Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

How to Teach the New MP/RS

Posted by BrianJ on December 21, 2009

While the topics are (supposedly) not new, many teachers are new to teaching lessons from a manual like “Gospel Principles,” the newly revised manual for priesthood and Relief Society over the next two years. We at the Feast Blog plan to regularly post lesson notes at least a week before each lesson (i.e., two posts per month). To kick things off, however, I thought it would be helpful to discuss how to teach from this manual.

I see six general approaches:

1) Gospel Essential for Everyone: investigators and new members attend this introductory course using the same manual; deliver the same lessons to MP/RS.

2) Back to Basics: review and repeat what we all already know to remind us of what “really matters.”

3) Reinforce Our Foundations: why do you believe what you believe? where did “doctrine x” originate?

4) Probe the Shadows: explore the limits of our belief to extend our understanding and appreciation of the Gospel; including challenging “fuzzy doctrine.”

5) Testimonial: share personal witness/revelation/experiences.

6) Redlining: highlight the changes made in the revised edition.

This is open to debate, but I’ll go ahead and say that #1 and #2, in most wards, would be unhelpful. The first disregards one’s audience entirely, and I can’t imagine a good lesson as a result. True, most classes will have one or two new members who haven’t “heard all this before.” While they benefit from an introductory course, they already get one during Sunday School, so delivering essentially the same lessons on essentially the same level serves neither them (sitting through back-to-back lessons) nor the long-time members. Also, wouldn’t it be nice for new members to start out knowing that there’s much more to the Atonement, or Heavenly Father, or Faith than can be covered in only 30 min? How better to show this than to deliver an entirely different lesson on the same topic?

The second approach is probably even worse—and I only bring it up because it’s an idea I’ve heard several times. For starters, it’s insulting: what about the past several years of devoted study didn’t “matter”? Second, it reinforces the false and harmful idea that there are doctrines “we” all know, or all understand, or all necessarily accept; i.e., a creedalist approach to Gospel teaching. Third, it’s a wasted opportunity to teach and learn.

That leaves #3-6, which are all helpful and complimentary. I will probably initiate my lessons with approach #3, before shifting toward #4. “Chapter and Verse!” will be my mantra on the occasions I get to teach; “If you don’t know why you believe something, then why do you believe it?” Inevitably, some doctrines will come up that are difficult or impossible to support with scripture. That’s when approach #4 kicks in: in what sense did Jesus “pay” for sins? how was that price calculated? who was paid? what are the limits of “debt/payment” language?

My lesson notes will probably never include #5, partly because it’s not my strength in teaching and because those are difficult to share in a blog format. I hope that absence doesn’t suggest that I devalue personal experiences; in the end, they’re all that really matter.

I’ve already seen posts following approach #6—I first saw it here. This approach could start up some very productive discussion, but I’d caution against making too much about specific changes. Since in many cases it’s impossible to know exactly why a change was made, pushing the issue too hard is bound to be contentious. I’ll approach any revisions in much the same way I approach the JST or different Bible translations: differences reflect other possible interpretations and should be the start, not the end, of debate.

What are your plans for teaching MP/RS?

17 Responses to “How to Teach the New MP/RS”

  1. joespencer said

    Great overview, Brian. People should expect my notes, like yours, to trace a trajectory from approach 3 to approach 4 in each instance.

    I’ll say of the other four approaches, though, that:

    (1) I’m glad there are those who think there’s something like approaches 1 and 2 implicit in the announcement that we’re going to use this manual, because I—as a teacher—can use their resultant comfort with the manual to take up approaches 3 and 4.

    (2) I think that a good deal of extremely careful work along the lines of approach 6 will be important for me when I’m preparing notes for these posts, though I don’t know how much of it will appear in my actual posts. I do think it is helpful, like you say, to allow the various editions to force us to see possibilities in the text (or doctrines) we might have overlooked without those differences.

    (3) I tend to depend, at least when I’m teaching, on my students for approach 5. Discussion in the classroom usually brings out a couple of points to be privileged, and it becomes easy at the end to see what calls for testimony.

