Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Draining the Water Cooler: Creating an Engaging Sunday School

Posted by BrianJ on January 18, 2007

A comment by Debra Riddel on the post titled, The Role of Paradox in Teaching, compared Sunday School to a gathering around the water cooler:

“[Some students] think of class as a ‘water cooler’ experience, where everyone has an opinion, but there is no acknowledged authority.”

The water cooler is used as a place to chat, gossip, advertise items for sale, and generally to avoid work. Work-related conversations may take place, but they are the exception and are typically devoted to complaining or making wistful statements of what one wishes/thinks the company/boss would/should do. Of course that’s not why employers purchase and maintain them, but the water cooler has earned its reputation as the location to engage in something irrelevant or even meaningless.

Sunday School (in some wards) has gained similar notoriety. It is seen by some as the filler between “important” meetings, a place one goes only to avoid being caught playing hooky by one’s child on a potty break. Even those with a positive outlook on Sunday School may use it as a time to discuss opinions and ideas, but never to ask questions, recognize personal ignorance, or discover something that will be acted upon in the coming week—in other words, they attend with a “water cooler” attitude; Sunday School is a place to relax, not to learn. (Just try asking what the lesson was on last week….)

The problem with the water cooler in the workplace is obvious: it is the anti-work place. When the boss tries to crack down on the abuse, fans of the water cooler protest. “But I’m thirsty,” they complain, trying to ignore the time that they know they’ve wasted “just getting a quick drink.”

As we know, Jesus also taught beside a “water cooler”:

“Jesus answered and said unto her, Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” (John 4:13-14)

He’s clearly speaking metonymically, presenting as water the Gospel and love of God. What Jesus offers is not found in the “water cooler” classroom, which is the anti-classroom, but is found by those “who do hunger and thirst after righteousness” (3 Nephi 12:6).

Here are five things (I won’t say simple, because they aren’t) I have done to change my classroom from a “water cooler” to a—well, a classroom.

1) Stop filling the bottle. One of the reasons the “water cooler” classroom persists is that teachers allow it. They do this by asking questions that are easily answered, focusing only on the familiar verses of a reading assignment, and calling on the same few individuals each week. The class as a whole becomes disengaged, and those few who are participating are not actually learning because they are not being stretched. When editing a lesson plan, I delete every question I could answer without having recently read the assignment.

2) Prepare something meaningful. The challenge before every teacher is to find topics that will be interesting and of value to the class—but how to identify them? My solution has been to cover the parts of the reading assignment which I find interesting. As I read the lesson, I write questions for the parts I don’t understand and highlight the verses I think are moving or beautiful. I make a special note of the verses that stay on my mind over the next few days. I include in my lesson plan the questions I had when I read, even if I didn’t find an answer. Throughout all this, I assume that what benefits me will benefit others; nonetheless, I pray that I will cover points that are particularly meaningful to the students.

3) Pour from the source. Object lessons, videos, quotes, games, paintings—they all have their place: as support for, not a competitor to, the reading assignment. Have confidence in the lesson! Remember the Ezra’s success: “All the people wept, when they heard the words of the law.” (Nehemiah 8:9)

4) Be versatile. Few teachers ever have enough time to cover everything they plan. The single biggest improvement in my teaching came when I realized this and what to do about it: I prepare several lessons. More accurately, I prepare several mini-lessons—five to fifteen minutes each. Here’s a rough script of one of my classes:

ME: “What part of the reading do you (the class) want to talk about?”
STUDENT: “Such and such.”
{I find mini-lesson that covers that topic, if I have such}
ME: “Why?”
STUDENT: “Because such and such.”
ME: “Anyone else want to comment or have a question on that?”
ME and CLASS: Discuss. Etc.
ME: “What else do you (the class) want to talk about, or perhaps ask a question?”
ME: “Okay, then I will tell you what I want to talk about. Open to verse….”
ME and CLASS: Discuss as time permits.

Yes, this requires more preparation than a single lesson. Yes, it’s likely that someone will want to talk about something I haven’t prepared. Yes, that can be scary (but see below). But most importantly: Yes, it is rewarding to trade my pearls for the students’ pearls, my questions for their answers, my answers for their questions.

5) Recognize success. For many students, this style of teaching is foreign, so I congratulate people who ask questions, admit they are confused, correct me or express reservation with what I say. (I even resorted to handing out chocolates for a few weeks to anyone who did one of these things.) I suggest that if one student is confused, there are probably several others who are as well but are afraid to speak up. I point out my own fears, mistakes, and ignorance. In short, I try to create an environment where it is safe to stretch, even it means—gasp!—being wrong.

To be fair, there are some really good classrooms that meet around a water cooler. For example, check out Mosiah 18.

11 Responses to “Draining the Water Cooler: Creating an Engaging Sunday School”

  1. Brian, you are making the rest of us look like amateurs! Fantastic post! (Did you, by the way, make this pun on purpose: “to change my classroom from a “water cooler” to a—WELL, a classroom”? I’d like to turn my classroom from a water cooler to a well!)

