Popping Around

Sunday, August 4, 2013

My Mormon Perspective: Preparing Our Youth, to Be Students and Teachers: Re-examining the "New Curriculum"

A variety of treats means that even if you only pick a few, it will still be delicious!

Today's post at By Common Consent, gives me a perfect opportunity to come back to the changing curriculum for Mormon youth, ages 12-18. I have been excited, fascinated and ultimately, in credibly grateful that there is a new curriculum, called Come Follow Me, that has been taught since January 2013.  While still not perfect, it is such a huge improvement, that I think it is important to always mention, when addressing this topic, that when compared to it's predecessor, or the curriculum when I was in Young Women's 20+ years ago, that I still occasionally pinch myself when I read it.  That doesn't mean it is perfect or gets a free pass, but I sometimes wonder if the details of my teenage life might have been drastically different if I had been part of a cadre of youth who had only ever been taught this curriculum.  My gratitude that my 11 1/2 year old twins will never be taught from the manuals I was, is an incredibly emotionally and spiritually satisfying thing for me.  They will be saved not only being taught in the way I was, but so will their peers. (I have linked to a few posts that talk about my experiences, and those of others who were taught from those older programs.)

I've both compared several months worth of lessons, (although with health issues, it hasn't always been my first priority) and talked to leaders teaching the lessons about how they teach them, and how the youth respond. One close friend, during one of our email discussions, wrote, " you don't know how frustrating it is to prepare a Sunday School lesson with feminist seasoning, but based on the lesson plan with plenty of material that leads to gospel conclusions, only to have some kid from Utah ruin it by teaching false doctrine. I ended up being forced to spend the rest of the class, using the lesson, to prove their idiocy wrong." (Used with permission, name withheld)

There are other memorable quotes in that exchange, as well as my conversations with my mother, who is a YW president, and several friends who teach youth in SS, YW and YM. All of them have had derailed lessons, but most report that the material in the lessons can be used to get a conversation back on track.  I am grateful to Morgan at BCC for her ongoing series, which looks at the basic similarities and differences.  (This is the latest, and she links to her other posts in the Note, at the bottom of the post.)

I have really wanted to sit in on some classes being taught with the new curriculum, but I have either been on bedrest, or house-bound, since before they were introduced. At the time I said that I thought the curriculum changes were the bigger announcement made during that conference, and I stand by it!   As I said then, "I am floored that the new curriculum for YOUNG WOMEN and YOUNG MEN has just been completely revamped, and it isn't the biggest story of in the LDS church. They will be receiving the same lessons, they will all be focusing on the Preach My Gospel* topics, and they  will be getting 6 years of religious training aimed at creating good members, and great missionaries. Whether someone goes on a mission or not, they will have a much stronger gospel base than most of our current missionaries have!"

 While not all topics covered in the lessons is from Teach My Gospel, in the 3 months that I personally compared, (and in the posts that Morgan has written, that seems to hold out, although some commenters are more or less worried about individual differences or similarities) I didn't find anything missing from the new lessons that is taught in Preach My Gospel, although there certainly are formatting and grouping differences. While there are a number of things that are rearranged, and that pull their wording from either Duty to God or YW advancement, they are, (in my opinion) minor when compared to the previous manuals, and unrecognizable compared to those when I was in YW.

Like my frustrated friend, quoted earlier, I think that there will be teachers and students, who feel like a member of the class, another adult in the room, (or even the teacher) can crossed a line into speculation, or areas that are not doctrine, while not officially running afoul of the manual, and some lessons set up more opportunities for this than others. From what I have read online from teachers and students, and had reported to me by people I know personally, the resources in the lesson are broad and deep enough that one or two "off base comments" can be addressed with other lesson materials that can bring in other ideas and thoughts, all of which lead to the central topic of the lesson. A discussion that could be upset by someone introducing false doctrine, can change how the presentation is ordered and focused, but, "being forced to spend the rest of the class, using the lesson, to prove their idiocy wrong," is preferable, (in my book at least) to having the lesson itself be based on false doctrine or folklore, with a few correct principles thrown in, because the materials provided are not sufficient to have a real discussion.

