Why We Doze in Sunday School

Here are a few recent comments about teaching in the Church:

Jim F.: “As you can see, I’m skeptical about Church teaching in general. I hope to see things otherwise, and it seems to me that the Church is interested in making them otherwise, but we’ve got a ways to go.”

Gordon Smith: “I am very frustrated by the teaching that goes on in the Church. . . . I remember Dallin Oaks talking about the poor teaching in the Church, but I do not remember a very coherent vision of where we need to go. In any event, if my experience is generalizable, the lesson didn’t take.”

Yes, a few years ago there did seem to be a big push on the general level to improve the quality of teaching. I remember realizing that they were serious when Elder Oaks mentioned in one of his talks that he had been making unannounced visits to various wards to observe teaching. (He neglected to mention whether the Church was covering medical expenses for people who had massive coronary events when Elder Oaks walked into their classrooms to observe them.) I think the placement of the Ward Teacher Improvement Coordinator on the Ward Council may also have been part of this effort; I am not sure what last year’s removal of the TIC from the council signifies.

I have been thinking a lot about teaching and improving teaching over the last few years. Currently, I am a ward Teacher Improvement Coord. (I also teach GD and Institute). I generally feel stumped on the topic, however. Here are a few of my observations:

(1) The people who least need teacher improvement are the most likely to come to the meetings.

(2) The constant shuffling of callings limits what teacher improvement can accomplish.

(3) Old habits die hard.

(4) No one likes change. (You should have seen the vitriolic email I sent my husband earlier this week when he changed our desktop background without prior consent.)

(5) Church manuals may be part of the problem, esp. the PH/RS ones. If anyone knows how to teach an excellent lesson from them, I would like to hear it. (I generally see one of two things: either read a paragraph and ask a question, repeat, repeat, repeat, or take the topic from the manual and ignore the text itself.)

(6) Our overall approach to studying the scriptures (which I think can be best described as: isolate keyword of topic of passage and then discuss topic with minimal reference to text) instead of what may be more beneficial: the close reading and attention to detail that we see demonstrated so ably by Jim in his SS lesson posts here and his book, Scripture Study: Tools and Suggestions.

(7) We have no tradition of constructive criticism. You would think that part of my job as TIC would be to visit teachers and then share with them my assessment of their strengths and possible areas for improvement. It isn’t. I help only if they come to me. And, see (1) above, the ones that come to me are the least in need of help. Most people would drop dead if someone said anything negative about their teaching; I think it would be nice if we could offer not-positive feedback to each other, gracefully receive it, and put it to good use.

(8) Every class, it seems, has people who are Just Starting Out (new converts, young people, etc.) and others who Know It All (former seminary teachers, etc.). Teaching to two extremes is never easy.

(9) I think one of the biggest discussion killers is asking questions that everyone already knows the answer to. I think teachers persist with this approach out of fear of ‘opening the floor’ to new ideas.

I mention these negatives not to dwell on negativity, but as a starting point for a discussion of how we can encourage change from our current vantage points (in other words, no speculating on what you would do if you were on a curriculum writing committee, just thinking about what you can do in your current position). My contribution:

(1) The best lesson that I have taken from the Teaching, No Greater Call book is that the students bear part of the responsibility for the quality of the lesson. I decided that I was a slacker for zoning out of boring lessons and that I have an obligation to look for openings to make comments that will contribute in a positive way to the lesson.

(2) I also decided that I, as a student, was being less-than-productive if dwelling on ‘man-this-is-lame’ thoughts during a lesson or talk. I made a deliberate decision that I would (1) try to determine exactly why it was lame and (2) think about what I could do to be sure that I didn’t make the same mistake when I taught.

I’m interested in your thoughts on what we can do to improve the quality of teaching in the Church.

38 comments for “Why We Doze in Sunday School

  1. Kristine
    March 25, 2004 at 8:52 pm


  2. Kristine
    March 25, 2004 at 8:57 pm

    sorry, julie–the link was broken and for some reason a comment fixes it

    as you were, folks

  3. Julie in Austin
    March 25, 2004 at 9:25 pm

    Good thing you clarified–I was marinating over what I assumed to be your utter pessimism regarding teacher improvement.

