the process.

We also teach kids that they can change, so if a lack of strength is causing them a problem, (say in honesty or perseverance or kindness) they can work on it. The model does not say we are limited – it names twenty four character strengths, stressses that we have them all, and helps us focus on and use what we are already strong in, while knowing that we can grow in the other areas. If you’re operating in a Christian setting, you can also teach that we need God to help us with these changes, and God is always there to help us and work in us.

So, for example,  I call on my creativity, social intelligence and spirituality to hang in with my angry cussing and running little girl; I pray for her, figure out what’s setting her off and imagine what it would be like for her to give me a hug when all this is over.

Just to finish the story – I didn’t get the hug, but she did end up thanking me once, and I did manage to get her to cooperate with us by bribing her with snacks! Success is incremental, but leaning into strength instead of focusing on all that’s wrong is a really important discipline in any kind of helping work.

Love of Reading is Contagious

(Third in a series on tutoring.)

Some people are especially fond of books. I’m told that as a little kid I used to fall asleep with a Little Golden Book on my face many nights. But even people who are not naturally crazy about reading can be taught the value and joy of it through example.

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The trick with tutoring is to be strict enough to get to work, but to make it fun enough that students associate reading with a good time.

Ideas for Teaching the Value of Reading:

  • Tell kids how important reading is, how every part of school will be easier once they know a lot of words and can read smoothly. Tell them you want them to become great readers, and learn as many words as possible.
  • Challenge them to make reading progress a goal. We use fluency tests in our lessons, and have kids plot on a graph how many correct words they read in one minute. It can be very encouraging for them to see their graphs go up as they improve in reading that passage from week to week. Progress should never be compared to other kids though – they just compete against their earlier scores. Kids who cannot read much yet can be timed for how many Dolch sight words they can remember – start with a pre-primer list: https://www.grps.org/images/departments/academics/pdfs/ela/dolch_alphabetized_by_grade.pdf
  • Tell kids stories of how much of a difference reading has made for you or someone you know. Tell them all the things you like to read. I like to tell a story of Ben Carson’s, from his book, “Gifted Hands” . The famous neurosurgeon grew up in poverty with a single mom who did not have much education, but she knew the value of reading. She made her boys read two library books a week, and he believes that had a great deal to do with his success in school.

Ideas for Making it Fun:

  • I know this is unenlightened, but we’re shameless about giving out candy rewards. I bring a big bowl of mixed varieties, and tell tutors to use it as incentive in any way they want. We give kids candy for memorizing verses, for hitting fluency goals, for finishing assignments – whatever it takes.
  • We let kids who finish their reading tasks for the session do something fun that is word-related, such as reading a picture book to them that they’re interested in, or doing a crossword puzzle or word search.
  • We give students lots of affirmation for any progress they make. This is really important. Find something to affirm, even if it’s only that the kid listened for a whole page without interrupting, or stayed in his seat for ten minutes. Look for positives and look for improvement and call it out every time. Many kids who struggle in school get more negative feedback than positive, and they need their hope and confidence rebuilt.
  • We invite families to three sessions a year, where we serve dinner, play some fun games, and tell parents and grandparents how well the students are doing. It means a great deal to a child that their tutor cares about and has talked with people in their family.

There is nothing better to see than a kid’s face light up when they have successfully read a book. It makes it all worthwhile!

A Half-Day Retreat to Spiritually Recharge

(With a free booklet on prayer and meditation for beginners)

The summer interns at our church have really appreciated the retreats we’ve structured for them over the past few years. These high school and college students come from all over the region to work with children and youth in our urban neighborhood – they’re camp counselors, youth group leaders, Sunday School teachers, swim instructors and spiritual mentors. It’s wonderful, exhausting work.

We wanted part of their training to include time alone with God, so they would learn that the power comes from Him, and we only have to give what we have experienced with God. We schedule three or four half day retreats over the summer, and try to do them in a beautiful, natural setting.

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Here’s how we structure it:

  • For the first hour we stay together, checking in about how each person is doing (I ask them to rate themselves out of ten on energy levels, stress levels, happiness levels). We stress listening deeply to each other. Then I read a brief Bible passage three times, asking them to listen first for content, then to experience it with all their senses, imagining themselves in the scene, then to pay attention to what stands out to them – what God may be speaking to them through the passage. This excercise calms and centers people, and they can keep focusing on that passage, if they want, in their alone time. Then I pray for protection, peace and guidance for them in their time alone.img_20170605_160429434.jpg
  • For the next two hours, everyone disperses alone, not talking to one another. They choose whether to stay in one place or walk around, and are given guidance in how to use the time. I encourage them to keep gently bringing their minds back to the here and now, and the reality that Jesus is with them. They may read the Bible or another book, memorize a few verses, or rest in the beauty of nature. We encourage them to stay off their phones. To help them, we give them a booklet of ten short articles on how to spend time with God – everything from dealing with silence to confession to healing to surrender to gratitude to Bible study (compiled from blogs on this site). Download this here. IMG_20160629_134707716
  • For the last hour, we meet together again and check in about how that time went for us. Some will describe a spiritual experience, some will share difficulties they may have had – trouble concentrating, falling asleep, grief overtaking them. Some of the interns are not comfortable being outside for long and get freaked out by bugs! But usually they report a good, refreshing time. We end up praying in groups of three or four for anything that surfaced during the time alone, and for ministry coming up.