I want to qualify this entire post, and why I think this program is so much better than others before it, with one caveat. This program makes it easier for a teacher to teach correct doctrine because it is laid out in lesson plans that read smoothly. A prepared teacher might have to fight against false doctrine from her students or other people in her, (or his) classroom, but so far, I have yet to see doctrinal claims that I would count as folklore or false doctrine.  (I am willing to retract my statement if I missed some, but even 20 in a year would be better than my two months of YW lessons based on Saturday's Warriors.  I admit that my expectations might be too low.). The small number of "disagreements," (and even that seems too harsh a word) I have found with the text of the lesson manuals would really come under the categories of  "tone" or style differences, rather than misogyny, folklore, folk doctrine, or false doctrine.

A number of things that were talked about in a variety of Mormon Feminist circles, as worries about specific parts of the curriculum, but generally the ones that are most serious have to do with modesty teaching in LDS culture.  I think that there is still a lot of work to do, with the culture, traditions, activities and curriculum in LDS culture, especially in the United States.  I do think that it is important to be vigilant, to make sure that as parents we are teaching our boys to be responsible for their thoughts and actions, and for girls to feel good about their bodies and sexuality.  If any curriculum is going to pass or fail based on how it deal with modesty, no LDS curriculum would get a "passing grade" at this point, because we as a culture are getting a failing grade.  I hear the frustrations of Young Women's leaders who spent a very long month of June teaching "modesty" and who are still in PTSD mode.  The program isn't perfect, and it needs to be changed, especially if we don't want June to be the month that is celebrated in Mormon Feminist circles as the month to either avoid church, or resign. Still, despite and because of the closeness us LDS modesty culture, and rape culture in general, that LDS leaders will focus on calling men and women to teach the youth classes who have both strong testimonies, and who will not bring into their classrooms folklore, false doctrine, or hurtful and unnecessary traditions, that are not taught in the manual and are not gospel principles.

As parents, or other adults in the ward, who have sustained a teacher in their calling, we need to support teachers so that they are comfortable enough with the gospel, and their students, to be open and direct when they catch incorrect principles being taught by students, or other adults in their classes. If we are visiting at the request of the teacher, then we need to do what we have been asked to do, and only give input that we know is welcome.  If we are visiting because we want to know, and understand, the things our children are being taught, we owe it to the teacher and students to have read the lesson that will be taught, and not derail the teacher's lesson plan. 

One friend, who is "out of the closet as a feminist" in her conservative Utah ward, often has parents visit her class.  Many come originally worried about what she might be teaching to their children.  She has done several things that I think are great innovations to help her teenage students, and any adults who decide to join her class.  I have her permission to use her methods, (and if you are in her ward I'm sure you will recognize her, but she tries hard to simply be seen as a SS teacher, so she asked that I not use her name.  The first thinks that she does is that she makes a copy of her outline for the class, so that they have something to write on during class time, even if all the are doing in doodling.  Each student has their own clipboard, and there is a permanent tracking sheet for "points" earned, (more on that later) the outline for the current week and any week they have missed, and a reminder card that includes all of the scriptures she is planning on using in the following week's lesson. She has extra clip boards, and any parent who shows up, is asked to go to the library and get a copy of the outline made, and if they don't have them, a physical copy of the scriptures, (a requirement for all her 14-15 year-old class students) before they join the class that day.  Since students prove they have read the scriptures for this week's class by  marking them with red pencil or some other way, each student has a quad, a physical set of all LDS scriptures. 