  4. March 25, 2004 at 9:54 pm

    I’m going to play the cynic and express my skepticism that teaching in the Church will ever significantly improve. Now before Kristine boos me out of the room, let me state my reason for thinking this. The Church is a church of amateurs. We are not a Church of professional organizers, teachers, etc. We rely on lay members who have little or no experience with the duties required for their callings to get the job done. It works remarkably well if you think about it. We are well-organized and our lessons are effective (much of the time) at bringing in the Spirit and strengthening testimonies. BUT, some things suffer. Although we are very good at bearing testimony and sharing experiences (which tend to bring in the Spirit) we are not so good at using analogies or organizing lessons in such a way so as to challenge members to think carefully, even critically, about things. Those are the tools of professional teachers, which most of us are not.

    We could go the route of professionalization of teaching. Either we could get CES teachers to teach all Sunday School lessons or we could designate a group of teachers in the ward to go through extensive CES training. (I’m making the highly speculative assumption that CES teachers have some skill even though I know some of us are critical of their methods.) This would do more to encourage better teaching, but it would also be costly. There would be huge sunk costs. Once you invest so much time and resources in one person, they are pretty much obliged to teach, even if that person might better serve as a visiting teaching coordinator, scoutmaster, or something else. So that seems like a bad idea.

    Our system works if you consider that the most important objective of teaching is to help people have spiritual moments and not to provide professional-style lessons. Even in the worst organized lessons (and trust me, I’ve sat through many) I’ve been able to feel the Spirit. Sometimes we are touched by the most inadequate teachers because they have to put so much faith and diligence into their assignments. The system also works because it enriches the talents of everyone. The worst teachers get a little better and the good teachers get better too.

    Still, I have to agree that it would be great to get evaluative feedback from someone. We are told so often that we’re doing great in our callings that we’re not getting good feedback that would help us do even better. I taught for a while at the MTC when I was at BYU, and one thing I really loved about it was the experience of getting good feedback all the time regarding my teaching. If it works in the MTC why can’t it work in local stakes and wards?

  5. Adam Greenwood
    March 25, 2004 at 10:14 pm

    Brayden may be right that teaching in the Church is unlikely to improve. If so, the fault doesn’t lie entirely with the lack of improvement. It’s just that, like elsewhere in this earth life, people who have improved are tasked elsewhere, or die, and the novices have to pick up the pieces and start over again.

  6. Kristine
    March 25, 2004 at 10:21 pm

    Sorry again, “boo” was just the first thing that popped into my head, as in “boo! wake up,” not disapproval.

    Anyway, I think there’s another big problem with improving teaching, which is that people are comfortable with the catechistic mode–asking and answering the questions to which they know the answers. I got in trouble when I was teaching Gospel Doctrine because several people went to the bishop to complain that I asked questions to which I did not know the answers–that is, actual questions as opposed to the painful “guess-what-I’m-thinking” rhetorical exercises with which everyone is familiar. It works a little better if you ask those questions as a student in the class, but then an inexperienced teacher may be completely flummoxed by an unanticipated turn in the discussion. I think that the habits are so ingrained that people think scripture study is *supposed* to be boring and painful, and they become uneasy if it’s actually interesting at any point.

  7. March 25, 2004 at 10:35 pm

    The single biggest problem with teaching in the church — I think — is that Mormons do not read or discuss the scriptures carefully. The Sunday School classes have wonderful texts in the Standard Works, but rather than discussing the scriptures as texts we treat them as a collection of “quotes” or simply a topic announcement device.

    When I was in law school, I attended a Torah Study Group directed by a visiting (Jewish) Professor. We went through LEVITICUS (ya know the part of the Pentatuach we ALWAYS skip) and it was facinating. We spent the entire time asking very concrete questions about the text, rather than using the text as a mere sping board.

    Mormons haven’t yet figured out how to read scriptures.

  8. March 25, 2004 at 10:54 pm

    I think Nate’s right — we should take our texts more seriously — but where exactly is the forum for that in our church? We are opposed to having ‘beginner’ and ‘advanced’ classes, to avoid associating intellectualism with the Spirit. But at the same time, Julie’s point No. 8 sticks us: we have to have a ‘medium’ level lesson all the time, to cater to all.

  9. March 25, 2004 at 11:02 pm

    I think the biggest thing that can be done to improve the teaching in the Church is to improve the learning. I teach our High Priests Group from time to time and hardly anyone has ever read the lesson materials. It is even worse in Gospel Doctrine. If people did as Nate and Steve suggest, read our scriptures and take the texts more seriously, which includes preparing for Sunday School, then then teaching would improve dramatically.

