Emergency Sub


I’m sitting in GD class and within the first few minutes I get pulled out by a counselor in the bishopric. One of the youth SS teachers hadn’t shown up, and since I’m a counselor in the SS presidency I’m an emergency sub. This was a class of mostly 13 year olds, with a few 14 year olds. I think one was in early morning seminary, but most were eighth graders and not yet in seminary.

I introduced myself to the kids and chatted with them a bit to try to get a feel for what they had been studying and what might be appropriate for a lesson today. Last week was stake conference and two weeks ago is an eternity in terms of a teen remembering what their prior lesson was. But then someone said they had talked about scriptures.

That was close enough. I started by asking them practical questions about what they use for scriptures: paper bound copies or electronic copies on a device. Then I asked them what their scripture reading habits were, and basically they didn’t really read scrips outside of church. And I could tell from the discussion that they knew next to nothing about the scriptures.

So I took my cue from that and gave them a big picture overview of the scriptures. I started by describing our canon, what we call the standard works. I then went through each volume and explained how it was arranged, its contents, its period(s) of history, its languages, and so forth. This was really basic stuff that adults had been in the habit of assuming they already knew, and they clearly did not already know any of it.

I also made sure to toss in there interesting nuggets to keep their attention, such as the reason that some OT books were divided into two (this had to do with the limitations of the technology of the length of scrolls in producing books, as codex technology would not come around until the Christian era).

My impression is that the kids really enjoyed the class. Instead of making them recite prooftexts, instead of giving them some manual namby pamby catechism, I actually taught them substantive knowledge, knowledge which they clearly lacked but which is pretty basic for forming an actual relationship with the scriptures. I didn’t treat them as idiots, but as curious and inquisitive young people with the interest and capacity to learn. I think kids at that age respond well to not being spoken down to.

I was pleased with how it all turned out. Which is probably a good thing, because I’ll probably be getting ample opportunities to sub for that class again in the future.




  1. Kevin, that is exactly what I did with my 16-17 class, for the entire month of January. We went through each of the standard works book by book and I explained what it was, where it came from, and how it related to the whole (except for the D&C, where we just went over big themes). The kids were almost incredulous that they had never gone over any of that stuff before.

    What I am finding pretty consistently in this class is that 1) these kids have really never been taught the scriptures as anything other than proof texts; and 2) they are very eager to learn and appreciate the chance to actually talk about things in a meaningful way. They are better, by leaps and bounds, then the curriculum we give them.

  2. Do you go into authorship or source criticism? I’m fairly new to Biblical Studies and wondering how to teach this stuff to youth.

  3. I have noted this problem with students as old as 16-17 years old. I asked students to tell me the differences between the New Testament and Old Testament. A normally vivacious group of kids met my inquiry with blank stares.
    The new curriculum (which has been highly praised in some circles) is partly to blame for this scriptural ignorance. Topical study of the scriptures, especially when used for those who are just being introduced to scripture study, is highly problematic. Proof-texting has become the norm.

  4. Kathleen Petty says:

    Having come off a three year Seminary stint,I would say that in the Seminary manual, information about where the scriptures came from was usually part of what was provided for the teacher, although in a pretty basic way. The teacher has to choose to use it, of course.

  5. Just this week I read a Millenual Star lesson from the early ’30s that was exactly this lesson, for adults, and perhaps for the same reason: Missionaries who had been doing most of the preaching and teaching had been citing verses, but too many Saints had no real familiarity with the canon. Good for you, for teaching something real.

  6. Ugh. I can spell “Millennial.” I really can.

  7. Jane Smith says:

    That sounds amazing! I think many times we teach assuming the class has a certain fundamental knowledge of certain words or phrases. It turns out many don’t. My lesson in RS included the phrase “the lost ten tribes” and the “gathering of Israel.” Many sisters do not understand the history of these events. (And I didn’t have time except to pass out an institute cheat sheet and barely touch on it.) They’ve heard the words but the true meaning in a historical context is not understood. I’ve found most can’t tell what the difference was between the Pharisees and Sadducees. In RS it is difficult since we teach ages 18 to 80, old and new member alike.

