Guiding Class Discussion

Wteachinghen my husband and I were newlyweds, our bishop invited us to attend a 12-week marriage and family Sunday School course.  On the first day, the couple teaching the class made a speech about how “liberal” comments about “adapting roles” would “detract from the Spirit” so such comments were explicitly forbidden. However, class members were more than welcome to make comments that were even more conservative than the text.

Looking back, those torturous twelve weeks of instruction on the glories of 1950s social culture did not harm our marriage.  In fact, I would say that our commitment to our own marital style was strengthened by the animated discussions the two of us held with each other every week after we left church.  After biting our tongues during a full hour of classroom instruction, we both had plenty to say.  For me, however, the repressive classroom commenting policy greatly detracted from the Spirit the teachers said they wanted to cultivate.

In the Sunday School classes I teach, I would prefer a more open dialogue.  I want my class members to feel free to talk about their own unique ways of applying gospel principles, even if their strategies would be considered “adaptations” instead of strict, orthodox conformity.

On the other hand, I have sat through a number of classes where class members have pulled the discussion to questionable places, such as the estimated date of the apocalypse, the ethical responsibility to vote in certain ways, or unique and creative rewrites of world history. I don’t believe that a little openness about adapted familial roles would detract from the Spirit, but in my experience, some of these other classroom tangents do.

Like my old marriage/family instructors, I also feel a responsibility to my students to steer the discussion in a direction that invites the Spirit.  Yet I wonder if my judgment is clouded by my own personal attitudes.  Through their life perspective glasses, my former instructors saw apostasy in any statement slightly to the left of church norms, but could see no evil in views to the extreme right.  I have my own views and prejudices, including, I am sure, some biases that I haven’t even recognized yet.  How can I know if I am simply guiding the discussion or repressing opposing views?

April Young Bennett

April Young Bennett is the author of the Ask a Suffragist book series and host of the Religious Feminism Podcast. Learn more about April at

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23 Responses

  1. Janell says:

    Shortly after marriage my husband and I were invited to attend the stake-held Marriage & Family class. We had a long list of reasons to not go and a few good reason to go, but the ultimate reason that kiboshed our attendance my husband assured me that the grad student it me would likely be very frustrated with the teacher. Apparently the teacher was the sort apt to recite statistics convenient to proving a point without the actual accuracy or literature to back up the claims. (I always want to know things like “can you describe the sample group used in that study?”) Should my own general ire with semi-fictional statistics to prove a gospel point have prevented me from attending the class? I just know that I don’t find much peace or edification when I’m having to constantly curb my tongue and sit on my hands.

    When guiding class discussion I tend to rely heavily on the Spirit both in preparation and in planning. I’m a question-based teacher, so I tend to start with a long list of questions. I often classify them ahead of time on how risky a question they are – that is, how likely am I to get an answer not in harmony with the gospel? Often these are the most interesting for discussion, but not always the most appropriate. When I teach I rely on the Spirit to help me listen to the sisters and to know what follow-up question to continue to guide the discussion.

  2. Diane says:


    I’m with you on this, and as long as people are not brow beating one another I don’t see any harm in it. However, there will always be one or two people in any class who will have an absolute conviction that they are right.

    For example, the same home teacher that I have previously talked about actually said in a class and I quote,” As a home-teacher I am a mouth piece of God and as such I’m allowed to say, Yada, Yada, Yada.” My response was (I was sitting next to a stake President at the time)”Hell No, you are not a mouth piece of God, the only mouth piece of God is the Prophet. And no, as a home teacher you don’t get to come into peoples home and say what ever you think, particularly if there is another male present who hold priesthood,”

    Sorry, that was a tangent, but, you get my drift, You will have people who hold such strong convictions, (either liberal or conservative) convictions and if the teacher isn’t strong enough the whole lesson will get blown out of the water. I think as a teacher, your primary responsibilities lie in the area of cultivating safety so that one person doesn’t feel like they are being ridiculed because they don’t hold the same belief,

  3. BethSmash says:

    I have to say, I loved teaching primary – SO FUN (except when I taught the Christmas lesson to the 10 year olds and said the Virgin Mary – and they all wanted to know what Virgin meant – hello awkward), but teaching in Relief Society was SO hard. And nerve wracking. And I NEVER knew what to do when people brought up comments that were… not political…per se… but… maybe off topic, sometimes with political undertones. I mainly just acknowledged and moved on – but then I felt bad, because maybe we should discuss it, or not. Of course, I didn’t do TOO many lessons that were JUST discussion based – partly because with afternoon church people weren’t particularly paying attention, either hungry or sleepy. But I also never ‘banned’ any comments. And I never interrupted either (of course people weren’t particularly outrageous either) and most people tended to keep their comments short. Maybe I was just lucky. I encouraged comments in general though.