  10. Erik
    March 25, 2004 at 11:32 pm

    I was in a sunday school presidency and taught the teacher improvement course. I struggled with one of our gospel doctrine teachers because of his propensity to teach a lot from Nibley and other very “intellectual” texts and deemphasize the scriptures and lesson plans given to us. According to him simply teaching about faith was boring. I thought he was arrogant. The best lessons and talks in general conference are often focused on very basic principles, but relate them well to our own behavior – stimulating us to change. That is the purpose of these lessons, and it requires no great mind. It does require deep reflection, preparation, and personal worthiness to effectively teach.

    I think the general handbook contains all of the necessary direction and vision to create effective teachers. I also believe, as was said above, that we need to be better learners. I think there are improvements to be made, and they should be made first in the ward sunday school presidencies. They could do a better job of training, especially if they periodically taught classes to provide good examples. Finally, I think that if there is any argument to be made about dropping sunday school it should be that three hours of church combined with meetings lasting another two to three hours may be too long.

  11. March 25, 2004 at 11:35 pm

    To the question …

    (5) Church manuals may be part of the problem, esp. the PH/RS ones. If anyone knows how to teach an excellent lesson from them, I would like to hear it. (I generally see one of two things: either read a paragraph and ask a question, repeat, repeat, repeat, or take the topic from the manual and ignore the text itself.)

    I teach, from time to time, directly from the manuals. (I’m a designated substitute, when/if the teacher doesn’t show up, after opening exercises are over, I teach the lesson).

    I get very positive feedback, though it may be that everyone just feels very supportive and loving (hey, we have an excellent ward).

    But I lead a discussion from the questions at the end of the lesson, after having spent a good deal of time and having actually read the lesson in advance.

    Obviously, some topics are easier for me to teach than others, I did a rather credible job on receiving comfort in the hour of death, and having buried three children, was seen as having an authentic voice. I’ve also given the topic a great deal of thought (along with its companion topic of why God doesn’t seem to make sense some times. I’ve seen real miracles. Why not when I really, really wanted them. Especially when Robin died.).

    But the key is being able to lead a discussion from the questions. Of course I’ve taught post graduate students as an adjunct and gotten extremely high student-teacher feedback, so I can teach well, but I work at leading a discussion from the questions and reprising the themes from the material in the book, helping people to reach the conclusions the text seems to draw (or at least helping them to talk about those implications even if they don’t reach the same conclusions).

    Yes, people need to read the materials. It would help if they had thought about the topic ahead of time and had a foundation to work from. But it also helps to take the lesson manuals seriously and work with them.

    I know, I know. Some years and some topics seem better than others. But heartfelt discussions on the themesm with some help finding the topics, and the people teach themselves.

    In Elders quorum, at least, I think a real problem is that people aren’t leading a discussion, but trying to teach from material that is aimed at creating a foundation for a discussion.

    For Sunday School, a lot of the problem is that people don’t trust the text enough. We have an excellent instructor in the Plano First Ward, but he has gotten much better as, over the years, he has learned to trust the text he is working with to support the lesson.

    My thoughts, late at night, when I’m in a rambling mood.

    But I think the essence of teaching, depending on the class, is trusting the text (for adults on the Standard Works), leading discussions (for the quorums and the younger kids classes) or following the teaching structure (especially for the primary). And yes, I’ve taught everything from nursery on up.

  12. March 25, 2004 at 11:47 pm

    There are a few very simple rules that teachers could follow that would really improve Gospel Doctrine classes. You know that basic rule about avoiding closed ended questions? Apparently, most of my teachers missed the teacher training on that one.

    Another pet peeve of mine is when a teacher will elicit ideas from the class on some issue, listen to a few responses, and then say something like, “Well, all of what you said is true, but….” I cringe.

  13. Julie in Austin
    March 25, 2004 at 11:54 pm


    I appreciate your comments and I am with you: I don’t think it is acceptable to agree to teach in a Church setting and then focus solely on intellectually stimulating stuff at the expense of faith-promotion (that’s what blogs are for).

    However, I would like to make a distinction that I think might be useful. I’ll use this week’s SS lesson as an example. A GD teacher has no right to spend 45 minutes talking about the neo-semi-pseudo-Ugaritic (or whatever Kristine called it) background of Jacob’s allegory. However, the teacher isn’t required, I think, to repeat the same discussion we’ve had about Jacob 5 every other time we talk about this text (What does X symbolize? What does Y symbolize? When will Y happen?) In other words, as long as the end result is reasonably expected to help develop and strengthen testimony, I think you can deviate from the General Mormon Catechism and ask questions that get people to think about the allegory in a new way. Because we almost always talk about Jacob 5 in terms of groups of people (Gentiles, Jews, etc.), I am going to take it from the perspective of the individual’s relationship with God (precedent is Elder Holland giving that as one of the possible readings of the allegory). In other words, How does God prune you? Why? Why is pruning a good metaphor for what God does? Anyone want to share an experience of being pruned and what you learned from it?

