Since moving back to a family ward I have spent most of my time working with the youth. Other than a brief stint as a Relief Society teacher (cushiest calling ever…) I have either worked in the Sunday School with the 14-15 year olds or as the Laurels advisor. I found Sunday School to be particularly challenging, both because the mixing of genders often changes the dynamic, and because you tend to have less of a personal relationship with the kids than if you work in the Young Women/Men organization. To make matters worse, when I was teaching Sunday School we were still using the Gospel Doctrine manual, which had no suggested activities and was in no way tailored to help teachers reach teenagers. I like to think my frequent complaining letters about this through lds.org helped them move toward the new curriculum.
The women of Exponent II were having a conversation on the backlist about how to work with youth and there were so many good ideas that we decided to make it into a post. Many of these ideas come from the other bloggers. If you readers have any more ideas of how to make church more engaging for teenagers, we would love to hear them.
- If this is the first time teaching your class, have all the students introduce themselves and say what grade they are in, where they go to school, and what they are interested in doing post-graduation
- At the beginning of class, go around and ask everyone what the highlight of their week was. Giving a space to discuss something other than the lesson makes them more likely to listen and interact positively during the lesson itself, and gets every kid talking. This can also be a useful filler during the time you’re waiting for students to file in.
- Whatever the lesson is, tie it to their lives (news of the week, scandal etc.) Apply what principle you’re teaching, for instance ask “was the Holy Ghost with the people in that situation?” let them debate it.
- Ascertain your students’ reading levels and have them participate accordingly. If you have students who really struggle, plan to have them share quotes that are modified to meet their reading level so they can participate without feeling embarrassed. Similarly, if you want a long complicated quote to really make an impact, think in advance who is a strong reader and save that quote for them while encouraging others to participate elsewhere. Reading aloud is an important skill to develop, especially in the church, but an atmosphere of shame or dread will make teaching Sunday School that much harder.
- Pick up on little things (side talking, rocking in chairs, shredding paper on the floor) and call them out. Do this consistently so they don’t walk all over you.
- Bring food. This is cliché, but consider when your ward meets. Mine meets from 11-2, which means my class is always hungry. You could use it as a reward for good behavior, or simply to get the blood sugar high enough that they are able to engage. It doesn’t have to be a treat, I have brought cherry tomatoes, carrots, fruit slices, crackers and other snacks. I often bring wet wipes with me to avoid the inevitable “may I go to the bathroom to wash my hands?” exodus that seriously disrupts a lesson. When their physical needs are met, they’re better able to attend to the Spirit. I think so anyway.
- Try starting a lesson with ascertaining their knowledge levels. This is particularly important with younger teens who have not been in Seminary or had several years of Sunday School under their belts. Ask them what they know about X, maybe putting their answers on the board. At the end of the lesson check back and add things they may have learned to your list, and ask if they feel comfortable with their knowledge levels or if more instruction on the topic would be helpful.
- Call on specific students to give the prayer, rather than waiting for someone to volunteer. One of my tactics is to call on someone for the opening prayer and then have them choose who gives the closing prayer.
- If necessary, reassign seats. This might be particularly true if you have visitors and your class is being cliquey. Having them sit next to someone new, then do an introduction activity to help the class be more attentive and to have more group spirit.
- Once a month have one of the students teach the lesson, particularly if you have an older class. They will soon be going on missions or teaching in singles wards and getting a little practice and instruction in a safe place would be valuable experience. Students often listen closely to one of their own. It also helps the student who teaches have more appreciation for the work that the teacher does every week.
I’m a firm believer in trying to meet different learning styles, even though I personally respond best to reading and discussion. Here are some alternative presentation ideas:
- Role playing. Some kids are hams and like to be the center of attention. Harness that by having them act out scripture stories. Provide props to make it more dramatic and memorable.
- Drawing. If you’re having a more quiet lesson, harness their doodling powers for good. I often provide art supplies and have them make illustrations for the lesson. You might give them a scripture or a principle to illustrate then explain to the class, or you could have them draw while you talk and explain, then show what they learned at the end.
- Play-doh. This is like the drawing activity, but a different approach. It helps keep kids focused on something and gives them something to do with their hands. I used it for a lesson on the creation, but it could be applied in other ways.
- Dioramas. One Sunday I brought a bunch of playmobils (legos or action figures could work well too) and some premade prop pieces and we made dioramas to illustrate the lesson. I think that one was about Daniel and the lion’s den and Shadrach Mishak and Abednego.
- Journaling. Keep notebooks in a church closet and have them on hand for the start of a lesson. I like to start lessons with an introspective question e.g. what are your big questions about your future? (for a lesson on Patriarchal blessings) What is one time you had to forgive someone for something they did to you? etc. I give them five minutes to write something and then I have them share if they feel comfortable. It gets the ball rolling, helps them to gather their thoughts and means you have a supply of examples you can tie the lesson back to throughout.
- Journals are also helpful for extending weekly challenges. I have them write down what they’re going to do that week to apply the lesson at the end of class. Then we start class by asking how they did and what experiences they had. Generally they forget, but having it in writing at least reminds them they should be applying the lessons.
- Have them copy what people in the scriptures did in a more literal way. For example, when teaching about the Ammonites burying their weapons of war for peace, have them write on slips of paper what they needed to let go or work on, then go and bury the papers in the ground outside. When teaching about the Title of Liberty, have them make a list of things they would stand up for and share it.
These are only a few ideas among many possible approaches. The new manuals do a better job of tailoring the lessons for youth, but a little creativity doesn’t go amiss. What approaches have worked for you? What were your favorite lessons as a teenager?