    But again: great overview. I hope others chime in here, since a few of us are getting ready to put together notes for the first lessons for next year.

  2. Ben said

    Excellent. I’ve been trying to put together some ideas on how to teach this myself.

  3. Robert C. said

    Brian, thanks, great thoughts. Though, I sort of feel like answering (e) none of the above. Perhaps I think the best approach is what you call “probing the shadows” but I don’t like that term, and “back to basics” sounds to boring, as you’ve nicely described. I’ll have to think more before trying to improve much on any of this, but I think that most appropriate would be an approach that takes us back to many core (i.e., “basic,” but without the connotations of redundancy) issues of the gospel, but in a way that is fresh, new and reinvigorating. Oftentimes there might be big surprises and changes in our understanding, but perhaps more often there will simply be new appreciations and new small changes in our understanding (though these small and simple changes might have great implications!).

    The following analogy comes to mind, that I hope is taken in the right spirit: In today’s culture, there are often books written about how to keep the magic alive in a marriage. Oftentimes this advice makes suggestions for spicing things up in the bedroom. I think this is generally not the right kind of issues to focus on, addressing merely the symptoms of marital frustration, rather than the root cause(s). I think “delving into the mysteries,” or “shadows” as you say, is often analogous to efforts to improve a marriage by spicing things up in the bedroom: it might help keep things interesting in some ways, but it ignores the deeper and more important issues….

  4. BrianJ said

    Robert: thanks for the counterpoint. I’ll admit that I didn’t love using the word “shadows” because of all the Sauron/covert/sneakiness associated with the term. The other option was just as bad: the “edge” of belief, and all the negative imagery of falling off a cliff, etc. So I stuck with the “shadows” theme because I think it still captures what I mean: take anything that you believe or understand and there are bound to be aspects of it that you never explored. Why haven’t you explored them? How might exploring them affect (strengthen, alter, etc.) what you believe? You see how I flesh this out a bit with some sample questions on the Atonement—some pretty basic questions, I think, that nevertheless challenge terms that are more frequently used than thought about; I grew up hearing that Jesus “paid” for my sins, but only a few years ago stopped to consider what that word really means. Thus, “paid for” was a shadow for me: a term often passed over but never explored. I want to shine light into those shadows to find what treasures—or destructive pests—hide inside.

    Another way to express this approach is to call it “Looking Under the Hood,” as in the hood of a car. Many of us know almost nothing about the cars we drive and then when they break we have no idea why; the mechanic comes back with a diagnosis about some part we didn’t even know existed—“the axial manifold control is rusted out,” or something like that. Anyway, I like this analogy because it expresses the positive aspect of the approach, but I think I still prefer the “shadows” imagery because I want to capture the idea that not everything “under the hood” is welcome or desirable, whereas presumably all the parts in your engine are things you want.

  5. Paul B. said

    A teaching approach for a High Priest group may well involve a great deal of shadows (or, Mysteries of the Kingdom). This may not be advisable for the RS or EQ.

  6. NathanG said

    Thanks Brian.

    I have been wondering how my notes would come about and I was excited to see some other posts before mine is due. I like 3 and 4 with 5 and 6 as they come up.

    An approach for a teacher that may be teaching all of these lessons (not possible with those posting lesson notes on this blog) is to come up with an overall theme to teach the lessons from. One clever teacher of a gospel principles class I attended used the 13 Articles of Faith as a basis to teach all the lessons. Every time a lesson related to an article of faith (every lesson as I recall) that article would be reviewed. It also provided a quick and easy recap of prior lessons by going over the previously covered articles of faith. If I were actually teaching these lessons, I would try to tie all the lessons into our covenant relationship with Christ, but only because that has been a dominant theme in my own scripture study over the last while. As an example, a lesson on the word of wisdom might discuss that it isn’t so much that a cup of coffee makes someone inherently bad or all that bad for our health, but rather that we as members of the church made a promise to abstain from coffee, and breaking that promise is inherently wrong.