    Just a reaction/comment to your fourth help. I like this idea a lot, though I’ve never tried it personally. I have attended a few classes that have tried this, and I think they have gone very well. I do something different to accomplish something like the same versatility (though, like my other methods, it works far better with youth than with adults, I think). I don’t really prepare any particular lesson at all. I just study the material thoroughly (hours and hours, literally) so that I am completely at home in the material. Inevitably, spending that much time in a block of scripture (or an idea/doctrine) leads to a sort of internal organization of the material, to a focused question or two, to an obvious flow. As a result, when I stand up to teach, there seems to be an obvious starting point. That starting point is usually the first thirty seconds of the class, and then I simply let things go wherever they would like to go. As questions and comments are proffered, I let them derail anything I would have said, and I follow them out, trying sincerely to see how they reinterpret everything I’ve learned or studied. The result is, at least for me, a remarkably “tight” lesson, one that flows quite “logically” from start to finish, though I didn’t plan anything like that from the start, as well as a very real engagement with the students, rather than a lecture or a led discussion. I think this is another way to accomplish the same sort of thing you are talking about. I suppose that I have had to learn, along the way, to let go of the fact that sometimes I learn things I won’t get to share, but I’m happy to do so because I learn so much more during class itself (this approach is especially helpful when you have to teach five seminary classes the “same” lesson in a row: every class gets to discuss points as they engage the material directly, and yet there is some continuity as you work through the scriptures).

    In the end, I think this may relate to your second point as well: if I take that much time to work through the material myself, I am much, much more likely to come across something that is meaningful, that is REALLY meaningful, for my students. Usually, along the way, I will come across something that should change a lot of minds or hearts on very important things, if the discussion happens in an open and humble way. And it usually does.

  2. Robert C. said

    Great post, Brian. This definitely answers the question I asked on the previous thread about what’s wrong with a water-cooler approach. Also, your #4 suggestion about asking what the class wants to talk about helps me understand better an approach I use for my day job (teaching corporate finance to college students). I’m not sure if this approach would work for Sunday school, but in case there’s a useful idea in this, here’s how I teach my college students:

    I give a handout with the major points of my lecture given in outline form, organized in what I think is the most logical order (which typically follows the order of the assigned readings). Handing this out makes me feel more free in my lecture, if I don’t get to a certain topic I don’t worry b/c students have my lecture notes which they can study on their own, and I can spend class time asking the students questions about certain ideas, letting the lecture unfold more naturally, addressing topics as they arise in the order that the questions arise in that classroom event . I have a tablet PC and actually check off the topics on my handout as we address them, highlighting and annotating as I go in order to give “J” students more of a sense of organization[*]. I really don’t like PowerPoint slides, even though my sense is they are the overwhelming norm in business school classes[**], because I feel they are always pushing my lecture into too linear of a direction. Also, I’ve toyed with the idea of using Mind Manager or some other mind map tool for teaching b/c mind maps do such a good job of breaking the linear mode–but I haven’t made the leap yet….

    * J in the Meyers-Briggs personality test. My dad became a big fan of this test when he was a high councilor and, in taking this test, realized that a lot of the tension he felt with the others on the council was based on the fact that he was an INFP whereas most others (in Church leadership positions in general, he claims) were ESTJ’s. The J is, very roughly, a black-and-white, very organized type of person (“Judging”), and P’s see the world in shades of gray and tend to be less organized. I think this might also be a very rough proxy for modern vs. post-modern affinities in people….

    ** Case-based classes are a clear exception to using Power Point in business schools–I’ve heard secondhand that Kim Clark is pushing the case-based approach really hard at BYU-Idaho.

  3. Jim F. said

    Brian, this is one of the best things on teaching that I’ve seen. Thanks very much.

    Robert, how would case-based teaching work in a Sunday School (or philosophy) class?

  4. Jim F. said

    Brian, I thought these two points were especially important, the second one even more than the first:

    I delete every question I could answer without having recently read the assignment.

    I include in my lesson plan the questions I had when I read, even if I didn’t find an answer

    Too many of our questions in Sunday School are the kind that any member with a pulse could answer. In the university classes I teach, if I refer to “Sunday School questions,” people immediately laugh. They know what I’m talking about. It is unfortunate that they do because it says so much about Sunday School.

    Your second point is particularly important because the most important thing about questions is not finding the answers to them. It is being moved to think and talk by them. Of course that doesn’t mean that answers don’t matter. It just means that they don’t matter as much as what the questions provoke. The problem with many of the questions that teachers ask, Sunday School and otherwise, is that they don’t provoke anything more than giving an answer, too often a “Sunday School” answer.

  5. brianj said

    Joe: Thanks for the feedback. I like what you suggest about becoming totally immersed in the reading so that you can go without a lesson plan. I’ve tried it, but my memory just isn’t good enough to do it. I find myself fumbling to find the verses related to the discussion, etc. So it’s not a problem with the method, but with me.

