Seminary lessons learned from National Geographic

This month’s National Geographic magazine has an article in it on the teenage brain. As the mother of a teenager and a Seminary teacher, I was interested to read what they said. Much of the information was not particularly new to me — this information on the developing teenage brain has been available for a while now. I first read about it in Yes, Your Teen is Crazy!: Loving Your Kid Without Losing Your Mind (a fantastic parenting book). In short, researchers have discovered that the teenage brain is developing more that was previously believed. While the brain does not change much in size during adolescence, neural pathways are developing at an astonishing rate. Though the teenage brain can evaluate risk much like an adult, teenagers value reward above risk much more than adults do. Teenagers love and seek novelty. None of this comes as a great surprise to anyone who has dealings with teenagers, but the new research shows that this stage is normal developmental phase essential to becoming adults. On Friday while we were in groups rotating from station to station, I decided to be brave and ask my seminary students what they like about Seminary. “I’m not confident enough to ask you what you don’t like about Seminary yet, but what do you like in Seminary? What would you like to see more of?” They said they loved class and that they loved that we have so many activities that they are able to participate in. They like the novelty, or variety, that I’m trying to work into the lessons. I was reminded again about the first time I changed up the tables for class. I was trying to make space for the new student. When the class started arriving, they *all* commented on the new table arrangement, and were immediately interested. One day, I forgot that my daughter had written a little note for the class, and she had set up a couple of stuffed dragons on the floor. The kids noticed, and finally one of them piped up during the lesson to find out what was with the dragons. The suspense was killing them! Friday I had the class rearranged so that we could easily move from activity to activity. Again — each kid came in and did a double take. They loved it when we threw Delilah around or when we do timed activities. The novelty stimulates their brain, as it is *supposed* to during this stage of brain development, and helps them participate and learn more. The material is the same — it’s truth — and so they feel the spirit, while not fighting off boredom. No matter what the day’s lesson material, I am very careful to look for activities that I think will enhance our learning and have a purpose. All our activities are selected because they fit my lesson objectives, not just because they are fun or novel. I am feeling good about this approach, not only because it keeps their interest, but because now I know that this more active approach helps the kids develop those neural pathways so essential for their progression toward adulthood. I have one other huge advantage over what I believe other teachers are doing in their classes. Since my kids read the material I will be covering before class, I have the advantage of being able to show them the novel within a passage with which they are already familiar. They’ve read it, but did they notice the foot note? Did they think about how Enoch’s prayer is like Enos’? Did they realize there are only a very few passages in the Bible that talk about Enoch — how blessed we are to have that knowledge! I have a background from where I can work, but it still *feels* novel. Plus, since they are prepared, I can get THEM to do the sharing. THEY can teach each other what they learned instead of me. It takes much of the pressure from me. I don’t have to come up with the novel, interesting stuff. They find it and share it with each other. And because it comes from a peer, they are more intrigued that if I were to give it to them. All I do is read the material so I can provide additional commentary, and then find a way for them to have opportunity to share. I realize this is the “new” approach to learning the the church is pushing — this idea of being more interactive with your lessons. However, I do not think that the current scripture reading model helps the approach. “Read 10 minutes a day, and your’e good,” short changes the student. They read material, but have no opportunity to share what they’ve learned or explore it more deeply. The material covered in class may have no bearing on what you’ve read. The teacher wastes time giving background material. You put forth the minimum effort, and get minimum rewards. My kids think I’m some sort of great teacher, but the truth is, they are putting in the time, and THEY are doing the teaching. THEY are learning that THEY can read a scripture and have something to share about it. THEY can feel the spirit while THEIR friends talk about the scriptures. THEY can ask questions or answer someone else’s questions. I don’t mean for this to sound like I’m tooting my own horn. After all, it’s not like this method is my idea. This is the method that was used in the old home study seminary program, just coupled with daily seminary. I think it’s superior to what is generally done for seminary coursework, and I dare say my students would agree. Some other things that I think are working are having the kids pass off their scripture masteries before the whole class. We are three weeks in, and 40% of my class has passed off 3 or more scripture mastery verses. Now, some of them are not interested, and that’s okay. But they hear their friends repeating scriptures and are learning from hearing the passages. I think it also helps my credibility as a teacher when, if there’s a mistake, I won’t pass it off and let them try again later instead of immediately. I want to help them pass off their verses, but I won’t accept mediocrity. That video of the guy counting the 10 commandments on his fingers was a huge hit. So goofy and so memorable! The kids laughed and laughed, but I bet on Monday they will be able to tell me what the 10 commandments are. In fact, I think I will work that into our general conference review as bonus questions. I can’t tell you how much I’m enjoying teaching class. It really is easy. I so hope that the kids in my class are understanding the correlation between their reading and what they get out of class — and that reading the scriptures is fun and there’s always something that is interesting and applicable to their lives. I will keep pointing it out to them. At some point it will stick.