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Regional Seminary Inservice Report – Leading Discussions with Good Questions and Lesson Ideas

We had a regional inservice training the first weekend in January. In this area, Seminary and Institute teachers are invited to a Saturday training that lasts for several hours. This one went from 9 AM to 3 PM, and included lunch. Lunch was the best part :)

Our meetings start off with a kind of a keynote address and then we get to choose courses from two sessions in the morning, eat lunch, and then have two sessions in the afternoon. At the previous inservice, the meeting was cut short at lunch time due to a pending storm, and so during lunch there were some tables set up with different Seminary type activities and ideas that people could view at their leisure.

I suppose I should lie and say these meetings are incredible. But they aren’t — though I do come away with something good each time, the main part is mostly fluff, or the SI guys trying to show off their favorite gospel analogy or current interest. Both meetings I’ve been really disappointed with the keynote addresses. Neither had the slightest thing to do with Seminary or Institute. This most recent one was an insanely long (50 minute) power point presentation by the Mission President. This mission president is very big on PR, and he has been to every stake and most wards multiple times telling his faith-promoting mission stories, so unfortunately, I’d heard all but one of his stories several times before. I guess I just expect seminary help at at a seminary meeting, not the same stuff I hear at stake and ward conferences.

Asking better questions

Anyway, we moved on and split into four classes. This is the part I get the most out of — at least I do when the teachers allow us to talk and ask questions. I love learning from these veteran teachers. I had the good fortune of being in Brother Baraclough’s class on asking better questions. Watching him teach was at least as instructive as the material, if not more, and so I really enjoyed this.

Improving the Set Up

First Bro B demonstrated a common mistake teachers make (one that I make often) in not setting up a question correctly before asking it. He asked a student if she knew what time of day the martyrdom of Joseph Smith took place. Crickets. Of course she didn’t know, and they talked about how it made her feel (stupid). It made her not want to answer any more questions or talk in class. Bro B pointed out that a lot of time we ask students to recall dates/times/minutiae that are not important to their salvation. Instead, let them use their brainpower on questions that really matter.

(I’m interpolating a bit here — he didn’t say that stuff flat out, but that was the takeaway.)

Then he demonstrated a better way to jump into the material. He described the setting of the martyrdom, talked about the bullet stopping John Taylor’s watch, Joseph fall/jumping from the window for a few minutes. Then he asked us, “What do you know about Joseph Smith, and how does that knowledge make you feel?”

Much better. And the resultant discussion would be much more meaningful to students, too.

He told us there are some important things to do when questioning. You set up the question, you give students time to think, you know what’s coming before you ask (you know the answer or type of answer already because you’ve asked a proper type of question), and you physically approach the student closer and closer as they respond.

He did one other demonstration of this technique. He asked who was the fourth president of the Church? That’s a bad question — no set up. You feel dumb for not knowing (or smarter than everyone else if you do know).

A better way would be to have that little Primary song with the names of the Presidents of the Church playing, and then ask the question.

The redirected question

He also demonstrated another technique I have yet to try in my class: the redirected question. I read about this in Teach like a Champion, but it’s an advanced questioning technique, imo, and I’m not quite there yet. So the way it works is, you look at kid A while you’re asking the question as part of a string of questions — even approaching them, but you name kid B to respond. It draws a laugh, but eventually students come to expect it. It keeps everyone involved in the conversation, because they don’t know when they might be called on. It also helps you get responses from multiple students.

This is something I want to learn to do myself.

Power of the Pause

Teachers need to learn to embrace the pause. During a pause after a question, give your students time to think. Ask yourself if you need more set up or explanation for the question.

I’ve found that holding out on a pause helps reluctant students participate sometimes. There are just some kids who don’t formulate verbal thoughts as quickly as others. Teachers too often swoop in to save them embarrassment, and the kid never gets any better. I saw this work in a YW class once. We had a girl who was notorious for not participating. She would just stare at the teacher with a kind of blank look on her face until the teacher finally answered for her and she would nod in assent to whatever the teacher said. During our lesson, we had all filled out a worksheet and then were going around the room to respond. I did 3-4 girls first in order around the group and then got to this girl. Pause. Pause. Pause. Seriously, the pause went on for almost 45 seconds. I was just opening my mouth to prompt her again in case she didn’t understand part of it, when out she came with her response. It wasn’t great, but very good, and it was all hers. The other girls saw her struggle and triumph, and you could sense their happiness on her behalf. I watched her very carefully to make sure that she wasn’t overwhelmed by the pressure or annoyed or anything. Rather, she was pleased with herself. Not exultant, but pleased. The message for this girl was the teacher felt that she had something important to say, and wanted everyone to hear it. That was essential.

