Beehive Manuals

With Kristine’s suggestion that we put together something on Beehive pedagogy for MHA, I suddenly have reason to actually do real, rigorous, interesting research. (Joe is going to be a fantastic coach for this.)

He suggested I start by writing down what was interesting to me, and what I plan on looking at to do the research. Hopefully by writing it all out I will have a better idea of what I’m doing before I go into the BYU Special Collections.

What is my interest?

I taught Beehives, and Laurels, for 2 years in Oregon. Two years isn’t long, but it was long enough to experiment a bit with teaching methods. I also watched other leaders teach, mostly directly from the manual. I noticed that both groups had a hard time answering the questions in the manual. It seemed to me they had trouble because of one of these reasons:

  1. The answer was too obvious
  2. The student felt like they had to guess the exact answer was that the teacher was looking for
  3. The student would give a very good answer, but then be told they were wrong (because it was worded different than the manual)
  4. The question was so open ended, that the talkative people would answer every time and the rest didn’t feel like they had anything real to say.
  5. Even if the class gave good answers, the teacher felt like they had to say, “Those are great ideas. The manual also says…” and those were the answers that got put on the board, so that the rest of the lesson would fit the manual.

Okay, so it’s no secret I don’t like manuals. (I do love the new Teachings of the Presidents of the Church series. Those are fantastic.) I like doctrine straight. Also, when a teach has the manual in front of them (especially if they are not very dynamic or personable) then the manual’s physical presence creates a barrier between the teacher and the class. And the classes I saw usually zoned out a bit. When the manual was gone, even if the teacher was saying the lesson almost word-for-word, then the teacher had constant eye contact with the kids and the lesson went much better.

However, when I taught, the manuals and I just couldn’t seem to get along. I would teach the same order as in the manual, looking for the same answers, but the kids just wouldn’t be interested. (The first group I taught was 12-13 year olds in Sunday school.) In fact, I remember doing one lesson on Salvation for the Dead, and going through the lesson as it was outlined. (I never read right out of the manual – I learned from watching the previous teacher with this same group that you had to keep eye contact with this group.) I thought that they probably had never heard that there  was missionary work in the heavens so I was so excited to get to that last part of the lesson. By the time we were done, a girl (from a recently reactivated family, mind you) asked simply, “Why do we have to learn all this again?”

I was floored. I thought I had prepared “a good lesson.” I stopped and talked to her and the rest for a few minutes. We talked about why to relearn things (though that was really sort of a cheap way out of the situtation, really). I remember asking her, “Well, I thought the last part would be interesting, did you  know what before?” She thought and said, “Well, no, I guess I didn’t know that part.” The lesson had set things up so that everything built and built till that new insight, but because they knew all that the rest wasn’t interesting and they tuned out before we got to the end. They were all being good kids, but they just weren’t interested.

The other experience that comes to mind was one that Joe had. He was teaching some Priests and had not been using lessons in the manual. The he was strictly encouraged to use them, so he did. The first time, however, he used the lesson manual the kids were confused. “Brother Spencer, that’s not what that verse it talking about, it says here that….” They could pick out all of the over-simplified statements in the manual. The verses were taken out of context to provide a cute “quotation” to start the lesson; but the kids could see right through it and thought Joe had made a mistake. He tried to keep going but it happened time after time! Our kids are too smart for dumbed-down lesson manuals!