    All roads lead to Rome. We have worn a huge rut in the one marked ‘skim the passage and rehash the usual discussion.’

  14. March 26, 2004 at 12:07 am

    When we focus so much on the “form” of the scriptures to the detriment of their main message, we’re missing the forest for the trees. As interesting as all those things are, they really are things one ought to study *outside* of church. I think the primary goal with the scriptures ought to be “liken the scriptures.” I’m not opposed to focusing on details, so long as that focus is oriented towards some cry of repentance. i.e. to get the class to *change* their lives.

    Regarding the PH/RS lessons, I actually love the manuals. The problem is that the class is supposed to have read the readings *prior* to the lesson. Hardly anyone does which makes the lessons difficult at best. Further it seems like many wards have numerous teachers and don’t really focus on the lessons at all. (obvisouly that varies)

    I actually think that the teacher training class is a great idea, if you get your good teachers to teach it. If you do that and require your new teachers to have taken that class you’ve solved 90% of your problems (IMO).

    I think the problem is that in most wards Sunday School and other lessons are given a *very* low priority.

    I’m not saying I always do that good a job. But I think often it takes a teacher time to get into a vibe. But it is also the job of the Sunday School to get the class prepared. I truly think class preparation is as much a problem as anything.

  15. Erik
    March 26, 2004 at 12:16 am

    Julie –

    I agree with what you’ve said. I didn’t mean to imply that rehashing the usual was what he should have done. Looking at things in a different light (especially if appropriately credited to an apostle or founded on strong doctrine) is an excellent idea and will keep a few from sleeping. I think, though, that looking at things in a different light is effective because it increases our engagement in the discussion, which consequently helps us to internalize lessons and motivates us to change. New perspectives are great, but sooner or later you’re going to run out of them. Sometimes rehashing, with a large dose of penetrating questions that force people to think about their own lives, will achieve the same results as a new, fresh perspective.

    I guess in the end my point is that in preparing to teach you should keep the ultimate goal of “change” in mind, not entertainment or simply teaching facts with no real purpose.

  16. Kevin
    March 26, 2004 at 3:41 am

    Re: teacher development classes, it seems to me that their effectiveness is limited. I think that greatness in teaching is only about 10% technique, and the rest is not as transferable.

    Of the other 90%, I think 40% is brains — eloquence, lucid thinking, and a large store of knowledge from which to draw. The final 50% is character. Teachers who care about their students and embody the values they are trying to convey will touch hearts, even if their skills are lacking.

    My 2 cents.

  17. March 26, 2004 at 4:35 am

    Some people simply won’t be good teachers without a lot of practice. But teacher development can convince people to bring in personal experience, get discussions going, and teach them to teach by the spirit.

    I actually don’t think “brains” are necessary. I think anyone has something they can share and edify others with. If we are looking for a more academic oriented class, then yea, brains help. But as I said, I’m not at all convinced that is appropriate for church. I do it, but that’s because that part of who I am. I enjoy learning such things. But one of the best teachers I had talked about surfing and road trips to convey a point and never brought up such matters. It really is learning to convey part of you to your class.

  18. Grasshopper
    March 26, 2004 at 8:51 am

    A few practical items that could improve teaching in the Church:

    – Teaching begins at home. If families don’t learn together how to really study the scriptures (as opposed to just reading the words), very few will have a good foundation for being either a good teacher or a good student in our church classes. Having a good visiting teacher or home teacher share some simple but effective ideas for scripture study — and REGULARLY FOLLOWING UP with those they home teach would probably be a good way to help. A sacrament meeting focused on practical scripture study ideas would probably be a good idea, too.

    – Individual feedback. The Teacher Improvement Coordinator can sit in on classes and observe, then provide individual feedback. This can be a little tricky, because we tend to be averse to critiquing others’ performance in the church (at least to their faces). But a good TIC can provide specific suggestions AND FOLLOW UP with teachers to help them improve.

    – Preparing those who are called to teach. When issuing a calling to be a teacher, allow for the time needed to take the Teacher Development course prior to beginning instruction. Of course, this isn’t always possible, but where possible, it would be helpful.

    – Class size. Okay, so this one may not be quite as practical, due to constraints on the number of rooms available. But when you have a smaller class, it’s easier to encourage preparation on the part of the students and real discussion in the group. I’m currently attending the Gospel Principles class, with about a dozen attendees, and everybody gets involved in our discussions.

