Winging It

Sister Paul stuck her head in my room and asked if I had an extra manual. She teaches the next class up, the 14-year-olds that I had last year. When they say you love those you serve, I had no idea how true it was until I was called to teach a dozen teenagers Sunday School. It’s been two years now, and I’ve never loved a calling more than I love teaching these kids. Which of course means I’ll be released soon and thrown in Nursery or (shoot me now) Scouts.

“Here, you can have mine. I’m winging it today.”

She took my book and slipped out the door. I never even cracked the cover this week. Prep is not one of my strong suits, and if I prep at all, it’s usually skimming the lesson in Sacrament meeting to make sure I have the gist. I know the topic, but don’t make a map. This might be horrifying for some teachers, I’ve found it works astoundingly well with these teens.

When I first was called, I would read the plan over, photocopy my quotes, and try to “involve” the class in the proscribed manner. It went over like a lead balloon. I could see their shiny eyes glaze over and practically feel the energy drain from the room. This bothered me. A lot. These were smart kids. Most of them knew the scriptures backward and forward- they grew up in the church, and had heard all the lessons ten times over.

I’m the adult convert. I’m the one that doesn’t know anything yet. So one Sunday I got a bright idea. They came filling in looking bored and dull; I told them they were teaching the class, and it was going to be a discussion instead of a dictatorship. I was bored listening to my own voice, and I knew they were too. Here was our topic, now let’s start talking. And thus my real education/educating began.

Everything changed after that Sunday.

My classes still follow the topics in the manual, but now, instead of reading long quotes, doing mazes or playing hangman, the kids come to class and talk with me. With exuberance. They share what they’ve been reading, we talk in-depth about gospel principles and what they really mean to us in our daily lives. These teens are whip-smart, and they have a lot to offer a discussion. What a shame it would have been had I not stumbled upon inviting their whole selves to the class.

Today, when I realized I would not have them for Easter Sunday, I scrapped the book (again), and we spent the entire hour talking about the events of holy week. We talked about Passover, the symbolism of the lamb, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the last supper, and when the hour was up, were were just touching on what Gethsemane meant, and our limited our grasp of the Atonement.

Glancing at the clock, I interrupted “Hey guys, we cannot possibly cover the Atonement, the trial, the crucifixion, Golgotha, the entombment and the resurrection in two minutes. We’ll finish up the week after Easter, agreed?”

Nine faces looked at me and spoke at once, “No, Sister M, we can skip quorum and young womens!”

The door opened and the junior primary teacher with a gaggle of 5-year olds was waiting for her room- we had already gone over. I was reeling. These kids wanted to stay in Sunday School. Nine teenagers were engaged and interested enough in talking about the final week of the life of the Savior that no one even noticed the time.

When I first started teaching, I was scared to death of teenagers. My own children were still all very young, and like so many, I had preconceived notions of youth- I thought they would not listen to me, that they were disengaged, and that teaching them was going to be stressful and hard. I was so wrong. These youth are powerhouses of knowledge, testimony and information. They know their stuff. We miss a golden opportunity when we prefer the safety of our own voices monopolizing a classroom. That’s when they check out. That’s when they live down to our expectations. But if you hand the reins over to them, I think you might be blown away at what happens.


  1. I’m glad it worked out so well for you Tracy! I have always looked at the lesson manuals as providing the lowest common denominator of teaching. And I recall a General Authority once discussing visiting a Gospel Doctrine class where the teacher read the manual and the class was glazed over. Then he talked about visiting again and seeing the teaching actively engaging the class, and how the class was responding. I hope this becomes the norm for our gospel teaching.

    I tried to do something like this with my Sunday School class today but, alas, ten- and eleven-year-olds aren’t quite conversant enough in the Scriptures for it to be a total success. But my wife and I at least try to let the kids do a lot of the talking, even if the subject does somehow go from discussing the Saviour’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem to a girl’s 3-year-old niece decorating her room with Michael Jackson memorabilia. (Hey, celebrity worship is celebrity worship, right?)

    Still, our teaching experience has shown us that even the kids in Primary want to share their thoughts and ideas more than they want to hear us tell them what their thoughts and ideas should be.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Simply outstanding!