    • April says:

      Since I am wildly curious, I am going to threadjack my own post and ask, how did you explain “virgin” to the primary?

    • spunky says:

      That is tricky indeed! When I discussed this once (deer in the headlights face, then quick rection), I just said that it was a special title that Jesus’ mother had at the time because she was so special.

      I was taught in institute that the term “virgin” means pure, so even singles who have been sexually active or women who are married with 10 children who are abiding by church standards are considered virgins. I love that. Kind of born-again-virgin-ish, but reminds me of the atonement and not holding on the past lives/sins/regrets/agency/actions, etc. with us, allowing the atonement to be truly liberating.

    • BethSmash says:

      I believe I said it was someone who wasn’t married yet. And then moved them right along. Wish I had the ‘pure’ answer from Spunky’s institute class.

  4. Caroline says:

    Hi April,
    As a newly called teacher in the ward, I think my teaching philosophy will be to invite and voice a variety of perspectives and interpretations. The orthodox or traditional views will certainly come out in the comments of the class. I’ll try to be ready to affirm some aspect of what they say (even if I can’t affirm all of it), and also be ready to ask the class to dig deeper, to look at it from another perspective, to consider this other point of view that is expressed in this other scripture. How do they reconcile the two? As a teacher, our job is to take the class to some place enlightening and inspiring. For me that usually means centering back to talk about God’s expansive capacity for love and Jesus’ mortal ministry which modeled a love and compassion and inclusion that blew away everyone he met. That’s stuff that orthodox and unorthodox Mormons can be inspired by, and I’m pretty good at finding some way to connect my lesson to those ideas.

    • BethSmash says:

      I wish I could be in your class, so I could observe and learn how you do it, so I could in turn, hopefully become a better teacher.

  5. Rachel says:

    Typically when I teach RS (the calling I have had most in my more than 25 years in adulthood, by far) is to always have a list of quotes and questions that I want to focus on. Before they go on the paper I am thinking about how the question could be perceived and taken in a really tangential place, and sometimes that helps change the wording.
    As far as directing the conversation–I’ll give a work analogy. I do a lot of group therapy. It is invariably more helpful in group if one person is saying something completely irrelevant, distracting, grandstanding, etc that another group member addresses this than if the group leader does.
    So, in RS, when someone makes a comment I think is maybe not doctrinally based, or that I think is maybe too, too left, or too, too right, I immediately hand that back to the class, saying something like, “Well, that is a perspective I hadn’t considered before. How does that sit with the rest of you?” and then wait.
    I think teachers need to be comfortable with silence. As teachers sometimes we worry people are bored, etc and just keep talking. People need time to think. If I ask a hard question, I count to a slow 7 or 10 before jumping in.
    Invariably, someone else will comment and that helps me see what to do next.

  6. Interesting that anything slightly to the left of center–references to Mother in Heaven, a pro-stand on gay marriage–brings instant condemnation while quotes from Glenn Beck and other extremists don’t raise an eyebrow.

    Last month, members of our ward were treated to a sacrament meeting talk on the Book of Jasher–a fraudulent apocryphal book.

  7. Amy says:

    I appreciate this post, as I am going to teach RS in a few weeks on a topic of my choosing. I, also, am not afraid of a little silence and am willing to wait for some thought to get an answer. Sometimes I ask the question in a different way.
    As for what is acceptable for discussion, I think that it is always important to stick within the doctrine- that which the prophet(s) have taught and the scriptures. However, I have noticed that some people think they have a narrower vision on what is truth than others. I my opinion, there is much truth out in the world, and just because it isn’t said just the way the last person said it, doesn’t mean it isn’t encompassed by truth. I really enjoy learning new things and seeing how parts of those concepts fit in with the gospel. Before we dismiss someone’s idea as non-doctrinal, we should make sure we understand. However, I have noticed that on occasion there are people who just want to argue, and that just chases the Spirit away, so I try to politely stop those kinds of comments as much as possible. I find when I have prayed and prepared, that things most often go well, and I am able to guide discussions better than I thought I would normally be able to.

  8. Janna says:

    I was practically flogged several months ago in Sunday School for commenting that I felt uncomfortable with the discussion in class. The lesson was on Sodom and Gomorrah and several members were making comments akin to the “us” versus “them,” and how “we” are right, and how “the world” doesn’t know the truth and isn’t focused on the right things. I stated that I thought it was inappropriate for us to judge others, that the discussion didn’t feel like it had anything to do with Jesus’ church, and that we study the story of S&G as a way to spurn ourselves to change and move towards greater love.

    Yeah, the Mormons didn’t like that.

  9. Bones says:

    Last time I attended a Sunday School in which the topic of discussion was Sodom & Gomorrah (I’m sure you can imagine some of the offensive comments) I left in disgust–and think the look on my face and the defiance in my posture must have spoke volumes. The Stake President (who was sitting two rows behind me), found me in the hall and thanked me for taking a stand. He told me he admired me. Good man.

