Teaching the Seminary manual with exactness or GTLH 3?

I’ve been subbing in seminary for less than 24 hours, and I’ve already got some feedback for Salt Lake.

I love teaching Seminary, but I do wish it were under different circumstances. One of the Seminary teachers in our unit had an unspeakable family tragedy last week and she will be unable to teach for an undetermined period of time. A member of the bishopric covered three classes for her last week, and they gave me the option after Sacrament meeting yesterday of taking over so that the bishopric member could get back to his regular duties. Since I’ve taught Seminary to all but one of the students before, a transportation need is met by the bus at my house, and I have all my old OT lessons online and in my notebooks, it’s kind of a no-brainer.

The class is very small — just 7 might attend, but only 6 are expected for the time being. Of the five in attendance today, three students are reading regularly. The other two have started and stopped. One thing I’m really good at is getting kids to read. I hesitate to impose my methods on a class I’m in only temporarily, but I do hope to get the kids who have slacked off excited again about reading.

The next few weeks of class are slightly different. I have 5 classes this week and 4 next due to the Monday holiday. Thursday and Friday of next week are scheduled for the learning assessment. The following week is off for student exams, though if a student fails the assessment, they can (will, if I’m doing it) come in to class to retake. This means I will only have seven regular classes this entire month.

Students say they haven’t done much scripture mastery and that was the part they failed on the previous tests, so we decided to skip out on devotionals for the next 7 lessons while I use that time to work on scripture mastery and lesson review with the class.

Anyway, I’m back in the saddle. And I think the assessment needs some reevaluation, SI. Some of the questions directly conflict with the teaching methods found in the GTLH. Some are poorly worded. (Though frankly, the test is not actually as horrible as I expected.) It just happens that I started out with a bad one.

I serve as the ward chorister right now. Our organist is a “real” teacher and also teaches seminary. She was sitting right with me when they asked me to consider teaching seminary and let me know that lesson 74 was tomorrow’s (now today’s) lesson Joshua 6-10 — battle of Jericho, battle of the Five Armies (LOTR, ha), and the big valley shout with blessings and cursings. Love it. Normally I would have taken some time to look over the material at church, but with the bishopric discussion and visiting with a friend who had a rough couple of weeks, I just couldn’t get to it. After church and lunch I read the chapters according to the method I’ve long pitched on this blog, and the one taught in the GTLH Section 3. Basically, you read the text, select what you will teach (for me, a lesson objective or theme), and then use resources like the manual, etc, to prepare a lesson. Easy.

The material was great. Theme: obedience. I opened the manual and started reading. To my relief, the manual used OT scriptures! The old OT seminary manual often taught principles found in OT text using restoration scriptures. You could literally teach for 30 minutes without ever opening in the OT if you had followed the old OT Seminary manual. What a shame. I’ve gone into exhaustive detail about how annoying and frustrating this was to me as a teacher. I had all of my students reading the text every day before each lesson, and to find that the manual didn’t even use the (difficult) text I was (successfully) exhorting students to read was frustrating beyond all reason — especially when the OT text said EXACTLY and PLAINLY the principles in the lesson.

So I continued reading. Not only was the manual teaching and using the OT, it was teaching roughly the same theme I had picked out! Sadly the text ignored the great lesson in Joshua 9 about failing to ask the Lord about the tricksy moldy-bread ambassadors, and how great it was that Joshua followed exactly the commandments given by Moses, but at least the bones were there.

But the lesson kept hitting on the phrase “with exactness”. Again. And there it was again. And again. I was puzzled. I remembered this from Book of Mormon (I’m teaching that right now to the adult women at the local senior citizens center, too, as part of a RS-sponsored class), but was it in the text and I had missed it? So I clicked through and reread the text. Nope. “With exactness” wasn’t in Joshua. Well, it’s going to be worked into a scripture cross-reference later, I thought. Nope. Weird, I thought, the theme is right, but why are we teaching this Book of Mormon phrasing? It’s gotta be a throwback to the old manual-style lessons. I will teach this principle, but not with that terminology. Moved on and finished up the lesson planning.

