October 2010

What makes a discussion group effective

About a month ago during our Bible study time, Michael said that kindness was making sure that no one had to sit alone.  This is a message that the church needs to hear and embrace.  Without the opportunity of the discussion group, no one would have known that our Michael had such wisdom.  The disadvantages of discussion groups are many.  But most of those problems stem from the leadership.  I’ve become convinced that under the right conditions and with firm, prepared and focused leadership, a discussion group can be a most effective learning environment.

I especially enjoy discussion groups with persons who are mentally challenged.  There are several reasons.

  1. People who are developmentally disabled are often ignored.  They may not be allowed to give their opinions or express their values.  Discussion groups give them the opportunity to tell what they are thinking about a specific subject and explore new ideas.
  2. There is a great deal of untapped wisdom in the hearts of many people with disabilities.  Through well-organized discussion groups this wisdom can be tapped for the benefit of the Kingdom of God. 
  3. People with disabilities should be given the opportunity to relate the scriptures to their individual needs and situation.  Discussion groups give them that opportunity.
  4. Discussion groups teach the more verbal members of your class the etiquette rules for polite conversation.  They must wait their turn.  They must not be allowed to answer all the questions.  Others must be allowed to speak and express their opinion.

The purpose of the discussion group should be to give the people in the class the opportunity to share what they have learned during the lesson.  Therefore, the understanding of the class is deepened by the input of many, rather than the input of one person or a few people.  Nevertheless, there must be a starting point.  There should be a time of teaching that becomes the launching pad for discussion. 

Using a somewhat modified Montessori method of teaching.  I tell the Bible story for the week two times.  Then I ask the class to retell the story but I have them do it backwards.  I do this by asking questions about the lesson.  This helps to prime their thinking pumps.  The Bible teaching time takes about a fourth to a half of the half hour class time.

After that teaching time, we begin to apply the teaching to their lives.  There are several techniques that I’ve found which enhance the discussion of a class. 

  1. Start with a concrete question.  “How can you show kindness to another person?”
  2. Expect a concrete answer.  “Love each other” is not a concrete answer.  Yet, I will write it down and then say, “Tell me some things you can do to love each other.  That will show kindness.” 
  3. Allow the people in the class to answer.  Don’t give an answer yourself.  Wait for someone to respond.  Wait.  Wait.  Wait.  Someone will speak up if you don’t.
  4. In a class of people who are mentally challenged the first few weeks or months of the class, you may have to ask an individual to answer the question. 
  5. If I succeed in getting Terri to give a concrete answer, I may erase the nebulous answer she gave earlier and put up the concrete one.  However, I only erase the vague answer if the concrete answer came from Terri.   
  6. I avoid saying that any answer is wrong, especially if I have asked for “their opinion.”  An opinion cannot be wrong.
  7. Giving each person material they can look at and refer to helps keep the class focused.  We use LifeWay Access Material.  It is specifically designed for use within a class for persons who are intellectually disabled. 
  8. Writing their thoughts on the board makes their ideas more valuable.  Each suggestion is written down. 
  9. If the idea is off the subject, I write it down and remind the class of our objective.
  10. Because people who are mentally challenged also have axes they want to sharpen, I remind the axe grinding people what our question is before they can answer.  No matter what the discussion or question, for years, my friend, Michael, would give a prayer request, “Pray for my grandmother.”  His grandmother has been dead for at least 20 years.  Tom is a bully but he attempts to cover his bullying with a pitiful attitude that everyone is picking on him.  “Make Marie stop hurting my feelings,” will be Tom’s way of showing kindness.   Before Michael or Tom speak, I remind them of the question.  At times, it even works.
  11. If an answer that is on the board is repeated, I underline the answer.  In this way, the person’s thoughts are acknowledged but the board isn’t being filled up with the same answer.
  12. Allow and expect every single person to answer at least one of your questions.
  13. For non-verbal members, you may need to phase a question especially for them.  “Tony, can you show kindness by opening the car door for your mother?”  Wait until he is able to process the question.  You might even give him positive, physical cues by shaking your head as you ask the question.  After a time, you will find that Tony will be anxious to respond and won’t need as much help giving you an answer. 
  14. The important thing is to expect Tony to give an answer.  Do not–under any circumstances–skip over Tony or ignore him.  Writing his answer on the board is vital.