  3. Kev, I totally thought of you today. I use “Teaching from the Corner” almost every Sunday. It works so outstanding, to just subtly glide toward the corner and come out depending on where the discussion is going. I love it.

  4. Tracy, can I come to your class? I’m envious.

  5. I’m sure it’s not your intention, but reading this just makes me feel even more like a failure when I contemplate the many classes I have taught to glassy-eyed teenagers. You must have a special talent, and I am grateful the kids in your ward have such an inspiring teacher.

  6. Stephanie says:

    Reading this makes me want to join your class.

  7. E, of course that wasn’t my intention. I am not especially talented at teaching at all- it’s just a change in my perspective- and that’s what I was trying to convey. Anyone can try what I have. Talk to them, ask what they think about these principles, how they’ve used them, abused them, seen them at work in other’s lives… it really became more about my asking guiding questions and letting the kids take the lead on where we went with it.

  8. I’m in awe that you can even teach a class of teenagers, let alone do it free-form! :-)

  9. I, too, hang my head in shame at the numerous times I’ve caused the glassy-eyed stare of the teenagers in my lessons. But this post is good inspiration to try something new. Thanks.

  10. wonderful! Thank you for your insight.

  11. I teach the oldest girls in Primary. I’ve been in there for a few years now. I decided from the get go that I didn’t want Sunday School to be something the girls dreaded or thought of as another hour to sit through at church. I actively seek to make it a place they want to be. It’s required a lot of preparation at times and some creative thinking about how to present the lessons.

    I wasn’t sure I was really all that successful until I talked to the mother of two girls I’ve taught who said they still talk about my class and how much they enjoyed it (they’ve both moved on to YW). This was really nice for me to hear because I am not an engaging, fun personality type. I am BOR-ING. But my lessons are not.

    I’ve been in there long enough to see that different personalities make for different classes and different learning styles and different methods are needed for different kids. I think the important thing as a teacher is having a desire to reach the kids and being willing to put some time into preparing for class. There have been lessons I’ve been at a complete loss as to how to teach them and after pondering it for awhile, inspiration comes. I think teaching teenagers would be really fun.

    I’m not at all surprised you’ve been good at it, Tracy!

  12. Susan, you’re absolutely right. This class has a different personality than my class last year, and it took a week or two to figure out what they needed from me. You’re also right in that a desire to actually reach the kids is a huge part- or it is for me. I want so much to impress upon them the utter amazement and beauty of the Gospel- and I’ll do backflips if I need to.

    I’m not at all surprised that you are a good teacher, too. ;)

  13. One other observation: They can smell insincerity in your words like a shark can blood in the water. If I don’t know what I’m talking about, they are all over it. I’ve had to be comfortable saying “I don’t know, let’s find that out.” Or “what do you think?”. I believe my willingness to be honest and open has gotten me far.

  14. That these kids actually want to be in Sunday School speaks very well of your class – students and teacher.

  15. Fabulous. They are blessed to have you.

  16. Latter-day Guy says:

    What a great post!

    My current teaching calling is probably my favorite ever. I’m really impressed that you can do what you do, particularly without huge preparation. I find my experience is the opposite of yours, strangely. My lessons flop if I haven’t put in at least 7-10 hours of prep. (I only teach once or twice a month, which makes that time investment possible.) The main difficulty is finding a kind of “story arc” (not quite the right word) through the material. That is almost never possible without really dissecting the manual, and then finding all the background material I can. When I obey the traditional guideline about not using outside material, the classes tend to suck––as a result, I flout that rule altogether. I’ve never had a lesson where I regretted using outside sources. I’ve had several in which I was sorry I didn’t.

  17. living in zion says:

    Yes! This is exactly how I taught teenagers in Sunday School, also. I think it is the ONLY way to reach them. I never admitted aloud what I was doing, for fear I would get smacked down by the folks who would consider that teaching technique too radical.

    The kids loved it, I loved it and I loved them.

    I teach in the nursery now and I do the same thing with them. Yesterday we talked about ” I will take care of my body”. What a hoot!