So now I have to ask a scary question: am I unfaithful for criticizing the lesson manuals? (The ones with laid-out, do this then this lessons.) I have several thoughts:

  1. The easy way out (and honest, though) is to notice that the lesson manuals themselves call the plans “suggested lesson development.” There is nothing sacred about the exact wording or plan laid out. It’s just an example.
  2. The lessons should be tailored to the group you are teaching, and that is also talked about in the manuals themselves.
  3. I wonder if, over the history of manual creation, the point of youth manuals has been to teach them to be “good model citizens” rather than teaching them the doctrine in the scriptures. I guess I am thinking more of young women manuals here rather than Sunday School, but it probably applies to both. And if that is the case, is that necessarily bad? It frustrates me, but should I see that they have a different purpose than I do?
  4. The new Relief Society and Priesthood lesson manuals do NOT have lesson outlines. I think this is a fantastic move. They have an introduction with historical background, and then pure words from the prophets. The end does have some questions to “ponder” as you study and/or prepare to teach. Placing them at the end is interesting; they are provided as a help but not as a necessary outline of your lesson.
  5. I am hoping desparately that the Young Women and Young Men manuals will move in the same direction, perhaps with recent conference talks addressing the needs of youth, or with messages straight from these prophets like the adult manuals. It could be done lots of ways, but I’d love to see the same pattern followed with the youth. They can handle it! And they need it!

My concern with manuals is also that it locks another generation into certain ways of thinking. Necessarily as each person teaches their own biases and understandings show through, and I think the same happens with a manual writer. I don’t think anything in them is malicious or evil, but I do think that there are some presuppostions that can be harmful. For example, if the lesson is titled “Finding Joy in Being a Woman” – isn’ t the presuppostion that most girls don’t already think that way? They need to “find” reasons? Lessons on the priesthood often have little phrases here and there that make me cringe. The examples and questions lead the discussion in a way that I don’t think is productive many times.

Okay, to be fully honest, what I often see happening is that the questions and examples lead the discussion so that it becomes too bland to do any good.  The scriptures and prophets have direct, clear, helpful answers to the things the girls really will face, now or in the future. But when we make it SO simple and easy and never deep or controversial, then they are not really prepared to face what will come. Now, I made it through okay but I did have lots of questions that were never answered until someone taught me to use the scriptures better. And I did have to over come a few misunderstandings when I got married about how men and women related to each other. If I had understood the scriptures better, I would not have had to wait so long to understand.

When I first got called to Young Women, I had just moved from a ward where I had taught Relief Society. I loved teaching those lessons, all straight from President Kimball. I was shocked and pleased at how direct he was. I always learned. And I always felt like the class learned.

When I got the calling in YW I wanted desperately to have the same experience there. I was with the Laurels first, and I knew they were about to go to colleges and have “adult” callings, soon to be followed by marriage and all the seriousness that comes with a family. Often I took my lessons completely from a talk given by an apostle or prophet. They liked it. There is a logical flow that goes through a talk, but usually we just quote one paragraph. They liked going all the way through a talk and seemed to get a lot out of it. For example, when it was time to teach chasity I used Elder Holland’s talk “Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments.” They all learned a ton. One girl told me she liked it because she had “always been told it was wrong, but  no one had ever told her why.” I also hope it will help her understand, when she is married, that is it so right. I didn’t want to just teach a lesson on negative consequences; they are Laurels! They have already had this same lesson 2 or 3 times! (That is a topic to get into elsewhere…!) They already know the “do” and “do not”s of the church. I wanted them to have a deeper understanding, doctrinally, of this sacred and deeply important topic. And the leaders of the church have so much to say that is so powerful, so clear, and so helpful.

The lessons I taught from apostles or prophets directly went the best, by far.

Then I got called to work with the Beehive group. I was thrilled to see what these younger girls knew and how to set them on a good path early on. I had just read Ranciere’s book called The Ignorant Schoolmaster. The main premises of the book are:

  1. Every person if of equal intelligence.
  2. Not every person is of equal will.
  3. Intelligence = ability to think, not amount of knowledge.
  4. A schoolmaster’s job is to enforce their will on the student until they are disciplined enough to do it themselves.
  5. A schoomaster does not need to know more, s/he just has the greater will to learn.
  6. To do this, a schoolmaster must point to a text that they both trust. The teacher keeps the student focused on the text. (What does it say? How do you know? Where does it say that in the text? What else does it say?)
  7. All children learn on their own, but when they get to school we teach them they can’t learn without a teacher.
  8. Almost everyone has been “stultified” – learned that they can’t learn. (“Stupified.”) The phrase used in my child development class was “learned helplessness.” Ranciere says we need to “emancipate” people by teaching them they can learn and think on their own.