  7. BrianJ said

    Paul B: I’m not clear why approach #4 (shadows) wouldn’t be appropriate for all age groups—or even all subjects. It’s pretty much how I teach my kids at home (ages 2-8).

    Nathan: I really like your idea of a covenant-based theme. And your previous teacher sounds very clever indeed! If I taught it every week, I might choose a unity/Zion-based theme for each lesson.

  8. KirkC said

    Nice ideas shared here. I have been struggling over how to make EQ interesting (as the teacher) this year. However, one thing throws a wrench into things. Our Bishopric has stated they don’t want the teachers in our ward to pose any questions asked that are “not in the Manuel.” Needless to say, I feel they are asking me to teach from #1 with a little #2 mixed in. I am very uncomfortable because this is not my normal teaching style, and I personally would not like to sit through it. #1-2 is boring and insulting to the average member. I am still trying to figure out the best way to deal with this situation.

  9. Robert C. said

    Kirk, this sounds like a real challenge. I’ll try to make it a point to highlight what I think are the most interesting discussion questions raised in the manual. I think that there are enough interesting ones to be optimistic about generating good discussion based just on these questions and the passages (incl. scriptures) in the manual.

    I’m going to write a post on the second lesson in the manual, on “Our Heavenly Family,” and I think the following questions directly from the manual are all quite rich (note in particular how the last one effectively raises the question of theodicy which philosophers and theologians have struggled with for centuries!):

    * What is our relationship to God and to each other?
    * How are we like our heavenly parents?
    * How does earth life help prepare us to become like our heavenly parents?
    * Why would our Father in Heaven permit us to experience suffering and death on earth?

    • Robert C. said

      (The trick, of course, would be to lead the discussion in interesting ways if others are just offering perfunctory responses. Hopefully this where our posts on this blog will be quite helpful, in helping us all get beyond discussion based on vain repetitions….)

  10. joespencer said

    Kirk, do you think this injunction from the bishopric includes questions implicitly asked by the manual? I imagine you would be free to raise questions about wording in the text, about the scriptures cited in the text, etc., etc.

  11. BrianJ said

    Kirk: I also wonder just how “strict” your bishop intends this to be. The manual includes lots of questions that could be the starting point for discussions that last for weeks; does your bishop allow for follow-up questions? If so, then I don’t think you’ll have any problems: you could go so far as to state at the beginning of your lesson that “Today’s discussion will focus entirely on question X from the manual,” and in your lesson prep you could write up a dozen or so follow-up questions that force the class to examine the text and their answers more carefully.

    If your bishop literally means that you are not allowed to ask anything that isn’t in the manual, then I can only suggest meeting with him and/or the Sunday School president to discuss why you think that cannot yield a worthwhile lesson.

  12. KirkC said

    I got the idea that they wanted everyone to stick to the manual questions so not to get into “deep doctrine” or “tangents.” However, I have come up with an idea similar to what you have all suggested, taking a question/text from the lesson and going from there.

    I tend to like scriptures rather than quotes/questions myself. I prefer to read a section of text and let the discussion develop that way on its own. I have questions in my mind, of course, if nobody brings anything up, but 80% of the time someone will start talking directly after I ask the question, “what can we understand from this passage?” I’d say I use that phase almost every Sunday. I use it because it almost always generates response.

    With that said, I think I will be able to work something out. I will report my findings when I teach the first lesson in a couple of weeks!

    PS I am also in the Stake Sunday School, so that should give me some pull :)

  13. [...] How to Teach the New MP/RS [...]

  14. JohnC said

    I never tire of teaching the SOS (same old stuff) in part because it has endless depth and challenge built into it by our wise Father in Heaven. I think that the enormous depth of Gospel principles is generally revealed only in the diversity of life’s rich and challenging experience. Consequently it seems to me that Saints sharing their experiences is critical to plumbing the SOS. I don’t think that’s easy, or predictable. I have a hard time asking “So do any of you want to share a testimony about thus and such?” But I have noted that it is easy to get the High Priests to tell me “What do the LDS believe”, and to get the Elders to ask how the principle can practically be applied to life (simultaneously with all the other principles). And I find it is often easy to get the sisters to answer “What would you tell a loved one with thus and such a doubt or problem…?” Each group is different, and so I pray as I prepare, and then I hope to be free enough from my outline to listen to what class members are saying and bend the discussion in response. There may be a few class members who I can predict, but most of the time, I have no idea who out there needs what in any very specific sense. But God knows, and sometimes he whispers to me or to a class member, and then there is nothing so satisfying as having a someone thank you for discussing something important which they have wondered about for years. When I can get the members teaching each other I feel success even if I have to jetison much of my outline.