Your class will be greatly enhanced and the lives of the class will be enriched by allowing and encouraging discussion.  However, sloppiness should never be allowed, especially from the discussion leader (even if the discussion leader is me or you).

Why Discussion Groups are Typically Ineffective

Perhaps one of the hardest teaching tools within our equipment belt for a class of people who are mentally challenged is the discussion group.  No matter what the cognitive level or achievement level of a class, I am biased against discussions as a typical teaching method for several reasons.

  1. Without effective and strong leadership, you never know where the discussion will lead you.  Almost without exception, you begin at the cross and end up in hell.
  2. Most leaders who desire to incorporate discussions are not willing to put into the meeting the effort that is demanded to make it effective. 
  3. Discussion groups are too often seen by the leader as a super-easy, slick way to waste an hour or two.
  4. There are always one or two people who are allowed to monopolize the discussion time.  These people spout their opinions week after week. 
  5. There is always someone who has an axe to sharpen.  No matter what the topic, this person takes the discussion into areas that are either ineffective or–worse–inappropriate.

While this isn’t often taught or even whispered, weak leadership in a discussion group spells d-i-s-a-s-t-e-r.  Unfortunately, it is often the weaker leaders who feel the need to hold discussion groups.  Perhaps it is a practical application of the physics law that dictates that  water always seeks the lowest level.  

The strength of the leader does not mean dictatorship but a true leader encapsulates the ability to inspire people to follow where you are going.  Jesus taught that we are sheep.  One sheep farmer told me, “This was not a compliment.”  Sheep are the ultimate herding animal and probably the first animal to be domesticated.  They will follow anything that seems to know where it is going–even over a cliff.  Sheep aren’t particularly concerned about their leader.  They will simply follow the first sheep that moves.

Therefore, the shepherd must be a strong leader of a flock of sheep.   If that leadership strength is not consistent and firm, the sheep will begin to follow other sheep into disaster.  The same is particularly true when it comes to leading a discussion group.

I’ve only been in one teaching session that showed you how to lead a discussion group and this teaching did not even touch preparation.  Nevertheless,  leading a discussion group takes a great deal of preparation.

  • First, you must decide what is your goal in this discussion group. 
  • Second,  you should decide what your question (or questions) will be. 
  • Third, you must decide on the parameters of your discussion.  This third step may be the most crucial part of your discussion preparation. 
  • Fourth, I suggest that you put on paper (or as part of your PowerPoint presentation) these concrete parameters so the group understands where they are going and why they are going there. 
  • Fifth, use visual cues that keep your discussion participants on track.  At Special Gathering of Indian River, we are still pretty low tech in our groups.  I put the discussion topical on a blackboard. 
  • Sixth, be prepared to continually refer to the topic.  After each answer is given, I refer back to the discussion topic. I point to the topic as well as repeat the topic.  This means that you must have your discussion goals firmly fixed in your mind and spirit.

After attending a myriad of conferences, I’ve learned why people repeatedly skip sessions.  I love one pastor who is a renowned expert in the field of specialized ministries.  However, I dread ever attending another one of his conference workshops.  He always uses what I’ve labeled, “The I-Didn’t-Get-Paid-Enough-To-Do-Any-Real-Work-For-This-Session Technique.”  He begins each session by asking every person to give his/her name, her ministry and something about himself.  The answers are usually longer than they should be because somewhere down the line one or two people get off track and everyone begins to give their testimony.  This takes 15 to 37 minutes depending on the number of people in his class.

Next, he asks, “Why are you attending this class? What do you want to learn?”  He tells us,  “My reason for this question is to find out what you want to hear from me during this session.”  This is an excellent stalling tactic for two reason.  First, it says to the audience, I know everything about this subject; and I can answer any question you throw at me.  I am the leading expert on this topic, and you can’t stump this chump.  Second, it takes at least 43 more minutes. 

