by Brian Kirk
A friend from my seminary days recently contacted me to ask if I had any suggestions on ways to engage students in discussion so they wouldn’t get bored. A tall order, as the last thing most teenagers want out of youth group is to feel like they are at school. And nothing is worse for the discussion leader than to be met with a long, unending silence each time you ask a question. Below are the top ten ways I’ve used in the past to help teens get beyond the awkwardness of sharing their thoughts in front of a group of people.
A non-threatening way to get young people thinking without the fear of saying something “stupid” is to indicate an imaginary line down the middle of the room. One end represents “strongly agree,” the other “strongly disagree,” and every gradation of opinion falls in between. Start by making a statement related to your discussion topic such as, “It’s okay to be dishonest to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.” Teens then place themselves anywhere along the line that indicates how they feel about the statement. Optionally, you can ask some people to explain why they placed themselves where they did on the line. This is a low-stress way to get kids thinking, and for everyone to see where other group members stand on the topic.
Write up some very brief (paragraph length) hypothetical situations that relate to your discussion and invite small groups to discuss their reactions.
Tape sheets of paper around the room, each with different questions on them. Invite the students to stand in small groups at each sheet and write or draw their responses. When you say,”Next!” they move to the next sheet and respond there, also taking time to see what other groups have written.
Put kids in a circle and take turns pulling questions related to your topic out of a hat. Then pass the question around the circle and ask the group to either pass their turn or respond. I usually don’t allow any feedback on any one’s responses until everyone has had a chance to share.
Hold a mock election with a ballot covering the issues you want to discuss (e.g., pre-marital sex vs. waiting until marriage). Ask students to fill out the ballot at the beginning of your meeting. Divide your group into those who are pro/con on the issues. Give them a few minutes to develop their arguments and then hold a debate. During the debate, have someone tabulate the votes. After the debate, either reveal the results of the vote, giving them a chance to vote again and see if you get different results now that they are (hopefully) more informed; or simply ask for a show of hands of those who have altered their opinions since the beginning of the debate.
Before discussing a particular issue, invite small groups to brainstorm how they might illustrate the topic graphically. Invite the groups to create a poster that promotes their ideas and questions, and then share the posters with the whole group.
Many people, particularly introverts, are uncomfortable sharing their thoughts “off the cuff.” Some of them are more likely to respond, though, if given time to think through their answers first. When posing a question to the group, invite students to turn to the person next to them and share their thoughts. This gives each person some time to “rehearse” a possible answer without the stress of sharing it in front of the whole group. After a couple of minutes, call the group back together and invite those who are willing to share their answers or share something thoughtful that their partners offered.
If your students are uncomfortable or shy about sharing their own thoughts, ask them to share the thoughts of someone else through role playing. Create a “persona” for each participant and provide them with a written description (e.g. “Cory is 18 years old and works for his dad. He has no plan to go to college when he graduates high school, so he doesn’t see anything wrong with cheating on tests in order to pass his senior year.”) As you discuss the topic, invite students to respond as their characters might.
Sometimes the challenge to getting teenagers talking is that some talk too much and some talk too little. To try to break that pattern by providing everyone with the same number of tokens—poker chips work well, as do playing cards, coins, etc. Each time a person speaks during the discussion, he or she must toss a token in the middle of the circle. Once the tokens are gone, that person becomes a “listener” while waiting for everyone else to use up their tokens. The tokens are only redistributed after all have used up their turns to speak.
Brian Kirk is an ordained pastor in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He currently serves an inner-city church in St. Louis and is an adjunct faculty member at Eden Theological Seminary. He has served in congregational youth ministry and in outdoors ministry with youth for over twenty years. Brian has contributed numerous articles to CYMT’s resources, and he also writes a twice-monthly column on youth ministry for the interfaith website Patheos. This article was originally posted on Brian’s website Rethinking Youth Ministry and is reprinted here with permission.