    Also, you wrote, “I have had to learn…to let go of the fact that sometimes I learn things I won’t get to share….” Well, what are blogs for? {smile}

    Robert: I’m glad I was able to address your question. I actually started giving out lesson notes this year in Sunday School (“this year” meaning just a few weeks ago). I print out my notes/questions for the next week for people to pick up after class—so they have a week to use them for study. It seems to have increased the number of questions, comments, insights, and people who read before class. The biggest drawback that I foresaw was that some might think I was trying to replace the Church’s student manual or that my questions were the only questions that could be asked. To avoid this, I remind the class every single week that that is not what my notes are for.

    Jim: Your words are very encouraging. I have to admit that I think it’s potentially dangerous to ask a question the teacher doesn’t know the answer to. The teacher is there, I think, partly to maintain order, but asking this kind of question requires giving up a certain amount of control. How is the teacher to know whether the discussion that follows is off-topic, too speculative, completely wrong, etc.? I still do it, despite the danger, because of the high reward.

  6. Robert C. said

    Jim F. #3: I have only two very brief conversations with BYU-Idaho prof.’s as sample points. One, I think in poli-sci, didn’t like the case-based push and didn’t understand how it would apply in the humanities, but was adamant that this was something Clark was pushing very strongly. The other was an English prof. who gave me the impression that the push in the humanities was more about just using class discussion as an important factor in grading, so perhaps the class might study some literary critical theories/ideas, and then use Hamlet as a case-study and the teacher would lead a discussion by asking questions about this “case” in the same way a business prof. might ask questions about, say, a Ford case study (in contrast to the way that, say, “tools of analysis” are frequently taught in a business class, in a more lecture-style format).

    I can’t stress how ignorant I really am on this, it was probably irresponsible to even mention what I heard in a public forum like this. But since I already opened the can, here are two views on how it might work in Sunday school:

    (1) Doctrine is analogous to literary critical theory/ideas in the example above, and the scriptures are the case studies themselves. Views on doctrine will be refined and revised as the scriptures are studied more carefully. I think this is a very bad approach, but it might be more in line with what those who push for “case-based teaching” have in mind.

    (2) Good scripture study techniques are analogous to the literary critical theory/ideas in the example above, and the scriptural texts themselves become the case studies for applying these techniques. This is the view I would favor, though it seems a somewhat standard approach (cf. your Scripture Study: Tools and Suggestions book), so calling it a case-based method seems quite forced and even confusing–so it’s quite possible, even likely, that I’m just misapplying what’s intended by case method.

  7. I’m not familiar enough with what Robert is talking about in the business realm to know whether I am simply talking foolishly here, but I think that something like a “case-based” approach is very common in teaching in the Church, though in a way that is ultimately quite limiting. What I have in mind is when a doctrine is taken as the universal and a text as the particular. “What do these verses in Ezekiel tell us about how God loves us?” (No answer, since everyone knows the teacher wants the four ideas listed in the manual) “Well, in verse 29 it says that he will gather us. That really shows God’s love to me….”

    But really, this is the right approach, just done badly, isn’t it? Whether doing mini-lessons or one full-length lesson, one might open with a common doctrinal position or theological position and then take a very serious look at the text to see what it has to teach us about that doctrine or theological position. “We talk a great deal about God’s love, but how might these verses in Ezekiel affect that talk if we take them seriously? How might they change our understanding of God’s love? (No answer at first, because the class is looking seriously at the text, but then the discussion gets rolling).

    I think, in the end, this is what Brian is pushing for here (and it is very similar, I think, to the method implicit in Jim’s regular Sunday School posts here and at T&S). I don’t know at all how to transfer something like that to philosophy, however (except that it is already sort of presupposed, right?).

  8. Robert C. said

    Joe, it seems that what you are saying suggests a difference between a good and bad approaches that amounts to how seriously we take the text relative to our doctrinal presupposition–is this right? That is, the bad approach is proof-texting: “how does the text reinforce what we already know, and if it doesn’t, then we must be reading the text wrong?” And the good approach is the opposite: “how does the text make us reconsider our doctrinal presuppositions?” Is this essentially the same as what you are getting at? I’m very interested in understanding this issue as thougoughly as possible b/c I want to be able to explain this clearly and articulately when occasions arise to describe what I think are good vs. bad approaches to reading and teaching scripture.

  9. Yes, that’s precisely what I’m getting at. In a sense I think this “how does the text make us reconsider our doctrinal presuppositions?” business is what defines “real” or “true” or “good” scripture study/teaching. I cannot make any sense of the scriptures under any other “program.”

  10. Debra Riddel said

    I love what you did with the water cooler comment. It was wonderful to come to you well and be filled with fresh insight. Bravo.
    Debbie Riddel

  11. Kevin Barney said

    Wonderful post and comments! I too follow the approach of mastering the lesson scriptures and being responsive to the direction the class wishes to go (if anyone expresses a preference; often no one does). I learn a tremendous amount from doing this, and the classes usually go very well. The downside is that it takes a lot of effort to prepare, and I tend to burn out in GD callings more quickly than most people would.

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