I've heard it's not how you start that counts, but how you end up. However, for an effective Sunday school class, both starting and finishing successfully are vitally important. I use a four-step process each week that serves as a guide from start to finish. These steps provide structure and allow flexibility and interaction for the teacher and the student.
For young children, having a hands-on activity like Play-Doh available is a great way to offer structure from the start. For older students, an organized group activity might be in order, such as having them work in pairs on a class-related word search or crossword puzzle. This opening activity enables students to begin class with purpose and peaks their interest in the lesson.
I like to get right into the lesson while student interest is high. I usually pray between the opening activity and teaching time. I find that as I pray, my students are quieted and the transition between the opening activity and class instruction is smooth.
Starting the teaching time with a question really gets my students mentally involved. Instead of telling about Jesus' first miracle at the wedding in Cana, I might begin by asking which students have attended a wedding. Questioning is an excellent tool that will engage the minds and hearts of students. I like to use questioning throughout the lesson to maintain involvement.
I never want to embarrass my students by catching them off guard, so I refrain from calling on individuals. Instead, I ask the question to the group and wait for volunteers. At times I interject a question and move on quickly without giving time for a response. Student focus is regained and the listeners continue to follow me as I dialogue throughout the lesson.
To maximize student interest, lesson time must be age-appropriate. Studies say that a person's attention span mirrors his age. For example, an eight-year-old will have an approximate attention span of eight minutes. So, if I am teaching a group of eight-year-olds, I should vary the activities about every eight minutes. If you are teaching younger children, more than one activity may be needed at each stage of class time.
Follow-up activities should complement and reinforce the teaching time. You may choose a hands-on activity or craft for elementary-aged students. For older students, you may have a time of discussion. My older students enjoy playing Pictionary or doing short skits or mimes. The activities that follow the lesson allow for individual participation. Moreover, individual involvement will help the students to process and internalize the material taught.
No matter the age of your student, he must know how today's lesson applies to his life. You may accomplish this by giving life examples or sharing a story that relates to the topic, or you may have them actually do what was taught. If the lesson was on prayer, the students could pray for an assigned missionary family throughout the coming week, or they could write down personal prayer requests and exchange them with group members to pray over in closing.
In preparing varied age-related activities and a topic that is relevant to my students, the key element for me is being proactive to plan early each week. As I begin planning early, the Holy Spirit often gives me creative thoughts and ideas not included in the curriculum. My enthusiasm for the subject builds as I mull it over in my mind all week.
I like to begin on Monday or Tuesday by reading the lesson. I usually spend 5 to 10 minutes getting next Sunday's lesson in my mind. On Wednesday, I read the Scripture references for Sunday, usually another 5 to 10 minutes. On Thursday, I make sure I have all the hands-on materials or copies needed for student activities, or the games ready. By Friday, everything is set to go and I can review, pray, and commit my work to the Lord.