Depending on the amount of time he has been allotted, he has used up most of the workshop time allowance and he hasn’t had to do one thing.  Everyone is feeling good about themselves by this time.  Only a few people have realized that absolutely nothing has been accomplished.

The last question of his workshop  is “What would you like to share about the things you’ve heard?  I know that you have lots of answers to the problems that have been presented to us today.”  Brilliant time waster.  By the time SusieMae Brownbag and Dudley Smithstone finish their argument about the fine minuta of inclusion and entitlement, all the time has elapsed and people file out of the workshop dazzled by what they didn’t learn.  My colleague walks away.  No prep.  No answers.  No sweat.  Lousy discussion.

The Wordy Wonder (WW) and the Axe Sharpener (AS) are people who must be tactfully and politely deterred from monopolizing the discussion.  They are your best friend and your greatest enemy.  They will start the discussions and keep them going but they cannot be allowed to take over.  Only a person who exerts strong leadership skills can help them overcome their weakness of becoming the only person who can enter into the discussion.

There is much more.  Guess I’ve proven myself to be WW and AS but more is coming.  In the meantime, do you agree?  What are some other reasons why discussions can be a disaster.  We will deal with the benefits, especially for our population, in later posts.

I would have never thought of having a choir retreat.  However, about five years ago, our executive director and the choir director for our Brevard programs felt that there was a need for the choirs to come together for teaching and to learn new music.  It was a great success and made a dynamic impact on the two choirs that I direct.  For the next two years, we coupled our retreat with our teacher/volunteer retreat.  We held the choir event on Thursday and Friday morning and teachers’ retreat on Friday evening and Saturday. 

As the summer approached the next year, we realized that we could no longer afford to pay the expenses of a choir retreat because of rising prices of hotels and meals.   We felt that our choir gives all year; and they should not have to pay for anything.  Sadly, we announced to the choir that we would no longer have our annual  retreat.  The members of our choir came to me and explained that they wanted to have a choir retreat and they would pay their own expenses. 

Last year, we coupled our retreat with a free Saturday excursion to one of Florida’s attractions, planned by the Brevard County Rec Department.  Our South Carolina choir has continued to attend.  This year, the South Carolina choir wanted to go to The Holy Land Experience in Orlando, which cost $35 entrance fee.   Our choirs voted to also pay to attend the park. 

The past two years, we have rehearsed our Christmas music.  Then the combined choirs have sung one of the songs they learned at a church on Sunday morning.  The schedule for the event has been wrapped around scriptural teaching regarding the importance of Praise and Worship and learning the new music.  This concentrated time of teaching has been extremely benefitial. 

The retreat choral practice schedule is deliberately planned.  Our schedule has been:


  1. Noon–Lunch at the retreat center/unpack luggage and equipment
  2.  1:30–Rehearsal
  3. 2:00–Devotions
  4. 2:10–Rehearsal
  5.  2:30–Refreshment Break
  6.  2:45–Rehearsal
  7. 3:15–Devotions
  8. 3:25–Rehearsal
  9. 3:45–Break and preparation for dinner
  10. 5:00–Dinner
  11. 6:30–Devotions
  12. 6:45–Rehearsal
  13. 7:30–Swimming and Fun time


  1. 6:30am–Rise and shine
  2. 7:00–Load luggage
  3. 8:00–Breakfast
  4. 9:oo–Rehearsal (This became an improptu mini-concert for the college students who attend the Bible college at the Retreat Center.)
  5. 9:30–Leave for Holy Land Experience

We tried to keep our rehearsals short, interspursed with breaks and devotions.  Using an education model, with short, intense choral teaching times, people learn more quickly and easily.  By the end of these concentrated rehearsals, it is amazing how much the choirs absorb and learn. 

The choir retreat combines many educational elements which boast the choir members’ ability to learn.  This continues to be an education and inspiration event that lasts during the entire year.  Here are several of the benefits that we have seen grow from this retreat.

