Teacher Improvement Lesson 3 preparing a lesson

January 26, 2014    By: Matt W. @ 10:18 am   Category: Life

I spent most of my preparation time this week debating whether I should teach this lesson next or teach lessons on pedagogy and age specific needs next. I went with this lesson, but could totally imagine the other order being better. This is a combination of lessons 5 and 10 from teaching-no greater calling.

Today my guiding principles for the lesson are a contrast to one another:

First- “If ye are prepared ye shall not fear” D&C 38:30

Second “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”  Helmuth von Moltke

I include this combination as a reminder that while preparation is important, in the end, no plan can control for every variable. (Depending on the recent trend of long sacrament speakers, may make a joke that they are our enemy)

My goal for this lesson was to make the teachers capable to prepare a lesson with ease. To that end, and to keep lesson preparation as simple as possible, I created the following acronym.

  •       Start Early
  • Have an Aim
  •   Make it Simple
  •   plan on Engaging the class

(Part of me is slightly terrified that I invented a cheesy acronym, but I was wracking my brain for something memorable…)

First, Start Early

To begin discussing starting early, I am going to play the first 60 second of an audio clip from Elder Holland’s 2007 Leadership Training. (Note to the church, the video clip of this in the Relief Society section of your website isn’t functioning)


  • Why should we start early to prepare a lesson?
  • How do you make time for that in your life?

My own answer to the first question, which I will lend to the discussion, is frankly, I’m not that spiritual all of the time. I want to give the Lord as much time as possible to inspire and direct me. Some weeks that just means reviewing the topic of the lesson a week in advance and then letting it percolate in my subliminal thoughts for the week. Other weeks it means researching facts and information for hours each night, but usually I read the topic, look for resources, then select a few that I think are helpful.

Speaking of resources, here are a few of my favorites:

  • Feast upon the word– (RS/PH lessons) (I mainly have used this when teaching RS/PH as a starting off point. They have GD lessons, but I have not used them)
  • Times and Seasons- Julie Smith (BOM) and Jim Faulconer (NT and OT) (While I do not use the same pedagogy as these two, I love that the questions invite me to think about the scriptures in new ways. This is my starting point after the manual for GD lesson prep) (Also, you need to make an easy link to get to these lessons, Julie!)
  • Keepapitchinin (In our ward and how taught in the past)- (Ardis has great lesson plans which I typically review when I am close to finishing out my lesson to see what I’ve done wrong. I avoid going here first because that would make me a plagiarist)
  • Benjamin the Scribe (OT super powers) (New blog for OT, looks super hardcore)
  • Exponent (RS/PH lessons) (I usually find one or two solid nuggets here. Great resource for PS/PH lessons. I haven’t used the GD lessons here)
  • Sugardoodle.net (visual aids clearing house) (Whenever I teach primary, I go here, find a PPT of the lesson, download it and edit it to make it shorter. They have stuff for all ages though.)
  • LDS living  (simple lesson plans) (This is the only source I have found with lesson plans for the new Youth Curriculum. Usually just an idea, not a full lesson.)

There are a lot of other sources which are useful and I find four basic skills in google very helpful in preparing a lesson.

  • Using “Site:”- when I want to search a specific website for content related to my subject, for example, I want to search byu.edu for ideas about preparing a lesson, I type “site:byu.edu prepare a church lesson”
  • Using quotes to find quotes- when I want to find a specific quote that I half remember, I simple type as much of the quote that I am confident in inside quote marks. For example, yesterday I google “plan survives contact with” to find the exact quote I started the lesson with.
  • Cached sites- I find that occasionally there are websites I run into on google which are no longer available. The good news is, if you can google it, you can see it. Simply click on the green text of the url under the link and select cached. (This was especially useful when I wanted to see all of the Brant Gardner Book of Mormon study helps)
  • Reverse Image lookup- Sometimes I find a picture I want to use, but it is too small, you can right click on the image and select “search google for this image” and it will find all copies in all sizes of that picture.

2nd Have an Aim

Here I begin with the rest of that audio clip from Elder Holland.

Discussion- Elder Holland advocates narrowing our focus. Why?

Visual aid/Analogy to Gospel Teaching- If you wanted to know what a 2009 Ferrari California looked like, which image best shows you the car?

Too Broad/Too Many extraneous details

ferrari edited


Too Narrow/Detailed Focus


2009-Ferrari-California 3


Go and Do likewise.

The Manual suggest the following guiding questions for Aiming your lesson.

  1. What should happen in the lives of those I teach as a result of this lesson?
  2. Which specific principles should be taught?
  3. How should these principles be taught?


I think these are helpful. I would add that when we set a goal for what should happen in the lives of those we teach, it doesn’t need to be Miraculous. It can be as simple as clarifying a scripture, or removing a misconception. Also, when we are reviewing the principles we are teaching, it is okay to have principles that not only explicitly support the idea, but also ideas which implicitly are supportive. As to how we should teach the principles:

3rd– Make it Simple.

Audio Clip from Claudia J. Dansie , Women’s Conference address, April 2004.

The clip i used reads as follows:

Jesus taught gospel truths with simplicity. He used clear, understandable language for those He taught. His stories and parables came from examples in their own lives: He spoke of shepherds, fishermen, lamps, oil, rocks, water, salt, and bread. His purpose was to clarify, not to confuse. Our Savior was the master teacher. His direct, plain approach was effective. People needed to easily know of His gospel and His teachings, for His time was short.

Is it so different now? Time is of the essence, and there is an urgency in our fast-paced world to understand and apply true gospel principles in this life. As a teacher of any group, teaching with plainness is necessary “that they may learn” (2 Nephi 25:4).


I know lots of people are fans of “KISS” and keeping it simple, but I think that implies it was simple to begin with.

Discussion: Is the Gospel simple or complex? Are the lives of your students simple or complex?

Memory exercise to illustrate the importance of keeping it simple:

Look at the following letters for 10 seconds, then close your eyes and repeat them back


How many did you get?

Let’s do it again.


How many did you get?

Short term memory can typically hold 5-7 concepts at a time. Short Term Memory decides what gets stored in long term memory. If we want to teach something people will keep, and not just “spiritual twinkies”, we have to keep it simple.

Three tips for making lessons simpler:

  • Provide Context – Who, What, When, Where, Why, How (take the guess work out of quoting a scripture and tell them where the scripture is happening and why. Scriptures are not fortune cookies)
  • Use Multiple bible translations to simplify understanding  (I use the NETbible and the Harper Collins NRSV. I think the KJV is important because it is the common English bible and there is no reason to kick against the pricks, and I think there are places where it illuminates the book of Mormon and D&C due to common quotations from one to the other. I also think having a plain reading of Isaiah is essential)
  • Know when to use an Analogy; Know when to be explicit (some subjects require a simple analogy to make them comprehensible, others require us to be candid to avoid confusion)

Discussion: When do you use an analogy? When should you be explicit? (My rule of thumb is that when talking about sex at church, no analogies, just talk directly to the point. Everything else is a gray area for me.)

4th – Engage the class.

Audio Quote from Richard G. Scott from 1998 CES symposium.

Class Participation doesn’t happen on its own. You need to plan for it and make it part of your lesson. Don’t make the only participation volunteering to read. Asking good open ended questions (not yes/no questions, not questions everyone knows the answers to, and not rhetorical questions.) and leaving room for discussion (to me this is asking questions where I don’t have a preset answer in mind) increase class participation.

Discussion-Class participation can feel risky and scary. Sometimes people consider this inviting the crazies to take over the lesson. How do we avoid that? How do we allow those “crazies” to still participate in positive ways?

Close with the following from Elder Oaks and Testimony or own briefer testimony if time constrained.

As we devote ourselves to the Lord’s work, we must be involved in the hard work we call preparation… the Lord’s instruction to teach by the Spirit does not relieve us in the slightest degree from the necessity of making personal preparation… We must study the scriptures. We must study the teachings of the living prophets. We must learn all that we can to make ourselves presentable and understandable to our children, our students, and our investigators. That includes grooming, speaking clearly, and knowing how to avoid offending people through ignorance of their culture and their personal and family circumstances. All of this and much more is part of preparation. And preparation is a prerequisite to teaching by the Spirit

Dallin H. Oaks- March 1997 Ensign

So this is my “half-time” lesson. What am I missing that I need to make sure gets in the second half?









  1. nb- I am not against using rhetorical questions, per se. They just can’t be the only questions used in the class.