    – Seating/standing arrangements. Instead of sitting in traditional school/church mode (teacher up front, students all in rows), try putting chairs in a circle. If you can’t rearrange chairs, have the teacher move from the front to the back and through the aisles while teaching. It’s suprising how this can change the “feel” of a class and encourage discussion.

    – Teacher preparation. If teachers had to submit an outline of their lesson a week prior to teaching it, I think they would be better prepared for the lesson. I don’t think we can require this, but a Sunday School President could suggest that teachers have their lessons prepared a week in advance, and a Teacher Improvement Coordinator could occasionally ask a teacher to have a review of a lesson outline a week prior to the lesson.

    – Student preparation. There are a few ways to encourage student preparation. One is NOT TO READ THE TEXT as the lesson. Too often, when faced with an unprepared class, teachers resort to reading the text during the lesson. Instead, we should draw on the text as though the students were prepared. We should make sure the students know what next week’s text will be. Jim Faulconer’s practice of handing out an outline of the following week’s lesson questions encourages both teacher and student preparation. A few things could be said from the pulpit or by the Sunday School / Relief Society / Elder’s Quorum President at the beginning of classes occasionally.

    – Find your own scripture. We could suggest to the class that each person try to find one scripture directly related to the topic of next week’s lesson, but that is not listed in the study guide. Then, during next week’s lesson, we ask people to share what they’ve discovered.

  19. Adam Greenwood
    March 26, 2004 at 9:33 am

    The Priesthood/Relief Society manuals have always impressed me, but usually not in Church. Either teachers hardly refer to them or else they do but no one else has read and the discussion languishes. There’s no mutal understanding and resultant spiritual flow. One rural ward I was in just read the lessons out loud. It was surprisingly spiritual.

  20. March 26, 2004 at 9:52 am

    I regularly send a middle of the week teaser email to my ward telling them what passage to focus on in their reading for class. I also pose a question or two straight from my lesson to get them thinking about things. This approach has been very successful.

    I don’t think anyone has mentioned it yet, but for me the issue is always lack of time. It is hard to get into rabbinic mode in 35 minutes. How do you teach all of Romans in one lesson, for example? I usually choose one passage (sometimes only a few verses) to read closely and discuss rather than summarizing several chapters of text.

  21. Grasshopper
    March 26, 2004 at 10:17 am

    Good point, Melissa. Sometimes I will focus on one short passage for a lesson. I teach the deacon’s quorum right now, and rather than doing close reading of a passage, I typically focus on one thought I want them to remember from the lesson and really focus on it.

  22. William Morris
    March 26, 2004 at 1:57 pm

    I also love the PH/RS manuals. I’ve taught EQ for the past 7 years (in three different wards) and found that if I digest the material enough, my lessons are very well-received.

    What I do:

    1. I approach my lesson with some basic questions:

    What is the major theme/themes of this lesson [i.e. I try and refine the stated lesson topic a bit]?

    How does the *way* in which the particular prophet talk about these themes present them in a way that is beyond the CW or highlights things that are beyond the standard discourse/Sunday School answers? I have found that usually the text is rich enough in some way or another that this is a frutiful approach — although I admit that teaching the John Taylor manual was much better for this than the Harold B. Lee one. I emphasize/pull out certain phrases, images, narratives.

    I also try and tailor my questions so that they allow engagement with the text in this way and/or that they then lead to what we as priesthood holders could do better in light of what we’ve learned.

    So instead of:

    Why is repentance important?

    I might ask [and this is completely made up]:

    President Taylor says that we should approach repentance as with both awe and confidence. What do you think he means by that? How can we do that?

    2. I usually hit each of the sub-sections in the lesson, but I often will switch the order or go back and forth and always am very selective about which quotes we read. I try to organize my lesson in a pattern. Often it will be:

    A. The gospel basics
    B. Some complications or refinements of the basics
    C. Why or how this is difficult
    D. What we can do about it or be better in doing
    E. What the promised blessings are if we act on this knowledge [I always look for a good promised blessings or trenchant ‘this is our responsibility let’s be fired up about it’ quote to end with].

    3. I have some common themes that I try and tie lessons into.

    A. The importance of families in helping us acquire Godly attributes and progress
    2. How the world is so good at distracting us from what we should be doing
    B. How the fact of us being spirits cloaked in mortal flesh and stuck in time in a temporal world is a great test and beautiful thing –i.e. I always link the fact of our premortal existence and our eventual immortal existence to the trials of the here and now
    C. How the structure of the Church and the priesthood and our ward family complicates things for us but also helps us accomplish what we’re here to do and learn
    D. How easy it is to get stuck in a rut and let inertia take over and how hard it is to develop good habits and how we can struggle and work to continute to progress and grow stronger
    E. How the atonement and the example, teachings and being of Jesus Christ is central to all that we do.