  18. xenologue says:

    Wow, good for you, Tracy… this is a great post.

    I’m the YW president and so most Sundays I have a handful of Laurels to teach. I usually read over the lesson carefully and build up a series of discussion questions so as to cover what’s in the manual, but not necessarily in the same order. I emphasize different things depending on the needs of my girls. I almost always omit the lengthy stories quoted in the lessons, and often don’t use the case studies, because the girls have stories and case studies from their own lives. And we TALK. I tell my girls how proud I am of them because I could probably just read them a relevant scripture and say, “Discuss,” and they WOULD. They ask great questions. Sure, their minds drift sometimes, but that’s OK.

    One thing I do with my classes that I rarely see others do is to get rid of the chairs. There’s only a few of us in a small room, so we sit on the floor. I tell the girls they can have chairs if they want, but mostly they love sitting on the floor. It makes it more informal and conducive to sharing. If it’s a larger group I always try to get them in a circle of chairs, not rows.

    We had a girl move up into Laurels a few weeks ago. I said, “In here the way we do things is…” and I hesitated, thinking, informal? discussion-oriented? … and one of the girls filled in, “…awesome.” That made me very happy.

  19. Xenologue, we’ve sat on the floor before too. Some of the best discussions we’ve ever had have happened when the discussion has drifted. One Sunday an offhand comment was made about _other churches_ by a student, and it turned into a fascinating discussion on the Nicene Creed , Rome, Restoration v. Reformation, and why is it so incredibly vital to respect other people. That was one of my favorite Sundays ever.

  20. Sterling Fluharty says:

    Tracy M: I agree it is an awesome feeling when the class loses track of time because of how much they are enjoying the lesson. Twenty years of research in cognitive science back up your claim that students are more engaged when we make them active participants in their own learning. It is unfortunate that we lack a vocabulary for describing much of our pedagogy. Those of us reading your post are left scratching our heads about how we would replicate all or elements of your experience. I am hopeful that when Doug Lemov’s book hits the bookstores a week from today we will finally have a crystal-clear and comprehensive way to talk about the things that our best teachers do to maximize learning within their classrooms.

  21. That is awesome. We’ll also sit on the floor. Not all the time—our classroom has the little tiny chairs for little kids and the girls like to use those. But I don’t use the chalkboard and will often write stuff out on paper and lay it on the ground in front of them.

    One thing I like to do, if the lesson has an interesting story that requires reading aloud, or I want the girls to sing a song related to the lesson, I’ll ask someone else to come in and do it. Usually one of their parents or someone I know who can lead music or read aloud really well. It makes more of an impact that way.

    BTW, my oldest kids’ Sunday School teachers (team taught by a young married couple) have a thing where they get the kids to come up with gospel-related questions and they choose one to discuss for the next week. My kids love it. One week it was about giants being mentioned in the scriptures, another it was about the lost tribes. My kids are 20 and 18 yo and should be in GD, but they love the class they’re in so much they won’t leave it.

  22. Kristine says:

    Tracy, this is great. I also love teaching teens. They generally respond well to being treated as interesting people with interesting thoughts (because they are!!). But I still have to remind myself sometimes that 15-year-olds won’t dislike me as much now as they did when I was 15 (or at least that I have better survival skills if they do)!

  23. Kevin Barney says:

    I remember what it was like to be a youth in SS classes, and what worked for us and what didn’t, so when I teach now as an adult I try to take those lessons to heart.

    You can’t be manual-bound. Genuine dialogue works much better. I had a seminary teacher who would ask a question, one of the students would give a thoughtful response, and she would say no, that’s wrong (because it didn’t happen to be the response suggested in her manual). You simply can’t do that kind of stuff; you have to actually listen to what the kids are saying and engage them as real people. You’re absolutely right that kids can smell insincerity a mile off, and if you’re not genuine with them, you’re toast.

    When we were young we also didn’t like being patronized. As a result, when I teach youth today I teach them the same way I would adults. They don’t want to be in Primary anymore.