    Comment by Matt W. — January 26, 2014 @ 10:21 am

  2. nb2- all pictures were publicly available on the internet. Thanks internet!

    Comment by Matt W. — January 26, 2014 @ 10:42 am

  3. In my opinion, Sunday school is not a discussion group. How often have you experienced an instructor posing question but is left with no option but to respond to poor answers with a, “Hmm… That’s interesting”, or a “I never thought of it that way before…” before moving on and eventually soliciting the “correct answer”? All that does is either invalidate some class members or end the “discussion” immediately with a good answer.

    We are generally dealing with topics in class that are well established; individual opinions or perspectives are not relevant. After all, I’ve never had a calculus teacher ask the class what they think a derivative is. A derivative has a well-defined meaning in mathematics; there’s nothing to gain from discussing it. I wouldn’t necessarily equate engagement with participation. Engaging the students is about getting them to process the concepts being presented before they flow out of the other ear.

    Comment by Eso — January 29, 2014 @ 10:29 pm

  4. And that would be a great discussion to have in this class! I would argue that topics in sunday school are general a smorgasbord of opinions and ideas which are fun to debate, discuss, and contemplate. Most Sunday School topics are not mathematics. Mathematics can be proven via a formula. And soft skill (love thy neighbor, etc.) needs to have a bit more room for the participant to draw their own conclusions on practical application.

    Comment by Matt W. — January 30, 2014 @ 5:03 pm

  5. Where Sunday School is concerned, that reference to “practical application” is all-important, no? Sunday School is not for the transmission of information (“The ten most important facts about Nephi are …” or “The technical difference between a proclamation and a manifesto is …”) When the purpose is to affect behavior or commitment, then discussion allows people to bear testimony to how such-and-such a principle has played out in her life, or to ask how others have handled such-and-such a challenge. that’s often the best kind of discussion.

    Matt, I hope you have a lesson down the line about how questions affect discussion. I mean, the kind of weird, speculative “contributions” that Eso notes (and haven’t we all seen them!) are sometimes the result of poor teacher questions that seem to demand answers that we just don’t have. People try to fill in the blanks with half-remembered speculations from previous classes, or they sense an opportunity to launch into their favorite gospel hobby.

    I loved your memory exercise (AB CFB INP RC IA B SA L DS)!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 30, 2014 @ 6:07 pm

  6. Ardis: I am honestly not a master of having the right questions. My technique is generally of two sorts:

    1. What Questions are interesting to me, that I would like to discuss
    2. Case Study Questions for life application- “Say you are in this scenario, what do you do?”

    I would love your input on the right sort of questions.

    Comment by Matt W. — February 1, 2014 @ 7:49 pm

  7. Matt,

    This series is highly relevant for me right now, thanks for posting. On the topic of questions, I think this page has some great stuff: http://www.fromgoodtooutstanding.com/2012/05/ofsted-2012-questioning-to-promote-learning

    I have also learned something while observing teachers for the past year which is kind of obvious but super important. Sometimes the key is not in the greatness of the question but in the setup. As a teacher it is easy to go to a question too early without giving the class anything to stimulate their thoughts. I see this all the time. A teacher asks a semi-generic question with no lead in and the class just sits there, even the ones who want to help out simply have nothing to say.

    If you tell a story from your life, even a stupid boring story, the people listening will automatically interpret the story by comparison to their own lives. It will cause them to remember similar things in their own lives or something with a tenuous connection to what you are saying. Once they think of it, they want to share it! They are like children who can’t keep from saying whatever pops into their heads from the inspiration of your story. Now, you can ask the same mediocre question that bombed at the beginning and there will be people who will want to share something, even if they have to start out with “this is not exactly along the lines of your story, but you made me think of the time…”

    Of course, if you seed the discussion with a good lead in and then ask an engaging question it works even better. I am trying to learn how to do that better, but at least intellectually, I have learned that if you don’t prepare the class for your question it may not matter how great the question is.

    Comment by Jacob J — February 4, 2014 @ 12:15 am

  8. This is good stuff Matt.

    “Sunday School is not for the transmission of information” Well, maybe. Obviously, it’s not a college class, but it’s also not primarily a discussion group. I think a good class teaches or shows something new, or at least a new perspective on something known, which prompts discussion and thought.

    Comment by Ben S — February 7, 2014 @ 11:22 am