My secrets for a memorable class discussion.
1. Remember the Glorious Pause
“Pause after you ask a question and after you ask class members to share experiences. “Do not be afraid of silence. People often need time to think about and reply to questions or to express what they are feeling” (Teaching, No Greater Call, 67).
You’ve put quite a bit of thought into your lesson topic, but most people haven’t yet. And if it is a deeper, more introspective question – sometimes it requires more time to get the discussion going. Two Sundays ago, I subbed for RS and had about the longest pause I’ve ever had. I stood there calmly with a smile on my face, but once it got going…it ran. Don’t let some initial silence spook you.
2. Be A Discussion Leader (Not A Lecturer)
I aim for a minimum of 50% discussion. When those hands go up, that’s the best you could hope for. Self-expression is spiritually therapeutic and thought-provoking discussions are one of the most valuable tools we teachers have. So prepare some discussion-promoting questions.
From “Teaching, No Greater Call” (Lesson 14) “Meaningful discussions are fundamental to most gospel teaching. We invite the influence of the Spirit when we teach the gospel to one another and give respectful attention to one another.” Discussions can bring results that seldom occur without them. For example, they can promote diligent learning and encourage unity.
Appreciate or validate every comment and treat it like a conversation if you can, by interacting with the comment and adding something. Avoid phrases like “We have to move on,” or “That’s later in the lesson,” or “That’s not what I had in mind, ” or even “No, that’s not right.” Those kinds of teacher responses will detract from the good will of your lesson and discourage participation. It’s ok for the lesson to flow out of the planned order.
3. Prepare Only 3-4 Lesson Points Well
First of all, if you’re encouraging discussion, this is all you’ll have time for. Do not ever be tempted to “march” through all the material with your class. Meaning do not try and cover every point and quote and verse made in a lesson. This is not effective teaching. Jeffrey R. Holland tells us there will always be more in a lesson than we can use:
“[Avoid] the temptation to cover too much material. … We are teaching people, not subject matter per se; and … every lesson outline that I have ever seen will inevitably have more in it than we can possibly cover in the allotted time” (Jeffrey R. Holland, “Teaching and Learning in the Church,” Ensign, June 2007, 91).
My mission president taught us if you emphasize more than 1-2 scriptures at a sitting, the verses will mutually compete with each other, dilute themselves and soon be forgotten. Scripture chains are seldom effective. On the other hand, beautiful points scored on just one or two verses linger for quite a while with people.
The point of being a teacher is to pick out those 3-4 lesson points which inspire you most, include plenty of discussion and cover them in a way, they will stay with your class members. This is truly a situation where less is more.
You were called and chosen to teach this lesson for a reason. Have confidence in what aspects of the lesson resonate with you most.
4. Fear Not Their Faces
Standing in front of a group of peers can be quite intimidating, even for the most seasoned of us. And some groups are more hard-hearted than others. Don’t despair! When I first moved to a small town in Oregon over 15 years ago and taught my first RS lesson, I actually had a couple of sisters give me disapproving, and ridiculing looks as I stood up front and taught (it’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?). It was a shock. It completely undid me and I lost most my confidence and barely stumbled through the rest of the lesson. So I love this exchange between the Lord and Jeremiah:
6 Then said I, Ah, Lord God! behold, I cannot speak: for I am a child. [“They’ll think I’m an idiot.”]
7 ¶But the Lord said unto me, Say not, I am a child: for thou shalt go to all that I shall send thee, and whatsoever I command thee thou shalt speak.
8 Be not afraid of their faces: for I am with thee to deliver thee, saith the Lord. [There will always be some who are not so friendly, or receptive ~ don’t pay them any mind.]
17 ¶Thou therefore gird up thy loins, and arise, and speak unto them all that I command thee: be not dismayed at their faces.. [Don’t expect to derive your confidence and validation from others, the Lord is already behind you.] (Jeremiah 1:6-8,17)
5. It’s Okay To Say “I Don’t Know”
If a question comes up and you’re not sure how to answer, some possible responses are, “Wow, that’s a great question and I don’t have an immediate answer for that. Does anyone here have some thoughts?” Some of the best class discussions I’ve ever led came when I appealed for help in answering someone’s question.
Bonus! This also works if someone is being a bit antagonistic or asking questions that make you feel uncomfortable. “Let’s open that question up to the whole class, who has some thoughts on this”?
