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.