    4. We have a lot of new members in our EQ as well as a lot of old-timers. I find that if I do all the above and if I couch my language so that I’m always reminding us of how the topic at hand fits into the overall plan I can keep the attention of most of both sets of brethren. I use a lot of appositives. And it seems to work.

    I’m not trying to set myself up as a master teacher. For instance, one of my weaknesses is that I do tend to be a little abstract, esp. if I haven’t prepared as well as I should. But I’ve found that it’s possible to engage fruitfully with the PH/RS texts if you are using them to build patterns or themes or narratives. If it’s just read the quote, what does it mean, how can we apply this to our lives, then it doesn’t work as well.

  23. Jedd
    March 26, 2004 at 5:11 pm

    Julie, great post! You’ve done a nice job of summarizing the major issues we face as students and teachers in the church.

    The volunteer nature of church service makes it challenging to provide the constructive criticism you mention (“Hey, I didn’t ask for this calling . . .”). Latter-day Saints do more public speaking/discussion-leading than lay members of any other church I know, yet we provide precious little training on how to do it well. And let’s be honest: we coddle people way too much. Didn’t show up at teacher development class all year? That’s okay—you’re busy. Class didn’t read the lesson beforehand? I didn’t expect them to, anyway. No one brought their priesthood manuals to church (again)? No problem, we’ve got a year’s supply in the clerk’s office for such an eventuality.

    It seems the thing we need is some way to better institutionalize and promote an environment of excellence while recognizing and accepting the fact that we’re mostly amateurs trying to ‘do the best we can’ (whatever that means). I agree that there is nothing more important for us to learn as teachers and as students than the ability to teach and be taught with the Spirit, and perhaps if I really understood how to do that, these challenges would be greatly minimized. But I sometimes wonder if we simply turn everything over to the Spirit and thereby excuse our own laziness, lack of skill, lack of preparation, etc.

  24. MDS
    March 26, 2004 at 5:28 pm

    We do have some tradition of constructive criticism from the mission field. Feedback and introspection are encouraged after every discussion/lesson/door approach, etc. to both look for the good and identify areas for improvement.

    Some missionaries are better at giving/receiving feedback than others, and I imagine the same would be true of our teachers if we attempted to develop something similar in that arena.

  25. March 26, 2004 at 5:35 pm

    MDS, I think if we followed more closely the missionary model of teaching things would be better too. I don’t understand why returned missionaries so rarely follow the principles of good teaching they learned (or should have learned) on their missions.

  26. March 26, 2004 at 7:38 pm


    – Seating/standing arrangements. Instead of sitting in traditional school/church mode (teacher up front, students all in rows), try putting chairs in a circle. If you can’t rearrange chairs, have the teacher move from the front to the back and through the aisles while teaching. It’s suprising how this can change the “feel” of a class and encourage discussion.


    Well, what I often did was put the seats in rows facing each other in a bit of a v, like some law school classes are set up. I’ve also taught from the middle of the aisle when we set up in the benches.

    It works very well in encouraging discussion.

    BTW, you can teach people to teach just like any other skill. It is not merely a matter of pre-existant merit, refined slightly, but otherwise only recongnized. Like public speaking, or writing, it is a skill.

    Anyway, interesting visit on this blog.

  27. ed
    March 26, 2004 at 8:02 pm

    William Morris:

    You say ” teaching the John Taylor manual was much better for [insights beyond the CW] than the Harold B. Lee one.” Very interesting, care to elaborate?

  28. lyle
    March 26, 2004 at 8:05 pm

    brent: the answer to your query re: RMs teaching as they are taught to teach is simple: 1. pride, 2. quasi-apostates (j/k!!!) who get mad/upset whenever someone is “using” the “Committment” pattern on them. so…no one will touch it for fear of other’s negative reaction…

  29. Aaron Brown
    March 26, 2004 at 8:22 pm

    A quick question:

    It is often said (and it has been said here) that we LDS, as a rule, don’t know how to read the scriptures well. We simply mine them for proof-texts to support our pre-conceived notions. On behalf of those who might want to improve their facility with the scriptures, I’m wondering ….