  24. I teach the SS class for the 14-15 year-olds. I try to get them to do the teaching, since I then don’t have to listen to myself the whole time AND they learn more that way. My question is how to get them engaged. I try to have them tell me the story or answer gospel questions but I just get one kid answering the whole time or blank stares. I prompt them to read the lesson ahead of time but of course they don’t. These are smart kids too but they don’t want to participate that much. It seems that asking them to share personal experiences is too much to ask. Help!

  25. Rachael C says:

    My husband and I have taught the 6 and 7 year olds in Primary for the last year. We’re newly married (duh, who else do they ask to teach Primary?) and for the last few weeks I feel like banging my head against the wall. This year they doubled our class size (to 10) and I feel like I just can’t do it. Hardly any of our lessons seem to stick with them and I feel like they might as well just go with their parents to Sunday School (and some of them do) because they’re not getting much from it. Any suggestions to help teach the younger kids? I try to stay patient but yesterday I literally cried I couldn’t handle it.

  26. Jim Donaldson says:

    I have taught early morning every day seminary for 3 years. I would underline what Tracy and Kevin said about insincerity and listening. Your personal credibility is all you really have and if you lose it, you lose them, enter glazed eyes. Approaching them as adults has always worked for me. They respect that and return it.

  27. Absolutely, Jim.

    Rachel, the youngest age I’ve been called to teach is 8. I do have a six year old at home, but I don’t know how much help I can be with kids that age. When I was teaching the 8 year olds, I still opted for trying to engage them with talking to them about their interests. I found if I went in with a solid agenda, it went to crap quickly. If I went in with an idea or concept I wanted to get them to take away, it worked much better. With the 8 year olds, we play-acted a lot. Anyone have more extensive experience with the younger set?

  28. Kristine says:

    Rachael, when I teach younger kids, I always figure I’ve got about 1 minute for every year old they are for the core of the lesson. The rest of the time should be fun as closely related to the topic as possible. The expectation that they should sit still and participate in a lesson for 40 minutes when they’ve just endured Sacrament Meeting and Primary Opening Exercises and Sharing Time is just completely unfair to everyone involved.

  29. Love it. I echo everything Tracy and Kevin have said. For groups that don’t feel naturally inclined to participation, I’d suggest letting them get to know you. Tell stories from your own life that pertain to the lesson, testify – sincerely – of what you know and how you came to know it, discuss doubts and how you overcame them, and ask a lot of questions about them – not just what they know, but who they are.

    Some people need that investment before they feel comfortable opening up, and allowing myself to be vulnerable like that has cemented me to my YW in a way nothing else has.

  30. One of the problems with lesson manuals is that some teachers use them the same way that the old missionary discussions were done in the ’60s and ’70s: they have to be followed line by line, like a script, and going off-track is not to be allowed. Good teachers who have lots of experience don’t teach that way, though. And that’s probably why the missionary discussions have moved away from the memorized-script paradigm to a more flexible, open teaching model.

    I’m not anti-manual, myself. I think of the manuals as resources for teachers, providing advice about the possible structure (or story arc) of the lesson and possible discussion questions. But what the GD manual doesn’t really take into account is that the teenagers who are going to seminary 5 days a week have already learned most of the stuff being talked about in Sunday School. So if you’re going to make Sunday School interesting for them, you can’t assume that the lesson outline in the GD manual will be adequate.

  31. Karen M. says:

    Rachael, I echo Kristine’s suggestion to keep the main lesson pretty short. To take up some of the extra time here are some things that I have done to keep things from becoming completely chaotic:
    — before you begin class (even before the prayer if need be), let each kid have a turn to share something they want to. Ask them what they did this week or something. They like to listen to each other and they like to talk about themselves, so if you give them a chance at the beginning of class, they don’t interrupt as often with completely off-the-wall comments.
    — Plan games that involve movement.
    — Bring snacks. Full mouths are quiet mouths. Sometimes, I give out little bits of the snack during the lesson (reward someone for answering a question or something like that).
    — Expect a little mayhem. They’re kids. You’re outnumbered. If you can ignore some small misbehaviors to help you stay calm and focused, then do it. Give yourself credit for the little things you are able to accomplish.
    Sorry for the long comment.