Most of her students will start seminary the following year, and she has convinced the bishop in their ward to order the quads so that each of her students has a set, regardless of their parents' ability to pay.  When the bishopric originally baulked at the cost of having leather bound quads, with the name of the student imprinted on them, make for non-seminary students, when they didn't even provide quads to seminary students, (they provided the soft cover "missionary" editions to seminary students) my friend was even more determined not to let the money gap between a large portion of the ward, and 4 low-income apartment complexes that were "tacked on" to their boundaries.  She asked the RS and HP leaders to have 5 minutes the next Sunday, for an announcement, in their meetings.  She told the groups why she thought the youth, especially those from less economically stable backgrounds, should have their own copy of the scriptures, emblazoned with their name on them, the year before they went to seminary.  She explained the that way she intended to use them as part of the new curriculum, and then went on to explain that 1/3 of the ward's seminary students had only missionary copies of the scriptures.  She believed that in a ward that had been blessed as much as they had, that they could afford to provide imprinted scriptures to every seminary student. She passed out tithing slips with the "Other" category already filled in with Seminary Scripture Fund. (It took 2 weeks to have enough funds to buy quads for over 500 students, and the stake is requesting permission to use some of the money to provide quads to inner city seminary students in the US, as well as in Ghana, were several senior couples in the ward have served as missionaries.)

After several weeks in January, when about 1/3 of her class was made up of adult parents, she is down to three (3) "regulars," parents who admit that they enjoy her class more, and probably wouldn't be going to Gospel Doctrine if they were not attending class with their teenagers.  She has continued to have outlines available every week, since her class sometimes swells with "concerned adults," or feminist friends who have heard about her class. (June was a particularly intense month, with adults out numbering kids all but one Sunday, as the modesty lessons had nervous parents unsure what a feminist might be teaching.)  Even if the adults weren't there, her students love having them, and several have told her that they have kept all of them in journals or scrapbooks. Since they also are where the kids write down the words they want to add to the week's homework, it makes the last 5-10 minutes of class easier.  As I have corresponded with her during this year, (my excitement, expressed in my October post, about the new curriculum in one of the reasons she accepted the calling) I have realized just how much more each of us can, and should be doing to sustain the men and women who teach our children.

What does it mean to sustain a teacher?  Here is what I think.  We need to ask the teacher to let us know if a child or grandchild doesn't know or understand a gospel principle, and be willing to put the time into helping them make the principle relatable. We have to let our pride go, so that as a parent, teacher, or class member, we are teaching and learning by the Spirit. That can mean a very doctrinally correct detour, important for the spiritual growth of a class member or members, on occasion.  In many of the old manuals, there wasn't really a way to spend an entire lesson talking about something from last week that was confusing to everyone.  One of the beauties of the new manuals, is that by spending a month on a subject, it gives teachers and students greater flexibility, greater "permission" you might say, to do what is right for the students. It doesn't have to be right for a single class in Utah, Idaho, or Brazil, but if a class in an Oregon City ward needs to take an extra week focusing on what modesty of speech means, then the teacher of that class has full permission to focus on it, even if it is something that would only work in an individual class. More often it is several concepts, that over a couple weeks of teaching a subject, it becomes obvious that the major barrier to understanding and applying something in their lives, for most of the class members, is a combination of one or two concepts.  While there isn't an official lesson just about them, there are lesson materials from several lessons, and lots of other source material that can be brought in, so that students can work together, with their teacher and families to understand and embrace parts of the gospel that they might have otherwise missed.