    Would those here who are sufficiently knowledgable please suggest what they think would be the best Bible commentary or reference tool to use to improve one’s familiarity with the Biblical text? I’m interested to know what the best sources are, without having to spend a fortune or go get a degree. I really know nothing about this subject, but would like to know more…

    Aaron B

  30. lyle
    March 26, 2004 at 8:41 pm

    Anchor Bible dictionary; although if you want your own set…it will cost you a fortune.

  31. Julie in Austin
    March 26, 2004 at 8:57 pm


    I’d recommend our own Jim’s book Scripture Study: Tools and Suggestions.

    This will seem an unusual choice to some, but I’d also recommend Robert Fowler’s Let the Reader Understand. He uses the techniques of literary criticism on the Gospel of Mark. Once you see how he does it, you will have a feel for how to do it with other texts.

    I am not a huge fan of the Anchor Bible Dictionary, because I think it is uneven. For example, the volume on John is one of the classic texts on John, but the one on Mark is obscure–virtually never mentioned by others.

    I think the most important skill is to read s-l-o-w-l-y. I think a huge technique is to read one chapter (or part of chapter) each day for a week. You will notice things on the 4th or 6th reading that you would never have picked up on the first time around, or if you didn’t read that chapter again for a year.

    Ask yourself why certain details were included, and why others were not. Think: what does this remind me of (other scriptures)? You can use the Bible study tools at http://www.crosswalk.com to delve into the Greek and Hebrew (such as: looking up all instances of the same Hebrew word) without knowing those languages.

    Use the KJV so that you will pick up on echoes from the BoM and D & C, but perhaps read different translations alongside it so obscure wording can be understood better.

    Notice the arrangement of stories (sometimes it is not necessarily chronological, but it is logical). For example, why does Mark squish the story of the bleeding woman into the middle of the story of the raising of J’s daughter (Mark 5). Notice details here: one is 12 years old, one is bleeding for 12 years. For what is 12 a symbol?

    There. I just saved you the 12,000$ I spent on grad school tuition.

  32. William Morris
    March 26, 2004 at 9:15 pm

    ed: “Very interesting, care to elaborate?”

    Certainly. The strength (and weakness) of my approach is that it relies on particular phrasings/metaphors/stories to add nuance or a different point of view to a gospel principle or practice and thus flesh out the “Sunday School answer” or come at it from a different angle.

    The John Taylor and Brigham Young quotes tended to contain imagery, adjectives and verbs that is more vigorous than *some* modern Mormon discourse. This made close reading and teasing out the implications of the *way* things are said a valuable exercise. While Harold B. Lee said some good and important things [I don’t have the book in front of me but I seem to recall 2 or 3 lessons that were particularly good from that book], his discourse on the whole wasn’t quite as ‘rich’ or ‘unfamiliar’ to modern readers. Part of this, no doubt, is a function of the smaller time gap. PArt of it may also be personality.

    As a sidenote — a similar reason is why I have a hard time using President Monson’s talks in the Teachings for Our Times lessons. His talks are almost all anecdote and they don’t tend to deconstruct well. They are fine to listen to — but hard to build a discussion around.

  33. March 26, 2004 at 11:29 pm

    I’d second the bit about the unevenness of the Anchor series. As I recall the one on Revelation was particulary poor. I’d heartily recommend their six volume Bible Dictionary though. Well worth the price.

    If you are in Provo, the religious floor of the BYU library has an amazing collection of commentaries. Both in the reference section and on the main shelves. (I’ve not accessed them since they reorganized the library – but I assume the same basic location is the same)

    In general though I don’t think that commentaries are usually necessary, although they are helpful at times.

  34. March 27, 2004 at 1:14 am

    Julie is too modest to mention her own book, _Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels_. However, I recommend the kinds of approaches that she suggests in her post far more than I would recommend any commentary. The need to is read carefully, not to have someone else comment.

    In spite of its unevenness, I do like the Anchor Bible commentaries. (And there is now a second volume on Mark by a different author. I assume it is a replacement for the first.) I agree with Clark that the Anchor Bible Dictionary is an excellent reference work, but pricey. A good library should have both.

  35. March 27, 2004 at 1:52 am

    Generally the list price on the Bible Dictionary is way too high. But if you check around, especially on Amazon’s used books, you can often find them for fairly reasonable prices. I think I got my set for $200.

    BTW – perhaps this ought to be an other book list thread? The best non-Mormon scriptural aids? (Or did we have one of those already?)

  36. March 27, 2004 at 3:16 am

    “Julie in Austin” reminds me of Pistas3 who I think is still in California, and not an attorney.