  32. Karen M. says:

    Oh, I forgot one thing. The younger kids are not going to remember your lesson (sorry, but it’s true). They will remember if they felt accepted and loved in your class. If you use the same principle Tracy is talking about for older kids (listen to them and don’t feel tied to your lesson preparation) then they’ll feel loved. And that’s what the Spirit is, in my opinion.

  33. Yes, Tracy! Awesome.

    DW likes to tease me about not preparing for lessons and talks because I really do seem to do better Winging It™. For me, planning makes it too rigid, and I thrive with the flexibility.

    A couple of weeks ago I substituted for the primary class my daughter is in. We had a fun time acting out the story of the three holy men visiting Abraham, Sarah preparing a meal. We read out of the scriptures here and there, and talked about applications for us. Like Karen (31), I ignored mischief that was below some threshold.

    I miss teaching the 16-18 year olds. I did that in Seattle and it was a real treat. Now I teach the high priests group once a month, and that’s great in other ways.

    One other thing: in any of these classes, when I ask a question, I expect answers, and I’m content to be silent for as long as it takes to get a response. After one or two of those silences people offer answer more readily.

  34. Uh, let me make one correction: overplanning makes it too rigid. I still think about stuff ahead of time, but it’s never word for word or even a formal outline.

  35. I’ve debated for a couple of hours now about whether to comment. Please do not mistake my alternate view as disparaging Tracy or attacking the method that so many are so enthusiastically endorsing, but I *do* have an alternate view.

    I hated classes like this when I was a teenager. They always, without exception, struck me as a frustrating waste of my time, and as if the teacher couldn’t be bothered to prepare a lesson. I didn’t drag myself out of bed and get cleaned up in uncomfortable clothes to sit on an uncomfortable folding chair and listen to the kids I went to school with ruin still more of my life with blowhard tales of their own adventures and their stupid, childish opinions. (They may in fact *not* have been stupid or childish, but that’s how I received them as a teenager who had had to put up with too much of them already.)

    I went to classes, whether school or church, to *learn* something, not to hear about football games or dates or cars. There was nothing loving or accepting or caring about it, as far as I was concerned, because it wasn’t what I wanted or need from class. I did have teachers (an algebra teacher, more than one Sunday School teacher) who indulged the class, failed to teach, and wasted my time, and I resented it, and still do resent it.

    Please watch for signs that you have teens like me in your classes. Have something solid prepared for at least a few minutes, something to make his effort to get there worthwhile. If I had been smarter and less straight arrow, I would have dropped out of high school and benefited from the time on my own. It’s a whole lot easier to bail from a Sunday class that is a waste of time than from high school.

  36. John Mansfield says:

    From Teaching, No Greater Call:

    Teachers who lecture most of the time or answer every question themselves tend to discourage learners from participating. You should be careful not to talk more than necessary or to express your opinion too often. These actions can cause learners to lose interest. Think of yourself as a guide on a journey of learning who inserts appropriate comments to keep those you teach on the correct path.

    Your main concern should be helping others learn the gospel, not making an impressive presentation. This includes providing opportunities for learners to teach one another.

  37. Rachael-
    I agree with the above advice in teaching younger kids. I would add this- just as it’s important to speak to teenagers like the (young) adults they are, it’s important to speak to the junior primary set like kids! I watched a junior primary sharing time last month go terribly awry when the counselor in the Primary Presidency spent about 10 minutes trying to explain the word “atonement”. You absolutely do want to explain what words mean, but you’ve gotta say it in words and concepts that they understand.
    I’m currently the primary chorister- and one of the best things I’ve ever done is “spied” on choristers in other wards who did a good job. I find that those who do a good job of teaching young children generally are very animated, speak in simple phrases, involve the kids (I love the idea of having them act out stories), and keep it short!

  38. I find that the secret to keeping the kids’ attention during Sunday school is to keep a little bag of bacon in my pocket. Kids love bacon.

