The Pedagogy of Sunday School Part 2

In my second year of teaching high school English, I was offered a unique semester class: 25 boys from a local juvenile detention center would be bussed in for a few classes day, including grade 10 English. Since that class would move me from part-time to a full contract, I agreed.

It was explained to me that a sheriff would remain in class at all times, and he would take care of discipline. I knew instinctively that that was a terrible idea: I would have to control the class or I would have no role there. But without the usual external motivations of good grades and happy parents, how could I exert enough authority to teach?

Coming to school was meant to be a privilege for these guys, a stepping stone to greater autonomy. The content of my course — the experience of learning in my English class — had to be a central part of that privilege. I can’t remember what was on the reading list for grade 10 at that school, but I saw that it would not do. The state-mandated curriculum did not set specific texts, but did require us to cover different genres and respond to them in specific ways. I went to the book room and made some choices.

I decided to teach a class on literature about what it means to be a man. We read a simplified translation of The Odyssey, doing a version of a hero’s journey. They loved the story, and we did some good reflective writing about facing challenges and having goals. We watched and read Macbeth, doing a lot with character development and the conflicts of the play. They did scene performances with written analysis of their own character studies. Then we read a collection of poems that I put together myself (and that I still use today), including Psalm 23, ‘Ozymandias,’ ‘If–,’ and ‘Invictus.’ We wrote journals and they either wrote their own poems or narrative essays as a response to one of the poems.

It went very well. I naturally enter the classroom with a certain intensity, and I ratcheted it up a bit more for those guys. I was not in their face, but Homer and Shakespeare and Kipling were. The first few weeks were a little rough as we got used to each other, and we had some bad days, but the sheriff never had to get involved. (I always gave him his own copy of the books, and he participated in class regularly.) The work they produced was not always excellent,, but they were engaged and they learned.

As I went on to another school and taught mostly college prep students, I missed that class. Those guys wanted to learn for its own sake, not for a test or for a grade. Learning was an immediate experience, not a means to a more tangible reward.

And they taught me. Discussing Macbeth with young men for whom physical violence was a more immediate experience; having a young man lash out in anger at the 23rd Psalm and not be able to explain why; reading about their own sense of honor and ambition and will in an environment so different from the authors they had read: this I have taken with me and put to good use.

What does all of this have to do with Sunday School?

There is no test at the end or any other real external motivation to learn. You compete with smart phones. Sunday School is not required but should be a privilege to attend, not a Christian sacrifice.

Read the manual, but teach your class. Be prepared to share your experience in reading the text and learning the context. Create a space in which you can learn from your students and they can learn from each other rather than answering the questions to which everyone already knows the answers.

You are not likely to know more than the rest of the class (especially as they are armed with their phones and pads). Your authority as a Sunday School teacher comes from the material itself. Yes, you have been sustained and set apart, but all that gets you is a benefit of a doubt. You are teaching scripture. By definition it should be interesting and useful. Find out what is interesting and useful and push it. Engage your class with a text you know well, and they will learn.


  1. KerBearRN says:

    And hopefully physical violence won’t have been a “more immediate experience” in Sunday school, requiring the law to attend. Although maybe the law can do something about all those ‘smart-devices”…

  2. Because I’m not teacher myself, this made me reflect my own motives to come to Sunday School. Too often I’m like your usual school pupils and SS is for me just the class between sacrament meeting and priesthood. If we as members would be more like those guys from detention center, and see SS as a privilege, it would improve the state of Sunday School education more than any teacher improvement class ever could.
    I also feel that a great teacher is one who is a great student; it applies both when he or she is in a teaching duty or not.

  3. Loved this. Great advice!

  4. “Yes, you have been sustained and set apart, but all that gets you is a benefit of a doubt.”

    Wisdom of a higher order, Norbert. I’m filing this one away.

  5. origamikaren says:

    Yes *please* stop asking questions that everybody already knows the answers to. It doesn’t stimulate discussion and participation, it kills it. The class members think that it’s not worth their time to bother raising their hand to answer. After enough questions like that, it drives me literally crazy, and I have to leave or suffer through panic attacks.

  6. origamikaren – sometimes it depends on the question and how its asked. Sometimes the question “everyone” knows the answer to isnt actually known by everyone. In the other direction, asking questions no one knows the answer to can kill discussion even more.

    I’ve found the more engaged I can be as a student, the more helpful it is to the teacher in getting through to others. Some people have an invisible fence between themselves and the teacher; it can help if someone on their “side” is asking the same questions they would ask.