About an hour later I went over the the bishopric member’s house to pick up the scriptures and notebooks from students in the class. He showed me the lesson schedule and mentioned that the assessment was coming up while handing me a copy. I popped it open and scanned a few questions. Freakishly, the third question I read asked about the Israelites at Jericho and used the weird “with exactness” phrasing. I confess I was immediately frustrated. This is *exactly* the kind of silly questioning that should not be present on a seminary assessment. I was released just before the testing requirement (I suppose we can all thank God for that), and I admit to feeling a great deal of consternation when I heard about it. I listened to and expressed annoyance and concern about the requirement with other Seminary teachers before and after my release. I had studiously avoided reading even one study guide or taking the test myself, even though my son is in Seminary. Not my job, I kept reminding myself. This question seemed to demonstrate exactly the sort of ineffective testing that does now show textual understanding that I feared then.

So I’m not exactly unbiased.

And so it bothered me all evening. Having taught Seminary, I know there is no good way to provide feedback to Salt Lake, or at least, to the teachers who, like myself, did not have good SI coordinators or stake coordinators, there isn’t. (Let me just say that now Brother Goss and Sister Jones are fantastic. The guy we had when I was first teaching was awful.) No alternative method of communicating problems back to Salt Lake is provided to early morning teachers, who make up the majority of seminary teachers. And if you have a poor SI coordinator, like mine, who literally did not respond to a single teacher email from me or anyone else during the two years I knew him as he “oversaw” seminary for all of Northern Virginia, you have lots of questions with absolutely no way to get answers. Your phone line is cut. While paid, release time teachers have a clear hierarchy, early morning teachers often do not. It’s plain from the Seminary Teachers Facebook Group that most teachers are like I was and have no clue that Seminary is a stake class. Even though I am good friends with one of the Seminary coordinators — the one who actually did stuff — I didn’t even understand her role as a new teacher or what a great resource she could be. I didn’t know that Bishops do not run Seminary or set schedules. And honestly, when you’re teaching seminary, you don’t want to fuss too much because the gig is so great you don’t want to whine so much that they release you. And it’s not just local stuff. I provided feedback over and over again both online and in stake meetings regarding calculation bugs in the new WISE that were never fixed — or at least weren’t while I was teaching, and no response was ever given for if the bug reports were even received.

I feared that all the questions were as bad as the one I stumbled upon. And I know there’s no way to provide feedback. So I couldn’t sleep. I always worry about how to respond to these situations. I have opportunity to get the attention of a lot of people through my contacts online, and I don’t ever want to abuse that. I caused people to get all up in arms bearing testimony about the truthfulness of the church’s legal department when I complained about the absurd (hidden) overreaching photo releases that Seminary “registration” (deliberately) tricks unsuspecting parents into signing. I don’t really want to challenge testimonies. But as for a way to provide feedback — constructive feedback — there just simply isn’t a method.

I’m rambling. Back to the point.

After teaching class today and determining what I think student needs are, I finally read the entire assessment and made a review sheet. The questions aren’t all bad. In fact, some of them are pretty good.

Problems with the Seminary Assessment

If you’re not a Seminary teacher, you might not understand what the problem is with the “exactness” question. Like an attorney, I’ll note the salient facts:

  1. Seminary students are expected to read assigned scripture passages.
  2. Seminary teaching methods are taught in the Gospel Teaching Leadership Handbook, Section 3.
  3. GTLH 3 instructs Seminary teachers that their text is the scriptures. Teachers should read the text, prayerfully determine what to teach, and use resources (first church published, then others if necessary) to prepare lessons to teach the selected principles to students, and then teach the material using a variety of appropriate methods.
  4. The seminary manuals use a procedural method to help students and teachers progress through the text to given principles. These principles are printed in bold text in the manual that makes them easy to identify.
  5. These bold-faced principles may or may not match what the teacher determines is important to teach after reading the text and following GTLH 3 guidelines.
  6. There are roughly 400 bold-faced principle statements in the first half of the Seminary manual.
  7. Each of the 400 bold-faced principle statements is introduced only once in the Seminary manual.
  8. Many of the principle statements reference material from General Conference or General Authority quotes. This material is only found in the manual, not in the Old Testament.
  9. The GTLH explains that there is more material than can possibly be taught in each seminary lesson, and that teachers should not attempt to teach all the material in a lesson.
  10. Students have only one chance to learn the material in each of 400 principle statements. No review time is provided in the suggested Seminary lesson calendar. Review instructions are not provided in the seminary manual.
  11. According to the GTLH, seminary teachers are given total discretion regarding what to teach in their classes. They are expected to be guided by the spirit, and are. Lessons preparation is intended to be flexible so that individual needs and questions can be addressed.
  12. If a teacher, using GTLH methods, chooses not to or does not have time to teach one of the 400 principle statements, the student has missed the single opportunity to be taught that material.
  13. If a daily seminary student is absent on a day during which a principle statement is taught, and that principle statement references material from General Conference or a General Authority Statement, a student can not infer from the assigned reading material the principle statement. For example, it is extremely unlikely that a student could infer what blessings come to God’s children from the Flood by reading the assigned text in Genesis (OT First Assessment, question 9).
  14. If a teacher recognizes that students may have missed material on the assessment and decides to dedicate a single day to review material prior to the text, that teacher looses six days each year, or approximately 3% of lesson time to testing preparation and review in a 180 day year. The average class looses more.
  15. SI’s sloganized “Elevate Learning” seminary requirements were established after seminary manual creation.
  16. There are only 32 questions on the seminary test. (Some proportion of these have been selected from the 400 statements that may or may not have been taught a single time during class.)
  17. No indication is given in the manual regarding which bold-faced principles are on the Seminary assessment.
  18. Students must pass the Seminary assessment in order to “graduate” Seminary, although questions on the assessment are based on material that has only a single exposure, that may or may not have occurred due to time constraints, teacher discretion, and spiritual guidance.

A few more points.

SI Seminary has a Basic Doctrines Statement that outlines, fairly briefly, the essential material that Seminary students should learn. Why isn’t it the subject of the Seminary Assessment? Why obscure facts about flood blessings or “with exactness” Book of Mormon wording? These type questions are in the “interesting to know” category, as opposed to the essential to know. Essential to know items in the Basic Doctrines are ideas that students should be able to express to a friend or family member both in writing and verbally.

Some teachers will argue that obscure questions like the flood blessings and exactness questions reward students with regular attendance. Seminary, frankly, is not about attendance. Any course that requires only 75% attendance (DE-elevate attendance?) is not about having seat warmers. Any course that explicitly instructs teachers not to equate tardies with absences is not concerned with minutes in seats either. But to make the attendance artillery feel better, attendance is already reported in WISE, and it already counts toward seminary graduation. If a student has lower than 75% attendance, but you passed test — no graduation, friend. Attendance is already built in to Seminary graduation requirements. You don’t need to test on it, too.

Requiring kids to READ the text is clearly an elevation of scripture study. Win. More scripture mastery — also an elevation, and one not receiving enough emphasis in the manual or GTLH, in my opinion. Passing a test might be an elevation, but only if it tests material that is truly essential to the course. And seminary testing isn’t being done right…. yet.

I hope that future seminary manuals will emphasize basic doctrines more clearly. Why emphasize 400 bold-faced points that teachers are expressly instructed to *choose* whether or not to teach? If a new manual bold faced teachings in the 10 Basic Doctrines only, teachers can be directed to truly essential basic doctrines instead of obscure cuteisms. They would teach and emphasize essential material while remaining free to tailor lessons to class needs.