There are some marvelous examples in the book, as well as people who tried to implement this idea in Europe and how it played out. The example I remember most is how a man would go into neighborhoods were no one knew how to read. He would give the father a written copy of the Lord’s Prayer, which every child had memorized because of church. The father and child could learn to read together by saying the Lord’s Prayer and matching up the words as they said it. They could find out what letters made what sound. It was a much different approach then our a-b-c method, but it worked.

The first experience mentioned in the book was by a teacher who was assigned to teach a class that spoke a completely different language than himself. He got a copy of a great work of literature with both languages in the book, on facing pages. He then assigned the class to read the book at write essays in the language they did not know. By the end of the semester they had written beautifully crafted essays in their new language. The teacher had not taught them a word of that language himself.

He was shocked at how well it went, so he went on to teach all sorts of subjects he did not know, but always by picking a text that he and his students could draw from  and rely upon. He developed this method enough to teach it to others and created a revolution of sorts in education. The person writing, Ranciere, is trying to revive this understanding of education and intelligence.

I highly recommend actually reading the book, as this explanation has probably left you either very interested or very skeptical. 🙂 I think you can get it online for free, so email or comment if you want me to track it down. (Hee, hee, or I suppose I should assume you are just as intelligent as me and can find it yourself. Heehee.) 🙂

Okay, so what does this have to do with Beehives? Well, I went into the classroom with the idea that maybe I should try this. Maybe I should 1, treat them each as intelligent people who each have something to say, and 2, trust the scriptures are always right and will always be able to teach. So,

  1. Trust the students
  2. Trust the scriptures and words of prophets

And I decided I honestly did trust the scriptures and prophets to teach, and I did trust these Beehive girls to be able to think through something. So, we experimented! I wrote a post here right after I tried it. It went very very well. I pointed them to the title of the lesson “Following the Example of Jesus Christ.” They looked through the index until they found scriptures with those words, then together debated as to which one would help them understand that topic. They picked a verse in 1st Peter. We went there and I read it through once or twice, then with the verses right after it, and then we went a few words at a time through the passage. Why that word? Why this? What does this phrase have to do with the end of the verse? I wasn’t looking for any specific answers, I just wanted them to think. And they did remarkablely well; I learned, they learned, and we had a lot of fun. And all the Beehives participated.

They talked about it that next Wednesday. And in some interviews we did a month or two later, several of the girls said they liked the way we did class. As one girl said, “It’s like you’re teaching us how to figure it out, so we can always know how to figure things out.” PERFECT! She had been emancipated, or was on her way at the least.

Some weeks I was more “ignorant” than others, but even on the weeks where I hadn’t asked them to pick a verse they had their indexes out and would add to the conversation, “Sis. Spencer, that sounds like this verse in Alma….”

Yes, they were cool Beehives. 🙂

But, I don’t think they were altogether unique. It was because I trusted them that they performed. In fact, many weeks I went into the lessons without so much trust, and then 2 or 3 of them would zone out and just talk to each other. And, as usual, a few of the more confident girls answered all the questions. I cringe to think of how many times I could have taught in a more emancipating way, but did not.

So, where does that leave me?

I have an opportunity to research and present on this very topic of teaching Beehives. But how do I do it? It is for the Mormon History Association, so it needs to be historically-based. I assume looking through old manuals would be a good project, but what am I looking for?

Possible questions:

  1. How have questions been used in teaching? What kinds of questions?
  2. How are scriptures used in lessons?
  3. Have there always been set (or sample) lesson plans?