It’s a good idea to have a few people available during the alone time in case people get stuck trying to connect with God alone, and need someone to talk with them or pray for  them. I think any group of people in Christian ministry should regularly have retreats. Jesus did it; so should we.

Make Church Fun for Older Kids

(This is the fifth article in a series on reaching urban kids.)

Many churches do a great job with little kids – providing doting nursery workers and dedicated Sunday School teachers. But the older kids get, the harder it can be to engage and discipline them, particularly kids from tough backgrounds.

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One of the things our church has done for the last few years is to add a Sunday night activity in addition to traditional Sunday morning Sunday school. We’d rather do something during the week, but sports and other competing activities just crowded out too many kids. This time parallels when older youth groups meet.

The upper elementary age group often becomes disenchanted with the activities of younger kids, so it’s important to give them something different and challenging. For example, here’s our format for this year’s MEGABLAST, which meets from 6pm to 8pm:

  1. For the first half hour, they join older youth groups for a time of worship. Kids are invited to help lead worship as singers, musicians or leading movement to songs. There is often a structured activity, like writing out a sentence of praise to God, then everyone reading theirs out loud. In a setting with older role models and guided activities, worship is caught as well as taught.
  2. The next half-hour is spent rehearsing a super-easy short drama that I write for them to present to their families at a monthly dinner. The dramas include narration that can be read, Scripture recitations and personal stories. We keep memorization to one or two lines per person so kids don’t get too stressed about performing. We want them to have fun, present truth and become confident speakers.img_20161127_191857648
  3. For the third half hour we break into boys’ and girls’ groups, with an adult leader. These groups read and discuss a Bible passage and pray together. There is a strong emphasis on good group process, with simple listening exercises at the beginning of each session. For example, we’ll get kids to share a highlight from their week, but first they repeat what they heard the last person say. It pays to insist on good process; to require only one person talking at a time. Good communication skills and behavior boundaries are crucial for diverse groups. When those are established, even kids from very different backgrounds will feel safe and open-up.
  4. The final half hour is devoted to some crazy game that lets everyone run around our large building and make lots of noise. This is by far their favorite time, and when they relate most spontaneously.

We’re considering some other formats – maybe some in-home small groups next year, for example. But this structure has worked well for us, helping kids from different backgrounds to worship, learn, work and play together.

 

A Church Without Walls

                                                                                                                                                          (This is first in a series of 10 posts on reaching city kids.)Jesus University Dancers

Lots of city churches are dying. I know, I travel with a Christian theater company, and over the years I’ve seen many mainline churches in city neighborhoods getting smaller and smaller, older and older. These churches are full of loving, devout Christians, who puzzle over how to welcome young people.

I’m no expert on church growth or evangelism or youth ministry, but there are some things we’re doing at our church that have given children and adolescents some wonderful experiences of God’s love and power. So, in the next ten posts I’ll share some things we’re doing at College Hill Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati.

Go Where the Need Is

At the risk of stating the obvious, going to church is no longer mainstream. “Beyond our Walls” is a phrase that’s worked itself into many of our church’s documents, and into many of our hearts. We know that most people are only going to come to our church, after they have gotten to know us and trust us in some other place. So we go to the local school and tutor kids, we have a big party for the neighborhood in our parking lot with free music and food, we get into partnerships with food banks and homeless shelters and global missions. Several families have taken in foster kids.

Welcome People in Different Ways

Then we make sure there are different events at the church that make us a welcoming community. Not everyone feels safe or interested in a worship service, so we have meals together, we have game nights, we have youth groups and kids groups that do Bible study in fun and challenging ways, we provide homeless people with temporary shelter. We have a writer’s group, as well as a dance group and choir for children in a school district that struggles to fund the arts. We have a cooperative pre-school in our building. Our pastor, Drew Smith, runs a discussion group where people talk about race problems in a safe, respectful setting. We try to be accessible and very welcoming to the people who do walk through our doors.

During every worship service, we welcome visitors and invite them to a welcome table to talk after the service. After every service we offer to pray with people who need it. We have a good digital check-in system so people know their kids are safe, and greeters at each of our doors. We provide free snacks and drinks on Sunday morning, which draws people from group homes near the church, and some neignborhood kids who come without their parents. We’ve had to set some rules for the kids, (requiring them to attend Sunday School or services rather than just rattling around the building,) but always with love.

At one of our prayer meetings, we often pray that people will feel the love, peace and power of God as soon as they walk in. But we know that a lot of people are not going to walk in, until we go where they are, demonstrating God’s love, peace and power in how we relate to them.