If it is an especially difficult or a distracting question, “Let me study up on that one and get back to you.” And then move the class on.
6. Use Videos Sparingly
The Church and others have made some glorious videos and they can have some real impact. However, just like a hearty meal sticks to the ribs longer, your personal experiences, heart-felt class discussion, and allowing the sisters to self-express will stay with their souls much longer than even the best videos. Our mission president made us put our film projectors away and said…just talk. I was incredulous, but he turned out to be right. More happened when we spent more time expressing ourselves and connecting personally.
Videos also interrupt the crescendo and flow of your lesson-building. So if you feel strongly to use a short video, try using it near the very beginning as an ice breaker, or a warm-up. You’ll find class participation generally slows down if you use it in the middle and videos are poor substitutes for personalized, bearing of testimony or wrapping up the most important thoughts of the class yourself at the close.
I share video links here sometimes as references for study and to help create the mood of the topic. Nonetheless, your personal impact is greater than any video could be. Trust it.
7. Share Something Personal
Somewhere in the lesson, be bold enough to share an experience, vulnerability or learning curve of your own which relates to the lesson. Use rare miracle stories sparingly…if ever. So often the stories (personal experiences) with the greatest impact are those about struggles, doubts, hardships, personal fails which had to be worked through. It lets the people know they are not exceptional and alone in their daily difficulties and weaknesses. It gives them courage and reassurance. You will also find them more willing to share precious, vulnerable treasures of their own when you are willing to share yours. Extra bonus: it does wonders for camaraderie.
8. Assign Questions Ahead
I cannot overstate what a difference this makes! Whenever possible, assign one or two of the general questions from your lesson ahead of time to a couple of people. You’ll get higher quality responses when you repeat those questions in class, which in turn will jumpstart participation and promote other people to raise their hand and add to a valuable discussion. I often choose to make those assignments to folks who don’t speak up as much, because we can usually count on the less bashful ones.
9. Read ASAP & Read Again
Read the lesson to the end, as soon as possible, even if it’s just a casual read-through. I know teachers who read the next lesson, the very same day after they just gave the current one. Reading ahead gives you a chance to marinate in the topic, it also leaves time for the Spirit to work on you. You’ll not only warm up to the concepts better, you’ll often find some of the lesson prep will work itself out for you. Life has a way of opening our eyes right when we need it ~ to both greater understanding and even new inspirations, if we open the door early and leave it open.
If you’re not immediately comfortable with the material, re-read it a few times if possible. Each time will expand your vision and heart. You’ll then be able to give the lesson with more confidence. I usually read the lesson at least four times before I blog about it. This allows thoughts and understandings to wander around in my sub-conscious pondering place and they network with each other. The results are deeper, broader understandings which I’m more enthusiastic to share.
New! Bonus Tip
4-second rule. Don’t ever worry if you don’t get immediate responses to your questions or attempts at starting a discussion. Sometimes it takes a while to warm up. Whenever you ask a question, wait four seconds and if there are no volunteers, ask the same question in a different way or with different words. For example, “What do you suppose Elder Cook meant by balancing Church and home”? [4 second wait] “Is there a need in our day to harmonize gospel experiences in the home with experiences at Church?
Note: We have lesson templates to help too!
Newer! Another Helpful Tip
Suggest ground rules or extend an invite before you start reading any quote or scripture (in other words make suggestions ahead of time of what they might find) –
For example– in gospel doctrine when reading a verse, I will often ask people to try to imagine themselves in that time and place. What do you notice about what’s going on? How would you feel? Does it remind you of any situation in your own life? These are subtle suggestions to be more engaged with the material.
Or I might say, “Okay, after we read these verses we’re going to have a discussion about the character of the Sons of Mosiah. Notice what comes up for you as we read this scripture set (or quote).”
“Or when I read this scripture before class, I found myself wondering how the sons of Mosiah could progress to the point that they did? Notice what comes up for you as we read these verses (this quote) today and let’s talk about it.”
Or, extend that invite to look/listen for the words and phrases they might find stand out for them from any given quote. Ask why that particular word, phrase or idea seemed important.
To sum up – help them be more prepped and engaged as you study material together. It does make a difference. My favorite go-to invite is, “See what comes up for you as we read this quote…what stands out for you today?”
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