I assume these three questions would help me see if this “Rancierian” approach to teaching has been used at all in the past. But is that my real question? Would anyone care? Don’t I already assume the answer is “no,” since that is not how I was taught in public school and college, let alone church lessons? Am I trying to do a history report, or a call for a change in lesson plans? If I am calling for a change, why would looking at the history mean anything?

Last question I just asked: If I am calling for a change, why would looking at the history mean anything?

This seems like an important question to ask. If the history shows a movement toward more independent thought and scripture-based lessons, then I could argue the the next step is one like the RS/MP lessons have taken. Should I be doing a study of how those lessons came to be? Perhaps! That is a good idea. I wonder what material there may be on that process. Could I email anyone who was involved? I’ll ask Joe what to do here.

What if the history is too varied? Sometimes set lessons, sometimes not, sometimes full of scripture, but other times not. Would it mean anything? I can’t look at statistics to see how many girls liked it or learned from it. I can’t conduct interviews with someone in the 1920’s. I suppose I could interview others my age, my mom’s age, etc. But is that good history work, or is that sociology or some such field?? If I’m comparing the lessons they had with their reaction, does that make it history? But how many people would I need to interview? Probably not a good route.

Maybe I should check with Kristine to see what exactly she had in mind. If she and another woman follow out their own areas, it might cover some of my ground work and we could build on each other. MHA! Never thought I’d ever be participating in a history conference.

That’s enough for now. Much more to think; I’ll add more as I think through the project’s scope. Feel free to comment, please!

After talking to Joe

I told Joe some of these thoughts tonight. He had a great idea on how to focus my research. What is it that has brought me to even ask these questions? How am I situated historically? Is it my generation specifically that went through these same YW lessons, but has had the newer-style RS lessons, and who are now often called into YW, that are going to be asking questions about how the YW are taught?

Also, I think I am getting the sense that the YW organization, over most of its history, was intended to affect the YW through activities and goals to be “better people” – but it was not primarily a teaching organization. It was an activity organization, like the Cub Scouts or something. Good goals, great idea. But not what I thought it was and hence, I shouldn’t be too concerned if it’s not so scripturally bound as I’d like it to be.

However, as Joe reminds me, the manuals do propose a doctrinal basis. Is this a step in a newer direction? I need to do some research. Was it when correlation happened, and all the manuals and programs came under the direction of the priesthood, that it became a teaching organization as well  as a social organization? (I am more and more seeing the value of the social organization, but if it is primarily a teaching organization then we can’t be lax and let it just be social. But if it is primarily a social organization and that is its purpose, I think I can see all the great value of that and can be ok with that.) But the question is, am I on the right track  at all here? Lots to read about.

I have aquired two books so far: History of the YWMIA by Marba C. Josephson and Beekeeper’s Handbook (for YW leaders of Beehives). I want to hit DI soon and see what old manuals I might find. 🙂 The history I got should be immensely helpful though. It goes up through 1950.

So there’s the next tiny baby step. Goodnight!

Update, July 23

So far I have three books, one pdf download, and one interview lined up.

Beekeeper’s Handbook published in 1958 by the Church

History of the YWMIA by Marba C. Josephson, published in 1955 by the YWMIA

Building a Life: A Course of Study for the Junior Department of the YLMIA 1931-32 published by the Church

pdf of Young Woman’s Journal for the year 1899 (the first year that lesson guides were printed in the Journal)

Interview set up with Janie Thomspson, who was on the General Young Women board in the late 50’s, early 60’s.

I have constructed a small timeline to help me sort out what I’m reading in the history. When I get further I’ll post what I’ve found.


4 responses to “Beehive Manuals

  • Gary

    Very interesting. It’s fun to hear in your words how excited you are. While I haven’t thought about this nearly as much as you have, I did have a couple of things I thought I would comment on.