  7. Norbert says:

    ‘A great teacher is … a great student.’

    I think the teacher on the role of the Lead Learner — someone who is still learning themselves but somewhat ahead of or responsible for the others — is the most useful for Sunday School.

  8. Norbert says:

    Frank, I prefer truly open-ended questions, for which everyone can have their own answer, not just the one in the manual.

  9. As a teacher, I will often set up questions in a few different ways to let the class know that I’d like to bypass the normal SS shortcuts. These typically work pretty well in eliciting a decent discussion.

    Here are two ways which tend to work:
    1. “[Topic] is something that I have thought a lot about but I don’t have a clear understanding of it. So I’m going to ask a question that I don’t have the answer to: what do you think about [topic]?”
    2. “We are all familiar with the standard answers to this question, so I’d like to set those aside for the moment and talk about [situation] where the standard answer doesn’t seem to apply. What do you think is actually going on?”

  10. Lisa, I ask your first type of questions as well. If I get so-called Sunday School answers, I ask for an example, or for an explanation for why or how reading the scriptures or following the prophet does this or that.

  11. Here’s something else that works for me: if I divide the class up into discussion groups, I don’t ask the groups to come up with answers to questions I give them, rather I have the groups read an assigned passage and come up with a question(s) to ask the rest of the class. This has the astounding effect of forcing class members to read the scriptures to find out what they say rather than to confirm what they think they already know.

    I’ve mentioned my favorite technique other places online but it bears repeating: depending on the lesson topic, I will distribute unnumbered quotes with the instruction that class members are to use them when/if they seem appropriate. This has the pleasant effect of encouraging people to be proactive about participating.

  12. Wonderful post, Norbert. I couldn’t agree more – and I miss my days in the classroom for exactly the reason you miss that particular class. Learning as exploration is so much more rewarding than learning as a way to pass a test.

  13. Mark Brown says:

    “enter the classroom with a certain intensity,”

    I would pay good money to see a Sunday School teacher do that.

  14. Karen H. says:

    What a great story, and a good experience to start your teaching career. Those kids were lucky. (So was the Sheriff.)

  15. Mark, good teaching has an aspect of showmanship, and stage presence is a part of that. As true in Sunday School as anywhere else.

    Lisa, those are great ideas. I will steal them.

  16. Responding to your fantastic story: You might be interested in listening to a fantastic episode of This American Life called Act V. It’s about prison inmates who perform Act V from Hamlet. It’s incredibly moving. Your comment about how your students had personal insights on Macbeth reminded me of one of my favorite bits of the episode. The actor who played the ghost of Hamlet’s dad was in prison for murder, and he felt like the man he killed was speaking to him through that part.

  17. Norbert says:

    Thanks, Shelley. I know it well and highly recommend it. Every year when I teach Hamlet I play the reading of Claudius’ confession (III.iii) for my class. Amazing.

  18. The Sons of Mosiah are always appropriate to bring up when discussing teaching. In Alma 17 we read they:
    1. Loved those they were teaching
    2. Carefully read and pondered over the scriptures
    3. Frequent Prayer
    4. Frequent Fasting
    5. Endured severe personal sacrifice to continue teaching
    6.Were patient and long suffering
    7. Were good examples

    I realize these could be seen as “seminary answers”, but actually putting them all into practice is anything but simplistic.

  19. Great post.
    A timely reminder of the power of personal investment in the lesson,
    truly open-ended questions, and “a certain intensity.”

  20. LaJean Carruth says:

    Every gospel principle has a what (what is the principle), a why (why should we care about this principle) and a how (how do we live it). Unfortunately, most classes spend the time on what – which is what we know, and rarely delve meaningfully into why we should care, why it is important (or should be) and how we live it (deeply live it, beyond the list of things to do or not do on the Sabbath, for example – but how can we each make the Sabbath a more meaningful experience – what has worked for you? I approach each lesson with the question, what does this material mean to our day to day lives, our efforts to live better, more fully, more spiritually, then prayerfully ask, what do those in my class need to learn from this lesson – then go to work. When I taught the recent less on the First Vision, I concluded most of the class in our ward were very familiar with the material, and led the discussion to, what can we learn from Joseph Smith’s experience to make our personal prayers more meaningful – clarifying of course that his experience was unique, but we can each learn from what he did – study, ponder, read scriptures, formulate the question, seek solitude and quiet, ask, wait for an answer – to make our personal prayers more meaningful. I always, always, always try to make those in the class think and hopefully ponder in the spirit – how can I better apply this principle in my life? When students tell me I make them think, I am very thankful.

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