  1. The choirs are rewarded for their hard work during the year.  Even though the choir members have offered to pay most of the expenses of the retreat  for the past two years, this experience has given them a sense of joy knowing that the Lord is pleased with their efforts.  This positive reinforcement encourages the choir all year long.
  2. The choir is taught scriptural benefits and importance of praising God.  They begin to understand that their effort have eternal consequences.
  3. The concentrated rehearsals enhance their ability to learn.
  4. Our schedule of alternating hard work of learning words and music with a relaxing break–singing, break–makes this learning experience fun and effective.
  5. We are able to teach them that even during the times that they are not standing in front of an audience, they are worship leaders.
  6. They are impressed with the importance of the ministry God has entrusted to them.

Working with a choir is one of the most beneficial things I do within Special Gathering.  In fact, over the years, I separated my choir times and counted them as part of my personal ministry rather than my ministry for which I am paid. 

What is something that you have learned that enhances your ability to teach your choirs?

Below is a copy of S. 2781, Rosa’s Law. Although this new law does not
change any services for person’s with disabilities, it still represents a
historic change for national disability policy.
From now on, the phrase “mental retardation” will no longer be a part
of any federal rule or law, whether it is related to education, health
or labor. It will be replaced with the phrase “intellectual disabilities” everywhere it currently appears.

Memo from The Family Cafe regarding passage of Rosa’s Law

We are contacting you today to let you know that President Obama has
signed S. 2781, Rosa’s Law. Although this new law does not change any
services for person’s with disabilities, it still represents a
historic change for national disability policy.
From now on, the phrase “mental retardation” will no longer be a part
of any federal rule or law, whether it is related to education, health
or labor. It will be replaced with the phrase “intellectual
disabilities” everywhere it currently appears.
This bill was originally introduced by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD).
She named the bill “Rosa’s Law” after a young woman in her state that
successfully advocated for the elimination of the phrase “mentally
retarded” in Maryland state law.
You can read the full text of this new law at the Library of Congress
website. <http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c111:S.2781:>
(The final version is the last one listed.) There is also a statement
on Senator Mikulski’s web site here
This is an important milestone on the road to inclusion and acceptance
for Americans with disabilities. Please join us in celebrating this
moment, and feel free to share this message with others in your
The Family Cafe
S. 2781

One Hundred Eleventh Congress

of the

United States of America


Begun and held at the City of Washington on Tuesday,

the fifth day of January, two thousand and ten

An Act

To change references in Federal law to mental retardation to references to an

intellectual disability, and change references to a mentally retarded individual

to references to an individual with an intellectual disability.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of

the United States of America in Congress assembled,


This Act may be cited as ‘‘Rosa’s Law’’.


(a) H









‘‘The Director of the Institute shall conduct and support

research and related activities into the causes, prevention, and

treatment of intellectual disabilities.’’.

(4) Section 641(a) of such Act (42 U.S.C. 291k(a)) is

amended by striking ‘‘matters relating to the mentally retarded’’

and inserting ‘‘matters relating to individuals with intellectual


(5) Section 753(b)(2)(E) of such Act (42 U.S.C. 294c(b)(2)(E))

is amended by striking ‘‘elderly mentally retarded individuals’’

and inserting ‘‘elderly individuals with intellectual disabilities’’.

(6) Section 1252(f)(3)(E) of such Act (42 U.S.C. 300d–

52(f)(3)(E)) is amended by striking ‘‘mental retardation/developmental

disorders,’’ and inserting ‘‘intellectual disabilities or

developmental disorders,’’.

(g) H


1998.—Section 419(b)(1) of the Health Professions Education Partnerships

Act of 1998 (42 U.S.C. 280f note) is amended by striking

‘‘mental retardation’’ and inserting ‘‘intellectual disabilities’’.

(h) P









For purposes of regulations issued to carry out a provision

amended by this Act—

(1) before the regulations are amended to carry out this


(A) a reference in the regulations to mental retardation

shall be considered to be a reference to an intellectual

disability; and

(B) a reference in the regulations to the mentally

retarded, or individuals who are mentally retarded, shall

be considered to be a reference to individuals with intellectual

disabilities; and

(2) in amending the regulations to carry out this Act,

a Federal agency shall ensure that the regulations clearly


(A) that an intellectual disability was formerly termed

mental retardation; and

(B) that individuals with intellectual disabilities were

formerly termed individuals who are mentally retarded.