It was a big thing for me to learn. As teachers we can setup the expectation that everyone will respond by explaining how an activity will work before we begin (all write, all share afterwards). Then call on those who respond easily first. Don’t call on difficult person last. She’s just part of the group. It’s good if you can go in order around the group.

Interrupting student

“What do you do when you have a student who speaks up just because it’s quiet?” one teacher asked.

Bro B said you can set up the question to allow for a silent moment afterward: “After I ask this question, I want you all to pause for a moment and think silently about your answer. Your first idea might not be your best. After a moment, I will call on class members to respond…” or something similar.

You might also ask the student privately for help teaching in a way that allows the Holy Ghost to be present. During pauses, people can feel the holy ghost or can focus inwardly.

This is an area where I have some first hand experience. When I was in elementary school, my teachers would ask stupid questions. Seriously, dumb yes/no type responses and then wait interminably long for someone to respond. I got into the habit of answering so as to move the lesson along. I thought I was being helpful. One teacher asked me to wait and see if anyone else would respond before I answered, so I started doing that. If no one would, I would answer. Finally my teacher told me not to answer at all because she felt the others didn’t have a chance to respond because of me. It poisoned me for a long time. I did what she wanted, and I was still shot down. I never answered a question at school without being called on by name from fourth grade on. I spent the next 8 years of school being that sullen kid scowling in the back.

One thing teachers need to do, too then, is make sure that we’re asking good questions — ones that don’t just require yes/no or recall responses. Ask questions that require some thoughtful reflection before being answered. Interrupting student may actually think that he or she is helping you move class along by answering overly simple questions quickly.

So as Bro B said, you need to first determine if you’re dealing with a smart kid or a smartaleck kid. Your response to interruptions will be different based on the reason the kid is always responding.

Brother B also talked about barriers in class and classroom setup.

Better Questions

I have the following list in my notes. I think it was probably a list of question beginnings that will help teachers ask thought-provoking questions, though I can’t remember for sure:

In your opinion what …
In your estimation how …
Where do you think …
In your mind …
Would you please explain …
When have you felt … (Gonzales)
How do you feel … (Gonzales)

The Rescue

Sometimes you will ask a bad question or a student may not understand the question. You need to be prepared to rescue the student. Will you call on the group for help? Will you direct the student to the answer in the text? Will you ask additional questions to lead the student to the answer? Will you repeat or add more set up information to the question? Will you redirect to another student?

Bro B says you have to plant for a rescue so that you don’t “chill” the class. Chilling the class is when a discussion grows cold because someone has been humiliated by a bad question or technique. A teacher’s behavior may unintentionally make a student feel unwelcome and excluded, or stupid. Chilling can occur because of the teacher’s response to an incorrect answer. Rescuing helps avoid the chill.

It’s especially important to respond to incorrect and inappropriate answers so that students feel comfortable answering even if their response may be incorrect. You also want to handle inappropriate answers in stride, without drawing too much attention to them, and redirect the question back to the original.

You might say
– Perhaps I didn’t make that question clear.
– I had not thought of it that way.
– Perhaps you were thinking of another instance.
– I’m glad you brought that up (and follow it) (This is my personal favorite)
– Thank you for your responses, but keep brainstorming.

Remember also that you might ask a question in the middle of someone’s thought process on a different topic and may need to rescue. Bro B shared an experience where he was in a class with Elder Packer. Elder P is a hero of Bro B’s and he was sort of basking in the awesomeness of being there with him, when Elder Packer asked him a super easy question. All he could do was give a blank stare. It was too hard to change gears. Elder P turned to someone else for the answer, and so he was rescued.

There’s some more information about classroom chill here:

Striking Gold

We used to have a CES coordinator here named Brother Rose, who taught teachers that when they strike gold, stop digging! Apparently this had a big effect on teachers, because it’s brought up time and time again in these courses. The idea is that teachers shouldn’t act like miners, just moving rock — getting through our lesson outlines and going home. We should look for the gold in our lessons and then focus in on that. Don’t be afraid to drop the rest or part of a lesson in favor of the gold when you strike it.

As teachers, Bro B points out, we should be prepared for gold and develop a plan for dealing with it when you hit it.

This was a very helpful course for me. I’m so glad I was there. That guy could have shared his wisdom with us for another hour, and I would have been soaking it all up.