    But very much a student (in the good sense).

    I’ve enjoyed the Anchor series. I need to buy more than the volume on Hebrews, I’ll have to start haunting e-bay and half.com and amazon used.

    One interesting thing to do is to apply deconstruction to the Book of Mormon (not as the silly types do, assuming that it isn’t what it claims to be, but as you would to the Bible or teh Doctrine and Covenants). Compare the shift from “Mulekites” to “Kingmen” and look at the subtext there, for example. Do it in the context of Alma, first when he takes up a religious question with the King (who goes and consults with his priests) and later in the succession wars.

    You can get some fascinating thoughts that way.

    Compare the use of “household” in the Book of Mormon with Ishmael with the use in Jewish works and Abraham. Abraham’s household in the commentaries had over 300 male relatives of his, over a thousand servants, and wives, children, etc. to go with all of those people.

    Could it be that when Laman and Lemuel withheld their labor from Nephi on his boat, they were holding back their share of the servants and slaves and that is why they didn’t notice what a boat he was building while they were “working” on it (or not withholding their labor)?

    What about the complaint that Nephi made them slaves in the wilderness? Consider that was an 8 year trip and that a slave hits a seven year anniversary where he can be compelled to leave or submit to permanent slavery. Did the complaint have some sort of root of that type?

    You can build a vastly different picture of the Book of Mormon that way, of it being the religious history of a cultural governing elite.

    What about “ten thousand” in the context of Roman legions. A century, “a hundred men” usually had between 40 and 60 men in it for much of the classical Roman period. One that had been “destroyed” had lost unit cohesiveness, not had everyone slaughtered. Greek armies that were “destroyed” often had lost 13-15% in casualties.

    If a “ten thousand” is a military unit, at the end of a long and losing campaign, someone falling with his ten thousand could easily mean a military unit of a thousand men that lost cohesiveness.

    Note that the Lamenites were able to hunt the Nephites down. Was this one group hunting down the other’s elites or was it a genocide? Consider it in the context of the Nephite faction falling and the wars continuing without them. Suddenly you have a faction in a multisided conflict, and one where the leaders are hunted out, not the peasants. Surely it is the “utter destruction” — but of the elite, kind of like what happened to the Whigs in the United States.

    Anyway, you can use typical tools and get all sorts of places with them, lots of room for thought.

    As for FARMS, you might notice that the seed of it was the collection of Nibley essays in photocopy form and some scholarship. It is drawing some entry, but the bottom line is that there is not much room for someone who is not self-supporting. Grants, etc. are pretty slim for research projects and books sales have hit a particular trend in the Church.

    ButI suspect that the next generation of FARMS authors is still coming along as they have always been open to scholarship. There is just such a weight and a body of it that many people have difficulty thinking of where they can find meaningful traction.

    We are along ways from the times when Skousen’s thousand year series was all that there was, so to speak.

    Lots of rambling, I’m off to bed.

  37. Ben
    March 27, 2004 at 12:01 pm

    I second the Anchor Bible Dictionary. I found an electronic copy of it through http://www.logos.com for $150 on sale:)

    As to resources, Jim’s book is a good starting point. John Welch wrote a good article a few years back in “This People” called “Becoming a Gospel Scholar.” http://home.uchicago.edu/~spackman/scholar.doc

    I think scripture troubles arise from bad methodology (e.g. proof-texting, reading in modern ideas to pre-modern scriptures, etc.) and lack of resources (e.g. other translations, a good bible dictionary, etc.)

    From my experiences, FARMS has much more of a following among young people than Sunstone or Dialogue. I attribute that to several things-
    1)Website visibility- lots of papers available on-line, lots of LDS people link to FARMS, etc.
    2)They are much more likely to have heard about or used something FARMS-related in a BYU/Institute class than the others.
    3)Most of my friends (mid 20’s) who have *heard* of Sunstone or Dialogue (a minority) have negative stigma attached to them. Even if they had the money, they wouldn’t subscribe.

  38. Rose Krueger
    March 7, 2005 at 3:06 pm

    I agree with a great deal of what you have said. I have just been called as the New Teacher Improvement Coordinator and I also teach Gospel Doctrine. I wish I could find some online help for the TIC calling. I am not clear on what I am actually supposed to do and since NO ONE has had this calling in years in our ward I have no resources in the ward. Since each class member is to have a copy of the manuel I teach from, what can I tell them that they cannot read for themselves. Sort of like the PH/RS lessons. Any ideas of sights I can go to like those available for Gospel Doctrine?
    Thank you in advance.

Comments are closed.