    I totally agree that stepping straight through a manual can put people to sleep or lead to disruptive side discussions, and lessons that are more “open” while still doctrinally based are much more interesting to me. I do wonder, though, if the purpose of those step by step lessons is sort of like a bar for, how do I say this… “bad” teachers? If we have someone who doesn’t care enough to prepare a good lesson or feels too overwhelmed or doesn’t understand the gospel well, maybe the step by step lessons are designed to keep them from getting too far off from truth? From that perspective you may, sadly, have students that lose interest or don’t feel they’ve learned much, but at least they haven’t been taught false doctrine?

    I don’t think I explained that well, but you get the idea. Let me know if you want me to explain it better. I know, I can prepare a step by step lesson guide to explain what I just said! 🙂

    I liked your thought later on about how maybe the YW organization is more social than educational. I have no insight on this whatsoever from the YW point of view, but I think that’s something important to look at. The distinction for young men is much more clear – scouting is scouting and quorums are quorums. You get some overlap (scouting is a solid organization for teaching certain principles, such as leadership and honor/duty) but for the most part they serve unique purposes. Perhaps there is a benefit in that distinction for the YW as well? Or maybe not, but some clarity given to the YW on whether or not there is such a distinction – especially when the YM growing up beside them DO have this distinction.

    Backing up a bit, I found that idea about the “will” to learn to be interesting. I remember during my last year living in Monticello I decided to make an effort to be more involved in classroom discussions. Instead of thinking that someone else would make the comment I was thinking of (which they typically did) I would make an effort to actually speak up and share insights. I found that as I did this I not only focused more on the lesson, I was finding cooler insights and enjoyed sharing them. While this has yet to transition to quality personal study (I was thinking about that the other day – maybe this is like Joe having to teach in order to learn? I should talk to him about that sometime) it seems to fit with that “will” concept. Not sure if that helps your research focus at all, but thought I’d share. 🙂

  • Karen Spencer


    Thanks for commenting, I really enjoyed reading it.

    I think you are right about the manuals being a “safe” lesson. With a worldwide church and so many new members it almost seems like we couldn’t live without them. Did you know that’s how the original missionary discussions came about? There was a shortage of missionaries during WWII, so that right after you had all these new missionaries without enough experienced missionaries to be trainers. So discussions were used to help and it became standard. (At least that’s the story I remember.)

    By the way I enjoyed all of your little jokes here and there; that’s cool to me because I can tell I made sense and you understood what I wrote! 🙂

    And YES that is exactly why Joe likes to teach. And yes, you’ll have to ask him about it sometime. That is why he likes doing online projects, because you are instantly sharing with others and they can bounce their ideas off of you too. If you want to try it sometime, let me know and I’ll send you some links of places you can do that.

    The “will” to learn is interesting, isn’t it? I am often glad when someone pushes me to do something that I actually really do want to do, but it’s work so I won’t. I need to remember this when I start homeschooling Emma more officially this fall, since she probably won’t always have the “will” to do her school work (but I can’t give in and let her stop because it’s “work”). That’s hard for me sometimes but talking about this lately will help (I hope!) 🙂

  • Karen Spencer

    I just learned that Elder Hafen has made the comment that the YW manuals are painfully out of date and it’s time for something better. I guess we are on the right track, afterall.

  • Roberta Gruber


    I enjoyed reading your thoughts, and it sure brought me back to teaching Laurels and the struggles as well as great moments of “awakening” I experienced there. I think your comment about the social nature of the YW program is key to understanding the YW lesson manual structure, and also the length our culture has shifted in just a couple of decades! I think the manuals were a good attempt to meld LDS social culture with the gospel at the inception, but the kids today are hungry for so much more “meat.” They have different pressures; dare I say a “different” world than I did at their age so teaching from the Conference talks on a particular topic is so much more relevant (as well as incorporating some of the new Morman Messages clips from YouTube!)

    I’d like to see the manuals move away from “Suzy and Jane want to honor their parents” and rather move toward Jenna and Bren realizing the have purpose in the world and how to uncover it, and what their “work” really is here.

    Good start! Good luck on the research.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: