Building a solid lesson

A friend of mine was the Sunday School President in his ward. He asked me about the process I went through to build engaging lessons and presentations, so I sent him the following.

“Well, first off, I started with several assumptions:
  1. The class members have already heard that lesson before, and it was likely unmemorable. 
  2. They already know the principles the lesson is trying to teach, and are ready for something more. They’ve moved beyond ‘milk’.
  3. They have questions and concerns that will likely not be addressed by the lesson plan as written.

I recognize that these are very bold assumptions to make. These assumptions will not hold true for every scenario, but I found they frequently held true for our classes in (previous ward).

So, with that in mind, I tried to address the first assumption by giving the class material that they hadn’t heard before and do so in a memorable way. I would address the second assumption by expounding on the principles of the lesson rather than merely teaching what the lesson says, and would go deeper or broader. I would address the third assumption by learning what their questions and concerns were and addressing them directly, frankly, honestly, and courageously. I would recognize the difference between ‘doctrine’ vs. ‘tradition’ and be careful to teach the doctrine first.

I would “begin with the end in mind”. I would decide what I wanted them to knowto beand to do once the lesson was done, and use that as my goal. (e.g., in an upcoming lesson about Joseph Smith and the First Vision, one thing I want my class to know about are the various accounts of the First Vision. I want them to be comfortable learning doctrinal principles about them and from them, and to look at the entire experience with fresh eyes and an open heart. That would cover the ‘know’, ‘do’, and ‘be’.)

I try to use these 5 Elements of a Great Lesson (from a series I did on “Be a Better Teacher”):
  1.      Engaging: involves physical engagement at >1 sensory level
  2.      Entertaining: provides pleasurable stories and activities
  3.      Emotional: appeals to the heart
  4.      Educational: gives new understanding, knowledge, perspective, and info
  5.      Enlightening: builds spirituality, strengthens resolve, clarifies emotions and education,

I believe that all great lessons have the 3 C’s: Context, Clarity, and Confidence.
  • Context: Give them the background, the behind-the-scenes, the story and the culture and the biography and sociology and geography and theology and etymology. (one example is D&C 121..why was Joseph in jail? What was it like for him there? What was his family going through? What were the other saints doing at that time? What would happen later in his life? then with that in mind, re-read the verses and see if it changes anything…)
  • Clarity: Focus like a laser on cultural facts (including debunking them), doctrinal truths. Be specific. Be timely in your words (for example, when teaching youth about chastity, the words ‘necking and petting’ have lost all relevance, so you need to discover the clear vocabulary that is equivalent to them.) Be courageous in clarifying things that are uncomfortable. (Especially in the internet age where they can learn more than you have to say…)
  • Confidence: Give them hope and tools that they can live what you’re teaching and that it’s worth living.
So with all that in mind, my personal preparation usually goes like this:
  • Read the lesson topic, not necessarily the entire lesson.
  • Ask what do my students need to hear and learn the most?
  • Read the scriptures in the lesson, jot down notes and thoughts and questions that come to mind.
  • Read additional supplementary material from other authors, speeches, articles, stories, blogs, podcasts, etc. Decide what of all that material I’d like to add to my lesson.
  • Rough out an outline of what I’ll cover, putting the most important topics FIRST in line, regardless of where they fall in the scriptures.
  •  Practice teaching the lesson in my mind, walking through the various topics and points and notes until I felt comfortable transitioning from one point to another.
  • Above all, try to stay close to and in tune with the Spirit and follow my instincts, trusting that the Spirit will carry the message into their hearts and that they’ll hear what they need to hear.
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