    My second approach is akin to #3 & #4, because like many of you, I am best teaching ideas even while I acknowledge that my deepest feelings are most important. I firmly believe Joseph Smith’s teaching that “truth is revealed in contrarities.” So I often ask “What has the restoration added to Christian understanding of the principle of _____?” Without contending with any specific church, we can recall and explore the new light, and greater depth God has given us. I may briefly review religious history, or quote an authority with contrasting beliefs. In my preparations this approach not only cleanses the pallate of my mind, but it invariably brings me to deep gratitude for the SOS. I am constantly humbled by the wise selection of revelations restored, and often perplexed by what is yet unexplained. While I do not always share my explorations with the class, they often make great launching pads.

    Another approach I love is a gentler version of the law school method. Rookie law students learn that the common law develops from cases where there are at least two valid competing principles embedded in the parties dispute. No matter which side of the case the OneL takes, the professor can batter him to embarrassment with the other side. This conflict in the classroom helps define the legal dialectic in the students mind as he sees how the case yields a new rule of law, or an exception to the previous rule that then serves as future precedent.

    In my church classes I have often explored polar principles. These gospel principles G. K. Chesterton once called “Wild cards.” He said that they are so powerful that outside the warp and weft of orthodoxy they can be destructive and idolatrous. For example justice untempered by mercy, or the so-called “brutal honesty.” Many of my most productive Sunday discussions end up placing principles on a continuum where we must seek a balance. Then, often we discover that two crossing continua best describe the principles we struggle to balance and meld into our lives and then somehow the spirit, the church, and the gospel help us to advance upon both scales simultaneously. Teaching is such a wonderful adventure. I wish you all well in sharing it with your students.

  15. [...] by BrianJ on January 3, 2010 As discussed in a previous post, I tried to create lesson notes/questions that explore what we, as individuals, believe and [...]

  16. Don Ashton said

    I taught Gospel Principles for two years running. I came away with a stronger testimony of the Gospel revealed by the manual because of its unique to the curriculum of the Church i.e. it is a comprehensive overview of the Gospel, from A to Z, or more accurately from pre-existence to Exhalation, and includes most everything in between. Because it treats subjects, not x number of pages of scriptures, it allows actual development of an “cosmological” overview. My second year teaching the class found me going deep into our foundational beliefs so that even the old-fogie ward missionaries were hearing stuff for the first time.

    While the GP manual introduction advises us to stay with the material in the manual, it also advises us to follow the direction of the Spirit. In any event, I take my ultimate authority from those books presented to the entire Church and which we have accepted as binding Official Doctrine: OT, NT, BofM, D&C, PGP:

    D&C 109: 7 And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom, seek learning even by study and also by faith:

    D&C 88:118.
    Seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.”

    D&C 88:78-80
    Be instructed in theory, principle, and law of all things that pertain to the kingdom of God, including things of heaven, earth, geology, history, current events, and probable future events, things of our country and countries abroad, and international events.

    Therefore, I liberally use the Standard Works, with frequent citations of the GA’s, with occasional quotes from non-Mormon sources that are particularly relevent. For example, in lesson 1 on our Heavenly Family, I quoted C.S. Lewis. 1980 The weight of glory, p. 14-15

    “Its a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.
    All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.
    There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors…next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, out neighbor is the holiest object presented to our senses.”

    When I teach, I consider it a success only if I do at least of one of three things: The class members are informed, inspired, or motivated. Anything less than that means I’m only wasting my time and theirs.

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