I’m about two years into my current stint as a Gospel Doctrine (GD) teacher. This is my fourth time around that particular merry-go-round. It’s a great calling, even if in the past I have tended to burn out at about the two-year and a half mark (largely from my practice of overprepping). But this time around I’m still feeling good about it, and I’m looking forward to the change in currculum year come January. Anyway, I thought it might be useful to start a discussion here about the practice of teaching GD class.
I don’t think it’s any secret that I’m not a big fan of the lesson manual. Not to put too fine a point on it, the manuals suck. (And I know someone who spent eight years on the curriculum writing committee who would share that sentiment, if perhaps not quite so strong a word choice.) This is essentially a problem of correlation and committee writing (just look at the priesthood manuals from the 50s and 60s to see what a Church lesson manual could look like if an individual were allowed to take full responsibility for the project.) So I use the manual to determine the particular reading assignment; I read through it, and occasionally get an idea to use, but in general I craft my own lessons. When I was first called to teaching callings in the Church, the priesthood leaders were very particular to instruct me that the “manual” is in fact the scriptures, and that the focus should be there. That has stuck with me all through the years and I have tried to abide by that counsel. One might ask whether I ever get any grief for not following the manual more closely. I did a couple of years ago. At Christmas time I taught a Christmas lesson (I usually bag the assigned lesson and do something holiday-centric for Easter and Christmas), and then I did an intertestamental period lesson, and then I did my own intro to the NT. So, largely because it was the end of the year, I did three lessons in a row that were totally unrelated to the manual. Someone must have been trying to follow along in a manual and complained. So now I put the lesson number and title on the board for every lesson, and that seems to be enough to make whoever complained happy.
The main problem I have with the manuals is that they are set up like a Catechism. That would be fine if I were teaching a Catholic confirmation class to a group of 13-year olds. But my class consists of educated, experienced adults. So someone reads a scripture: “Jesus wept.” “OK, class, now what does that scripture say that Jesus did on this occasion?” (No response, because the answer is too embarrassingly obvious.) Finally someone says: “Uh…he wept?” “Yes, very good!” Look, if that’s the way they want the class to be taught, they can call someone else. I’m simply not going to ask simplistic reader comprehension questions of my class.
Assumptions about Class Preparation
One issue I have always struggled with is whether or not to assume the class has read the lesson material. Assuming the class is prepared would reward those who actually do prepare in advance, and over time it might inspire those who do not to actually do so. On the other hand, I know full well that almost all of the class comes completely unprepared, and if I’m not teaching, I do the same. So the way I’ve finessed this is that often I will start with an overview of the entire reading, so that we are at least on a semblance of equal footing, and then go on from there.
Lecture v. Discussion
I’ve been through the Teacher Development class three times, and I have read Teaching, No Greater Call (both versions). I know there are a lot of different teaching methods, but generally the holy grail of Church classroom instruction is class discussion. I’m a convert to this point of view, and my classes these days are mostly discussion-based, but it took me a long time to get there. Early on I tended more towards lecture than discussion. A lot of that had to do with my above comment on the manuals; if asking those questions was supposed to be the path to spurring meaningful discussion, I didn’t think it would work and I wasn’t going to do it. What I learned over time is that the quality of the discussion is in great measure a function of the quality of the questions you ask. I was influenced first by Jim F. and then by Julie to see the possibiity in asking genuine, penetrating questions that would spur actual discussion, and not just manual-canned answers. I find that sometimes when I ask a question, and people have that tentative look in their eyes, I have to give them a little speech, telling them that I don’t have a particular response in mind, that I genuinely want to hear what they think about this, and once they figure out I’m not trying to catechize them, the floodgates open. And you can’t imagine the thoughtul responses you can get when you’re not trying to manipulate those responses. I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience, even though once I roll the ball out there I never really know what’s going to happen, but that makes it exciting and keeps things interesting.
Nevertheless, I do still incorporate bits of lecture into my classes. Class discussion is limited by the preparation and knowledge of the class members, and if they are unprepared and not knowledgeable on a particular topic, then a little bit of lecture is justified in my view. Take a lesson on the Psalms; if no one knows how to read a Psalm, you’re not going to be able to tease that information out of the class via discussion. And it is critical in studying the Psalms to know how to approach them. So I don’t apologize for occassionally shifting into lecture mode.
Some Practical Tips
1. I like to print out the reading assignment so that I can mark the heck out of it.
2. This BoM year, once I print out the reading I manually insert Grant Hardy’s in-text captions. (To me the chapter headnotes are largely useless.)
3. I also print out Julie’s notes so I can look at them easily while I’m commuting by train. I don’t usually get through all of them, and I’ve gotten better at coming up with meaningful questions of my own. But she has a genuine talent for question composition, and I do like to check her thoughts on the material.
4. I like to start with an icebreaker. At first I tried to do a “what happened in your family” kind of moment like in Primary. That didn’t work. So now I’ll typically talk about current developments in the Mo-world. This Sunday I imagine we’ll talk a bit about the new sister missionary age policy. I might mention the blogging on 3 Nephi by Father Clooney at Harvard. Maybe I’ll mention the new Mormon Studies Chair at UVA. Just something to break the ice and get people thinking and talking a little bit to grease the skids for the lesson itself.
5. I have a personal practice of never putting anyone on the spot. I’ve known too many people who were deathly afraid of being called on, and I want them to feel safe in my class. This is not a problem, because there is plenty of volunteer participation without me having to call on someone who hasn’t volunteered.
6. If someone gives a response that’s a little off, I try mightily to massage it and find the good in it. I’ll often restate the answer in such a way as to gently remove an infelicity. People don’t seem to mind, or even notice if I’m careful and gentle enough.
7. I basically have two goals at the end of the day. I try to model enthusiasm for the scriptures and for learning, to give people the idea that this is fun and exciting stuff. And I also try to intrigue them enough by the lesson to spur them to actually crack the scriptures open when they get home and maybe read the material that we didn’t get to.
OK, that’s some of my theory and practice as to the art of teaching GD. Share with us some of your tips and theories, and maybe we can learn from one another how to become better at our craft.