I hadn't realized just how important that is, until my feminist friend shared one of the tools she created for the clipboards, that has made a huge difference for her, her students and their families, in not letting concepts slip through the cracks, or be glossed over.  One of her most successful teaching tools has been to have students write down on their outlines, and then during the last 10 minutes of class, ask about concepts that they aren't sure how to apply in their lives.  While they talk about them in class, if any student still is struggling with it, everyone writes it down all of the concepts were at least one student had questions about what the lesson said as part of their homework.  For each concept, the student is asked to talk to their parents (grandparents or close family members or friends are acceptable too) about it, to look up talks on the subject on lds.org, to do a Google search for how it is used in non-LDS culture(s), and to pray about it.  The next class always starts with a discussion about what the students found out in their quest for knowledge, and points are accrued by students for parent (or other adults mentioned) who with their signatures indicate they had talked about the concepts with the students. Students also share talks that were helpful (kids bring a copy of the talk, and others can get copies made if they want to take it home to read on their own) and they share the most helpful things found from their Google searches. (Again, they get points for talking about what they brought and how it relates, not just for having the paper that shows they did a search.) Students are then invited to share any spiritual experiences they had while praying or pondering the things they learned.  Some students are more comfortable bringing something that is written out, and they or another student can then read it to the class, while other are comfortable with less formal sharing.  (Students also get points for saying prayers daily and reading scriptures daily, they are on the honor system in reporting, and each student is working to earn a personally significant prize, with the number of points needed dependent on the starting place of the student, what changes are needed to make those points possible, and what the prize they are working towards is.  If you are curious about more details, ask in comments, and I can go into more detail. Or we might even convince her to "out herself" here.  ;-) We will see.) 

Flexibility is one of the built in strengths and weaknesses of the new program. It is obvious that the manual does not want the lessons to be inflexible or to become rote memorization.  It gives a wide enough base of knowledge and resources that teachers and student can follow both the interests and spiritual needs of students, but when we take a detour, to examine part of the gospel in a more in depth manner, the things that are focused on must be doctrinally sound.  It is the same challenge that most parents have at home.  We want to make sure we aren't the ones raising the kid whose head is in the clouds, and whose mouth is spouting folk doctrine, because he/she doesn't know the difference between doctrine and the stories that Uncle Bill likes to tell about Warren Porter Rockwell trying to kill great-great-great-great-great grandpa Joe for cheating in a card game because they were both drunk. The story make a great story when Uncle Bill tells it, but without even a diary entry to prove it, and some historical facts that show the two men were not alive at the same time, it probably shouldn't be the topic of a talk or the justification for a real life "Grand Theft Auto" combined activity.  Having a kid with an imagination is great, but we can't expect that our children will learn enough of the gospel on Sunday, that we don't need to have talks about the gospel as part of our regular relationship with our children.  I am grateful that by having manuals that are so easily accessed, that give such a wide range of resources, and that are much more doctrinally sound than the manuals I grew up with.  I don't expect every lesson to be like my children sitting at the Savior's feet, but I do think that there is more focus on the gospel, and a better chance that false doctrine won't be passed on through stories, in the manuals, that directly contradict modern policy within the church.

As our children get older, hopefully they have been taught at home, and at church, how to identify and address false doctrine, both from others and because they are called on it when it comes from their mouths.  Whether using church magazines, class materials, their own personal experiences, or the scriptures, students who have both knowledge and strong testimonies can help clean up a folklore mess, false doctrine spill, or quote-taken-out-of-context malfunction, if they have, and know how to use those tools.  While it may be the job of their teacher to present the lesson, students should be learning the critical thinking skills to get a class back onto solid doctrinal ground, in a minimum amount of time. Sitting in Gospel Doctrine I often hear adults without those tools, and I am hopeful that more doctrine is being taught in youth Sunday School.  They at least have lesson manual and curriculum that has the potential to teach them the actual doctrine of the gospel.


  1. Nice to see that you're back and writing - I hope your body is treating you a little better nowadays. :)

  2. I've missed you Miss Julia. Welcome back to the upright world; hope you continue to heal and repair.

    Regarding the curriculum. I have not read any of it so I can't speak to its validity. But I'm pretty sure the only true teachings are those that are about love.


  3. Thanks Jill and PMG.

    I'm not going to say I will post everyday, but in looking at the number of "potential posts" I have started since April is kind of mind boggling. Over 70 as notes on my phone, and almost as many sent to an email address I made to just send ideas for posts. Some emails are 50 words or less, some are over 10,000 words. A lot of them are about issues no longer topical, and most need a lot of editing.

    I suspect I will have at least half of my posts be current writing, and the rest be a combo of guest posts and edited ideas I have written since my surgery. I am so glad to have the chance to write and share my writing again!


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