  10. spunky says:

    It is so hard to really teach a class and address the needs of everyone. I think (probably sappy, but…) with prayerful preparation, the class teaches itself. That being said, I most recently stopped going to Relief Society (always a short stint) after the teacher was so sidetracked about her personal woes that there was no spirit, only her negative emotion in complaining about her children… and the class went over by 15 minutes. It was one of the most painful things I have ever sat through as an adult.

    But- when I teach, I try to prepare for the hard questions up front, often I even write what I think the hard questions are on the board, before the lesson even starts i.e. “How does this relate to homosexuality, divorce,” etc. If there are loaded conservatives or loaded liberals, I ask people to consider the answers in their own hearts, but if speaking to the group, to be mindful of others’ ideas. If an answer is too personalised, I call it how I see it, “I do not share in that experience as you do, but I think that is a functional way to think about that in application to your own personal life.”

    Another way to direct the discussion is to list specific point on the board that need to be covered- almost make the lesson like a lecture or a business meeting, when needed, point to the step on the board to redirect wayward comments. I did ask one fellow student to not comment so we could get back on track with the lesson. The funny thing is that I was thanked by the class members after, and that guy never came back to the class.

  11. Melyngoch says:

    I taught Gospel Doctrine for a year in my YSA branch, and found it hugely stressful managing the gamut between the very conservative (the CES missionary couple who were scandalized by my using a non-KJV Bible) and the somewhat heterodox(umm, me). I imagine that if I were more middle-of-the-road myself, it would have been easier to navigate; I sometimes got myself into trouble without even trying — e.g., surely we all read the Book of Job as a literary or parabolic e, not a historical or literal one! (Evidently we don’t, all.) — but in general I tried to organize discussions around how the scriptural texts inform our individual relationship with God. This might have been more my hobby horse than other people’s, but I did feel like it was something everyone, wherever they were on the orthodoxy spectrum, could relate to.

    (Of course, all this came crashing down when I got stuck teaching a lesson on eternal marriage. There’s no good way to teach this in a singles branch in any case, and certainly no way that won’t make someone super mad. I tried to direct the discussion toward how we can be happy and have meaningful lives even while we aren’t married (or, gasp, if we never do get married), but the first counselor in the branch presidency was sitting in, and his hackles were raised. At the end of the hour he stood up to call us all to repentance and assured us we can never be as spiritual as singles as we could be if we were married. It was nice; instead of just a few people leaving mad, everyone got to leave mad.)

    • April says:

      Yes, marriage lessons for singles and mixed groups of singles/marrieds are hard. That was actually the topic of my lesson last week. I was pretty amused that the text quoted part of Spencer W. Kimball’s 1976 talk, “Marriage and Divorce,” because the quote selected emphasized (appropriately, in my opinion) that marriage is a big decision that should not be taken lightly. My singles ward bishops liked to quote the part later on in the talk about how there is no such thing as a soul mate and any righteous man and any righteous woman could make a marriage work (a part of the talk directed to married people who needed a kick in the butt to try harder at maintaining their marriage, not singles).

      Oh dear. I am threadjacking myself again. I am going to have to put myself in moderation if I keep this up.

      • BethSmash says:

        My singles ward bishops liked to quote the part later on in the talk about how there is no such thing as a soul mate and any righteous man and any righteous woman could make a marriage work

        Didn’t Pres. Monson say something like this in the recent conference, but aimed at singles to try to get us singletons to marry, because we shouldn’t wait for the right person, we should just marry whoever? I remember feeling insulted by that talk – but maybe this is where he got the idea from.

    • BethSmash says:

      [the bible] literary or parabolic e, not a historical or literal one

      In one of my R.S. lessons there was a sub-point about the 9th article of faith which I decided to use as the underpinning of the lesson – but how to do it without upsetting those who take the bible literally as perfect, uncorrupted truth? I decided to start the lesson with a game of telephone. It worked out really well. We’re in a classroom at the institute building so we’re in rows with 5 or 6 people in each row. I gave them a complicated first sentence. Gave each person in the first row the sentence and then asked the people in the back row to say what they came up with. Everything was different, only one came close to the original and nothing sounded alike. I then talked about how the bible was an oral tradition before it was written down and we couldn’t get one sentence through 6 people. Then mentioned that there were councils to decide what went in it AND that it was translated multiple times (here I asked for foreign speaking missionaries if any of them came across a translation that was different, but still nice – got a couple great stories) which helped me transition back to the my main point, which was ‘as far as it is translated correctly’. While I didn’t get into literal vs. literary, I think it helped people look at the bible in a different way. Not a bad way, just differently. And then I moved on with the rest of the lesson.

  1. January 25, 2016

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