  39. Thank you for your point of view, Caraway. I’m not interested in hearing bombastic tales from the weekend for 40 minutes, and they know it. I want input that is relevant to the discussion… and will guide them back that way if need be. I’m unsure about a lot of things in life, but I know none of those kids feel I’m wasting their time. I hope I didn’t give the impression my class is a free-for-all.

    John, that quote is beautiful!

    Reese, you are right on- sharing personal perspectives with them and being open and honest about struggles and truimphs has contributed greatly towards the trust level with the 20+ kids I’ve taught.

  40. What a great post! I have spent years with the little kids and my only experience teaching older kids was substituting for a 10-12 year old class. It was last minute and I had nothing prepared and was really nervous about it, but these kids asked the most thought-provoking questions I’d heard in a Sunday School meeting for years. Much more so than Gospel Doctrine class…. We spent the whole time in discussion spurred by their questions. I’m not sure why they felt comfortable asking them, but I definitely got the vibe it was turning into them asking everything-they’d-always-wanted-to-know-but-were-too-afraid-to-ask…

  41. Rachael, for younger kids, it depends a lot on the class personality you’ve got. I’ve taught 6 year olds that loved lessons and asking questions and talking about the gospel. I’ve also taught 6 year olds that seemed like they ought to have been in nursery still!

    Whenever I get a new class I always spend the first few weeks trying several approaches and see which one goes over the best. Some classes have responded well to incorporating a lot of music, some have responded well to sticker charts and working towards a class party, some have responded well to several really short lessons (5 minutes max) inbetween games or crafts, some sit fine through a 25 minute lesson if they get snacks for it.

    I’ve always tried to remember that I’m more concerned with helping kids to love primary (and the gospel) rather than hate it or view it as a chore. The lesson stuff will sink in eventually, through sheer repetition if nothing else…

    Also, I’ve never been too shy to take a kid to his or her parents and let them know their child can return when he or she is ready to behave appropriately.

  42. This sounds like a fantastic way to engage your students and help them grow, but can I really trust anything that forces “hangman” out of the classroom? That’s just un-Mormon.

  43. Caraway, when you were a teenager, what did you most miss in the Sunday School classes that you didn’t like? Was it the structure of an organized presentation? Or the substance of solid doctrinal content? Or the sense that the teachers respected you and the gospel enough to take the time to prepare? I can understand the frustration you might have had if, week after week, the teachers were making it up off the cuff when you wanted something solid.

    I think teachers can be prepared with a lesson structure without having to pre-plan every sentence to be said. When I teach elders quorum, the presentation is informal, and the discussion is open, but I do have an idea of the general points that I want to cover. We usually don’t cover all the points, but that’s okay, because we did discuss, was discussed thoughtfully and well.

  44. I have taught so-o many years in the YW’s organizations that I have the manuals memorized (ha). I used to teach by picking what ever lesson I thought was most personal in the lives of the YW each week, sometimes scrapping the traditional manuals for my own thoughts. That is until the Church YW Presidency asked that we stick to the lesson schedule each week, so that we as a church are all on the same page. I believe that many leaders were teaching lessons or would bring in stories or poems that were not always in keeping with the gospel.
    I had to personally realize my own testimony about this matter, as I was sure that I knew better what these YW really needed. I did need to do a little soul searching as to wether I was teaching my agenda or the Lord’s.
    Once I started to teach from the scheduled lessons I started to recognize how time honored true and tested these lesson were and are. Do we need to read straight out of the lesson book each week? No, in fact my style is to read over the lesson a week or two in advance and then take it to the Lord for inspiration. Sometimes I have been very surprised as to what the spirit has brought to my mind. Also, when I take a little extra special time to prepare, I can also be inspired to bring a visually appealing presentation for those who learn best spatially. Do I quote the stories in the lesson? Sometimes when they are timely and concise. But mostly as I am preparing the lesson, I wait on the spirit to reveal what He would liked to have shared with the YW. Most of us have situations that have strengthened our testimonies, that the spirit prompts us to share. The lessons are inspired by God and even though they seem antiquated at times, they are structured for discussion, and when studied out in your mind, and with help from the great teacher, the spirit, the lesson is a great bases for amazing lessons.

%d bloggers like this: