One of my pet peeves with curricula for children’s programs is how teacher-directed most of the activities are. The leader is instructed to say this or that and then to ask questions with predetermined answers. There’s very little room for children to develop and share their own ideas.
Yet finding and using your own voice is a spiritual skill. People like Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Jane Addams, Nelson Mandela, César Chávez, and Ghandi all used their voices to speak up for social justice. When we encourage children to engage in thoughtful discussion of meaningful topics, we equip them with the tools they need to speak up.
With all the things we want to tell children, it can be hard to imagine how to make room for child-led conversations. Fortunately, elementary educators have developed something called the Grand Conversation Model that translates well to spiritual nurture settings. It invites children to engage in active listening, discussion, and questioning, with an adult leader coaching the process as needed.
The model begins with children taking notes while listening to a story, watching a video, or researching a topic independently. As teachers, we shape this aspect of the process through our careful selection of materials. For example, we might read aloud a spiritual story, show a video about an ethical issue, or direct children to certain websites to explore a spiritual topic.
We also provide good note-taking instructions. This includes demonstrating ways to indicate when information is factual (e.g., descriptive, evidence-based data) and when it is interpretive (draws conclusions based on or in spite of factual data). Children might divide their notes into two columns or use highlighters to color-code different kinds of information. Younger children might dictate their notes to an adult scribe, who collects them on a newsprint chart using different colored markers.
Once children have prepared their notes, they need some time to review and reflect. Ask children to take five minutes to think about what they’ve noted. Provide a few general reflection prompts, such as What do you notice about the information you’ve gathered? How do you feel as you think about what you’ve heard/seen? What questions do you still have about this story/topic?
The next step is to invite two or more children to engage in a conversation about the story or topic while the rest of the group listens attentively. Place the ‘first responders’ in the center of the group with other children gathered round. Suggest that one child open the conversation with an idea or opinion about the story/topic, and then the others in the center build on that comment or offer a different view. If the conversation stalls, coach them to consult their notes for another interpretation or idea to get the ball rolling again.
Encourage those who are listening to pay attention to diverse perspectives and what they think and feel as they hear them. After 10-15 minutes of conversation, invite them to summarize what they have heard and pose questions to the speakers. Suggest that listeners use their comments to underline points they feel are important and identify unanswered questions that they want the group to continue exploring.
End the conversation with appreciation for both speakers and listeners. Next time, tap different children to act as ‘first responders’.