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“May I ask you a question?”

I work with new kids all of the time. And by ‘new’ and I don’t mean ‘the opposite of old’. Obviously, by definition, all kids would be ‘new’ by virtue of being ‘young’. I guess I mean I work with different kids all the time. Ok, by ‘different’ I do not mean kids that have 3 arms or plaid hair. What I am trying to say is that I travel a lot, and work with different groups of kids. There. That didn’t take long to say at all. I guess I write like I talk. The way I talk in my sleep, that is!

So, in my travels I have had the opportunity to work with new audiences of kids quite regularly. One thing I constantly am learning is how to ask questions.

If you are asking yourself ‘How do I ask questions?’, then you are a very redundant person. Perhaps you should work for the Department of Redundancy Department.

Here is my scoop. When I am trying to keep a crowd attentive, I may ask a question. The kids tend to listen a little differently if there is some interaction. But this may be to a fault. Too MUCH interaction and the children can take over. We all know what that is like. Kids in large numbers are as hard to manage as adults. Ha! Did you see that? I just underestimated in that last sentence. No, truth be told, a difficult to manage kid is equal to seventeen difficult to manage adults and four hungry golden retrievers greeting you when you come home from work.

Questions, in my experience, can be tossed out carelessly when teaching. The kids can get in “answer mode” where every rhetorical question causes the kids to break into Tasmanian devil-esque discussion groups.

Asking a question triggers a “my turn” thought process in the kids. And that is a VERY good thing. But it has to be done purposely. If any of you are like me (ha!) you often get on a ‘roll’ and get carried away.

I find that I have made it to a point in my presentation style that I can control the behavior of any group. I can set the boundaries and, generally speaking, the audience will behave how I let them behave. If I am tired I may allow them less lenience so I don’t have to work as hard. If I feel energetic I tend to let them go a bit, knowing that my energy is greater than theirs and I can reign them in later if I loosen the ropes too much. This being said, there is no easier way to loose the ropes too much than to set-up a situation where it is OK to answer questions out loud. Especially if you are prone to wording sentences into questions in a rhetorical manner.

As a performer, I rarely enjoy having to call on someone to answer a question. If I ask a question that isn’t person specific like “what is your Mom’s name?” I would rather a few kids just yell it out. Because of my style, it keeps the pace going. If I want them to really think hard about a question, then yes, I will demand a raised arm. Overall though, I don’t like to wait and mostly it is because I am slow at choosing a kid to listen to. That, and if they are under 5 years old there is a really good chance that an raised arm only means “I want you to talk to me, I have no idea what question you actually asked or what to say at all.”

Example:

ME: “What is your favorite color?”
4 yr old: (Tiny arm shoots up.)
ME: “Yes?”
4 yr old: “Ummmm, ummm, ummm, ummmmmm … …”
ME: “is it red? Blue? Orange? High Colonic Green?”
Children’s Pastor: (snort)
4 yr old: “ummmmmm, ummmmmmmm uh-huh”
ME: “Green? Ok. That didn’t take long. I think I need to shave again.”

To this end, I like to ask questions, but I have to expect discussion or noise each time I do. So, I have been very careful and evaluate my own speech. My first inclination is to say “Do you know what God did next?” But that would be silly. I don’t care if they know in THAT situation, I am the one teaching what God did next and I don’t need an answer. But some strange ‘after school special’ nature in me causes me to ask when I really ain’t askin’! I should just say “And here is what God did next.” When you ask, you get “yeah!” and “he ate cereal!” and “Can I go potty?” and none of those answers help you teach. The story isn’t crystallized into perfect understanding just because you have throw-away ‘give and take’ spattered throughout the story. But we all know that the slightest question does get an answer from many audiences.

What I am trying to say with as many words as possible is: Examine your speech. Mean everything you say, and everything you ask. One reason Jr. High teachers get blank looks when they expect an answer from their students is because I used to teach those same students. I steamrolled over their answers to my questions,. I carelessly never required answers because I didn’t MEAN to ask them. Should you ask rhetorical questions and answer them in the next sentence? Teachers shouldn’t ask questions they don’t expect answers to. This is a silly pattern of behavior that has no function. It’s really just a neurotic way of speaking. (For me.) If it isn’t intentional, don’t do it. If you ask a question, wait for an answer and then move on. Otherwise, examine if it really should be phrased as a question.

As a side note, I have noticed that sometimes I say, “Now I don’t need you to answer this question,” during some of my object lessons. I am so used to teaching it a certain way, that instead of adjusting my memorized speech, I simply tell them how to respond before I start it. I’m either clever or lazy, but at least I am aware.

I have more control over the audience and I think they learn more when I only ask very specific and pre-planned questions. When I don’t, things get sloppy and tiresome and I tend to lose control of the audience.

Finally, I was hired to work at some churches in Hawaii last year. (I know, I know.)

I casually remarked in the form of a question “How DO you get to heaven?” And the loudest voice ever replied: “You die!” Good answer. Very good. That one’s going in my comedy journal. (And no, it wasn’t a heckle, it would have had a comma in it if it was merely a heckle.)

Darren Collins is such a classy performer/author/comedian that he named his book Throwing Up…Gracefully .

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