  8. Any good SS presidency member should be familiar with the ‘Come Follow Me’ curriculum and be prepared to continue teaching from the topics as outlined. As much as your scripture lesson was interesting, the kids would be much better served if the SS leadership would get a clue and at least keep some consistency with the monty theme. Also you might recall that the idea is that the students are to participate quite heavily in the teaching. Oh, but you’d have to read the teacher guidelines and ‘Teaching in the Savior’s Way’ to understand that.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    L. Bell, I was just called and am brand new in the calling. I’ve watched the broadcast and read the materials for Teacing in the Savior’s Way, but that’s as far as I’ve gotten so far. I actually looked over the youth curriculum a little this afternoon to get a better sense of what they are probably doing in the class, but this morning all I had to go on was what I could draw from the kids themselves.

  10. I was just discussing this with my husband, who actually was just released as SS president. He reminded me how dificult it is to go into a class cold. You’re doing a good job. I over-reacted and I apologize. I wish there were more adults who could engage 13-year olds like that. Thanks for looking over the curriculum. You’ll see how a few simple questions at the beginning of class can really get the kids engaged. The material is simple and doctrinal – no mamby pamby catechisms in sight. Thanks again.

  11. Short of being able to fly either Kevin or Michael in to teach such a lesson for our deacon-aged son, I don’t suppose you could furnish an outline or some notes? While I have probably heard much of what you taught, “familiarity with” and “ability to teach in an interesting way” are different enough as to almost guarantee me difficulties. We’re currently living in Spain, and our son doesn’t speak much Spanish, so church for him these days is generally three hours of enforced day dreaming. We’ve decided to do our own three-person English Sunday School class, and would love any help you can share on the topic of just this kind of understanding of the standard works.

  12. Good stuff Kevin. You are a top man.

  13. We’re a bit to eager to make everything a ‘spiritual experience’ that we fail to put down basic infrastructure. This is a problem in the adult world, how wards/stakes communicate and operate as well. It’s a general issue in our society and needs fixin!

  14. Kevin Barney says:
  15. Kevin, I so wish you were my kids’ teacher. During Sunday School the past month, my 14 has started sending my wife and me memes of Kermit the Frog hanging himself. Yesterday I let him skip Sunday School and sit in the foyer reading “Misunderstanding Scripture With Western Eyes.” I figured at least he would learn something that way.

  16. Kevin, thanks for these links–I will get to work on them, and hope they will help us with some fruitful discussions.

  17. Ardis — very interesting to hear a similar lesson had been put out as official curriculum way back in the 1930s! How wonderful it would be to get something like that these days, but, alas, as virtually everyone has pointed out in this discussion, the modern curriculum for the last couple of decades at least has focused almost solely on using the scriptures as isolated prooftexts for any given teaching of a current General Authority. And so it shouldn’t surprise us that teenagers today know nothing about what the scriptures actually are and are only aware of their prooftexting value because that is all their parents know, for the most part, thanks to this curriculum.

  18. Ardis – what is the Millennial Star lesson you referenced? I’m interested in reading it.

  19. As a long time youth Sunday school teacher, and frequent seminary teacher, I predict the following: try and give the same lesson to the same kids in 4 week’s time, and they will stare blankly at you and remember less than 25% of it. In another 4 weeks it will be almost 0%.
    A lot of the adults saying “I was NEVER taught that when I was a kid!” most assuredly were taught it at least once in their youth, but the actual brains of the young aren’t formed well enough to have good recall past the short term.

  20. You could always give them a catechism that isn’t namby-pamby…

  21. Kevin Barney says:

    N, the same could be said of me! I can’t remember what I had for breakfast this morning.

    Kullervo, here is how I like to illustrate the catechistic patter of our lesson manuals.

    Teacher: Could someone read John 11:35 for us?

    Student A: “Jesus Wept.”

    Teacher: Very good. Now, what did Jesus do on that occasion?

    Students: [crickets]

    Teacher: Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

    Student B: Uh, he wept?

    Teacher: Yes, excellent!

%d bloggers like this: