Thoughts on wrestling with lesson prep, the manual, and teaching the teachers.

Thoughts on wrestling with lesson prep, the manual, and teaching the teachers. October 20, 2010

Over at FaithPromotingRumor, TT analyzes a collection of statements from various manuals about using “outside” materials in  preparing lessons.

That’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while, because I’ve  suspected that Church materials  are not entirely consistent with their directives about this. At one extreme is the unsigned Church News article (the authority of which can be debated), which more or less states that you can’t even use uncorrelated materials to prepare a lesson and that “Everything you need — and more — is in your manual.”

(TT points out that to some extent, there’s no such thing as inside or outside information, since “inside” sources like the Bible Dictionary or Institute manuals were prepared from “outside” sources.)

On the other hand, Elder Perry spoke laudably of his mother, who “was diligent and thorough in her preparation. I have distinct memories of the days preceding her lessons. The dining room table would be covered with reference materials and the notes she was preparing for her lesson. There was so much material prepared that I’m sure only a small portion of it was ever used during the class, but I’m just as sure that none of her preparation was ever wasted.” This is an Apostle in General Conference. Should we use his praised mother as a positive and normative model to follow? She certainly wasn’t just using the manual. Moreover, other Apostles cite from all kinds of non-correlated material in General Conference. Should that be taken as normative or does a different standard apply?

In short, there doesn’t seem to be tight agreement in official LDS discourse about the value and proper integration or rejection of these things into one’s preparation for a lesson.

Can we make safe assumptions about the motive for these limitations? Is there a specific target?

Is “weird doctrine” the target? Or “academic” approaches which may provide more complicated answers the Powers That Be would like to avoid? What constitutes an “academic” approach varies widely, seemingly based on  education, experiences, and biases. Other motives/targets are possible, of course.

I don’t think anyone wants Sister Smith or Brother Johnson to turn Isaiah into a political commentary on Obama, nor, on the other hand, to focus on Assyrian pottery typology or the semi-ergative nature of the Hebrew particle ‘et. But most class members want the scriptures to make sense, which is particularly difficult for a teacher when the reading is limited to the manual and the KJV OT. Indeed, I think a teacher is more likely to go off on an unrelated tangent *because* they don’t understand the scriptures.

Moreover, how should one deal with the manual when it makes clear errors of fact or interpretation?

These issues are very real dilemma for me, and I’ve talked to lots of different people about it over the years:  various family members, teachers, Stake Presidents, etc. I’ve done a fair bit of teaching as well as formal academic scripture study and sometimes have to wrestle with how to approach things in class. (I treat Institute very differently than Gospel Doctrine.) My ultimate goal is to teach the scriptures and Gospel in an edifying way, which I’m sure no on could quibble with, but we may disagree on whether I’m succeeding and the proper way to  accomplish that goal.

My immediate problem is that I’m the Sunday School President and about to start a teacher training course. I was hoping to raise some of these issues about inconsistent message and the role of the manual and preparation. I think my ward does a good job teaching  within acceptable boundaries, but I’ve been loosely instructed to emphasize teaching from the manual. I haven’t observed that to be a problem, but then, I’m not in charge.

I’m not entirely sure what it means to teach from the manual. At what point has one deviated from the manual? When you ask a question not listed? When you take a topic in a different direction than intended? Or as long as you cover the scriptural passage in question and everyone is edified, is that acceptable?

I have similar philosophical issues with “keeping the doctrine pure.” Whose doctrine? Whose interpretation of doctrine? That of the manual? That of the scripture in question? That of this or that general authority? It seems that keeping the doctrine pure assumes that there is clear detailed doctrine somewhere, that all these sources harmonize easily and neatly, which isn’t the case. As one of my BYU profs said, you can have it all or you can have it consistent, but you can’t have both.

I’d love to see John Welch’s Becoming a Gospel Scholar published in the Ensign, or at least some statement to the effect that there is lots of good useful reading to be found outside of correlated sources. I’ll wait long, I expect.

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