This Act shall be construed to make amendments to provisions

of Federal law to substitute the term ‘‘an intellectual disability’’

for ‘‘mental retardation’’, and ‘‘individuals with intellectual disabilities’’

for ‘‘the mentally retarded’’ or ‘‘individuals who are mentally

retarded’’, without any intent to—

(1) change the coverage, eligibility, rights, responsibilities,

or definitions referred to in the amended provisions; or

(2) compel States to change terminology in State laws

for individuals covered by a provision amended by this Act.

Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Vice President of the United States and

President of the Senate.

.—For purposes of each provision amended by 

this section—

(1) a reference to ‘‘an intellectual disability’’ shall mean

a condition previously referred to as ‘‘mental retardation’’, or

a variation of this term, and shall have the same meaning

with respect to programs, or qualifications for programs, for

individuals with such a condition; and

(2) a reference to individuals with intellectual disabilities

shall mean individuals who were previously referred to as

individuals who are ‘‘individuals with mental retardation’’ or

‘‘the mentally retarded’’, or variations of those terms.

S. 2781—3


Section 2(2) of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of

2008 (42 U.S.C. 2000ff note) is amended by striking ‘‘mental

retardation,’’ and inserting ‘‘intellectual disabilities,’’.

(k) R

.—Section 402 of the National 

Sickle Cell Anemia, Cooley’s Anemia, Tay-Sachs, and Genetic Diseases

Act (42 U.S.C. 300b–1 note) is amended by striking ‘‘leading

to mental retardation’’ and inserting ‘‘leading to intellectual disabilities’’.

(j) G


110–154.—Section 1(a)(2)(B) of Public Law 

110–154 (42 U.S.C. 285g note) is amended by striking ‘‘mental

retardation’’ and inserting ‘‘intellectual disabilities’’.

(i) N



(1) Section 317C(a)(4)(B)(i) of the Public Health Service

Act (42 U.S.C. 247b–4(a)(4)(B)(i)) is amended by striking

‘‘mental retardation;’’ and inserting ‘‘intellectual disabilities;’’.

(2) Section 448 of such Act (42 U.S.C. 285g) is amended

by striking ‘‘mental retardation,’’ and inserting ‘‘intellectual


(3) Section 450 of such Act (42 U.S.C. 285g–2) is amended

to read as follows:

1976.—Section 1001 of the Health Research and Health Services 

S. 2781—2

Amendments of 1976 (42 U.S.C. 217a–1) is amended by striking

‘‘the Mental Retardation Facilities and Community Mental Health

Centers Construction Act of 1963,’’.

(f) P




(1) Section 7(21)(A)(iii) of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

(29 U.S.C. 705(21)(A)(iii)) is amended by striking ‘‘mental

retardation,’’ and inserting ‘‘intellectual disability,’’.

(2) Section 204(b)(2)(C)(vi) of such Act (29 U.S.C.

764(b)(2)(C)(vi)) is amended by striking ‘‘mental retardation

and other developmental disabilities’’ and inserting ‘‘intellectual

disabilities and other developmental disabilities’’.

(3) Section 501(a) of such Act (29 U.S.C. 791(a)) is amended,

in the third sentence, by striking ‘‘President’s Committees on

Employment of People With Disabilities and on Mental

Retardation’’ and inserting ‘‘President’s Disability Employment

Partnership Board and the President’s Committee for People

with Intellectual Disabilities’’.

(e) H


Section 7202(16)(E) of the Elementary and Secondary Education

Act of 1965 (20 U.S.C. 7512(16)(E)) is amended by striking ‘‘mild

mental retardation,’’ and inserting ‘‘mild intellectual disabilities,’’.

(d) R


(1) Section 601(c)(12)(C) of the Individuals with Disabilities

Education Act (20 U.S.C. 1400(c)(12)(C)) is amended by striking

‘‘having mental retardation’’ and inserting ‘‘having intellectual


(2) Section 602 of such Act (20 U.S.C. 1401) is amended—

(A) in paragraph (3)(A)(i), by striking ‘‘with mental

retardation’’ and inserting ‘‘with intellectual disabilities’’;


(B) in paragraph (30)(C), by striking ‘‘of mental

retardation’’ and inserting ‘‘of intellectual disabilities’’.

(c) E

1965.—Section 760(2)(A) of the 

Higher Education Act of 1965 (20 U.S.C. 1140(2)(A)) is amended

by striking ‘‘mental retardation or’’.

(b) I

Okay.  Again, I say, I’m not a techno person.  I try to keep learning but I can’t seem to keep up with onslaught of changes, tweaks and tweets.  Several months ago I linked into Facebook, thinking it would be simple enough for me to be able to navigate.  My purpose was to hopefully create a wider audience for this blog and to link with other people who are interested or involved in ministry within the mentally challenged community.  I also wanted to establish an additional connection with my children and grandchildren who were active on this social network. 

However, most of the people who have requested that I become their friend have been adults that I taught when they were teenagers.  It’s been a lovely bonus to see their families and become reacquinted with them.  Additionally, I’ve been able to reconnect with a group of friends that I lost contact with many years ago.

This past week, while my husband was in critical condition in the hospital because he broke his hip and leg, I posted that we were in the hospital.  Within moments, I found that people from all over the world were praying for him.  There were people all over the US, in China, Canada, Uruguay, Peru, Thailand and Mexico.  That encourage me to continue to post updates and pictures.  People would begin to reply within seconds that they were praying.  In the middle of the night, we would receive encouragement and messages of faith and hope.  I read each one to Frank.  He was so uplifted by the people who responded with love and care.

A good friend, Jan, told me the other day,  “I don’t ever post anything.  I just read the things that are posted on other people’s pages.  I feel as though I’m cheating.”  However, when I posted my daily updates on my husband’s condition, I was happy to know that Jan was keeping up with us and that she would be praying.  This is the value of a social network. 

My original intent has also been served.  There are ministry heads, special needs professionals and volunteers with whom I’m connected.  I’m especially thrilled that several of our Special Gathering members are regularly on Facebook.  It’s fun to be in contact with them on a daily basis.   

While this connection to the world of the Internet hasn’t worked exactly the way I envisioned, it is perhaps an additional way to help educate the outside society to the important subculture in which we minister.  And even more important when there is a push or crisis and your time is limited, a social network takes minutes to muster worldwide prayer support.

More than once this week, I’ve told the Lord, “Praise God for text messages and thank you, Lord, for Facebook.”  Additionally, thanks to so many people who prayed and took the time to give us a message, a prayer or a word of encouragement.

As many of you know, my husband, Frank, fell a week ago and broke his hip and leg.  He has been in the hospital since that time; and he may be transferred to a rehab hospital today.  However, the situation is fluid because of his health risks and because of other hospital related issues.

I have seen that if your child or loved one is in the hospital, it is essential for someone to be at the hospital at all times to serve as her health-care advocate.  Even though my husband is not mentally challenged, his vascular dementia demands that he have another person stay by his side to ensure that he receives the proper treatment.

As ministers within the mentally challenged community, you may need to help give parents or caregivers permission to stay at the hospital, if they feel it is necessary.  In the past, I’ve been all-but pushed from the hospital by the health-care professionals.  This hospital stay has been different.  We are in a private room and the staff has been more than accommodating to my need to stay and help with medical decisions. 

However, each new nurse must be educated to the fact that I’ve been his healthcare-giver for more than 10 years.  This entitles me to health information that they may not know, even though their have a better medical education and years in the field.  My sister who has been with us in the hospital for the past four days said, “It has to be frustrating to be you.  Each new shift brings a new nurse and a new CNA.  Several times a day, you need to educate them to the fact that you must be the one who is making the health-care decisions.”

While I know that my frustration is real, I question if it is justified.  Her assurance helped me.  In the same way, we can help family members and spouses to be bold in their advocacy for their loved ones.

As a counter point, many older parents are not able to be in the hospital or become the advocates for their children as they once were.  In this case, they must also be given permission to release their children into the hands of a loving God who help the needy and undertake for the weak.

It is never our position to make decisions.  However, giving permission helps to make advocates strong in their battle.  Nevertheless, it also allows those who are not able to be an advocate to release and be secure in that decision.

« Previous Page