More Questioning tips from Brother Gonzales

I went to another class on questioning. I only jotted down a few things, but they’re worth noting:

Characteristics of a good question:
– stimulates thought
– encourages student response
– adapted to the experiences of the student

As a teacher, you want the student to develop the idea/knowledge/concept that they can go the scriptures to find answers. Try to make your teaching focus on that.

Don’t do the “search and apply” portion of questioning for your students. Let your students do the work in class. Don’t answer for them.

The other classes

I didn’t get as much out of the other classes myself. I met up with the other Seminary teachers I had ridden up with to go to the SI guy’s course at the end. It was called teaching the plan of salvation as a journey (instead of as the 3 circle thing with the rectangles we always thing of). I actually left out of this class early bc it wasn’t helpful an went to “What do I do know — when you’ve exhausted your bag of tricks”. I suppose I’ll probably go to hell for being rude. But I’m not there to be nice. I’m there to get better as a teacher.

On the other hand, my teacher friend DeAnn loves those lessons where the SI/CES guys just teach a lesson. She takes notes and uses the lesson as a lesson plan herself. She’s been teaching 8 years and so she’s beyond the teaching techniques I suppose. She needs new and interesting ideas for teaching the material, rather than teaching techniques. The lesson planning is easy for me — it’s techniques I need, probably because I’m so new still.

The “bag of tricks” teacher reminded us to check our motives when we choose gimmicks for use in class. Is it about the best way to teach the material, or is it about me and my stories/games/powerpoint?

Anyway, the one class gave a few ideas for teaching different topics. Some of them I wouldn’t use, but I’m listing them in case it helps someone else:


Create an over arching theme “jewels” or treasure hunt. Teach that we’ll have to dig for them. When the kids find a jewel, let them write the jewel on a gem-shaped piece of paper and hang it in the classroom. You might even have a jewel of the day, where you supply a jewel for the wall.

You could ask the kids to share what they’re learning with a church leader, perhaps by making a video.

Isaiah journal – kids write their jewels or post their ideas on the wall.


March around a tower of blocks to see if it falls down. Talk about what really made the wall fall.

We live outside DC, so talk about why we build monuments. Do these monuments incorporate symbols? Tie it in with the 12 stone altar Joshua made.

Bring in 12 large stones as a visual aid.

Phobias Joshua 24:14–15

List different phobias. What are some reasons we have to fear the Lord? How is this like following after false Gods.

Mosiah 2:398–41
3 Nephi 27:10–11
D&C 19:16–19

What should be our real phobia? What are the consequences for those who will not follow the Lord?


Heroes – discuss those that save or defend. Wear a cape or bring a hero action figure/movie; who are our heroes? Read Judges 7. Would this hero make it into Gideon’s elite army?


Pit boys against the girls: Can the Girls draw the Boy Scout logo faster than the boys can list the 12 points of the scout law? What can scouts learn from Ruth? Identify from the book of Ruth characteristics of Ruth and Boaz that relate to the scout law.

1 Samuel 16

Make a sling; attack goliath with marshmallows. Have the kids list their Goliaths, fold them up and tape them to model Goliath and attack.


Bring in 5 smooth stones per student. Students write on them things we can use to overcome our Goliaths like prophets, prayer, scripture study, faith, parents, etc. Kids take them home in a little pouch. The concept is “what stones do you want in your bag?”

David and Saul’s Armor

bring in large clothing; put it on; also bring tools the kids are not likely to know how to use. How is a tool in unskilled/unqualified hands dangerous? How does the Lord qualify us?

Seminary Kung Fu Theater

A teacher shared this idea they use in her class for reading scriptures in class. Some student are readers, others are actors. The actors act out the story while the readers read, using dramatic voices and inflection and sound effects. It looks like the English dubbing on a Kung Fu movie as the actor kids try to move their mouths with the reader.

1 Samuel 1-3

“Sing praises” to each other. Write something nice — something important — about the person on your right.

Developing missionary skills

This teacher had been a mission president. He mentioned that the two skills he needed most in in his missionaries was the ability to communicate better with someone they don’t know — how to strike up a conversation with a stranger. They also needed better skills in resolving conflicts (I suppose this meant within a companionship).

Posted by Jenny Smith

I'm Jenny Smith. I blog about life on the 300+ acres of rolling farmland in Northern Virginia where I live. I like tomatoes, all things Star Trek, watercolor, and reading. I spend most days in the garden fighting deer and groundhogs while trying to find my life's meaning. I'm trying to be like Jesus -- emphasis on the trying.