Anyone familiar with teenagers knows they seem to follow a different clock than adults, preferring to sleep later in the morning and stay up later at night. In fact, some school systems have recognized this by delaying the start of the school day past the normal 8 a.m. Thus, I was surprised to find a classroom full of Gilroy teens voluntarily meeting at 5:55 a.m. on a Monday morning to study religion – and they do this on a daily basis throughout the school year.
They were attending Seminary, a four-year religious education program for high school students that is sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It began more than a century ago at Granite High School in Salt Lake City, Utah.
In communities with large Mormon populations, students often attend these classes during the school day through an arrangement known as “released time.” In other localities, classes are generally held early in the morning, allowing students to get to their high schools and attend regular classes on time. Approximately 350,000 students attend Seminary worldwide.
Gilroy's Seminary class is held in a classroom at the LDS Church on Miller Avenue. The well-lit, carpeted room contains folding chairs in rows, a whiteboard at the front and is decorated with colorful posters bearing religious slogans and images. Each student has a small plastic box for storing a Bible and other documents being studied; these can be stored safely if the room needs to be used by another group.
Thirty male and female students, grades nine though 12, are enrolled in the class. Divided into two teams, they receive points for arriving promptly. The winning team receives occasional prizes.
The class curriculum is followed throughout the world; during the course of four years they rotate through a year's study of each LDS scripture:
• Old Testament
• New Testament
• Book of Mormon
• Doctrine and Covenants
Students are also challenged to memorize 25 passages from these books each year.
The teacher is Jayson Stebbins, a mortgage loan officer who is in the fourth year of this “calling” (volunteer position). Like his students, he rushes off at the end of each class to his regular job.
As they battle lethargy and sleepiness, early classes are often dreaded by both teachers and students. While following the general schedule and outline provided by the church, Stebbins has found ways to energize and engage his students, establishing a rapport that helps to keep them involved, including:
• Shared oral reading
• Lots of opinion questions
• Liberal use of humor
• Occasional videos
• Games based on topics of study
• Meeting in other locations
• Relating Scripture to modern situations
• Student-led group presentations
• Treats, like cake to celebrate birthdays.
Some Mormon students have additional motivation to attend and do well in Seminary: Those who would like to attend a church-sponsored school like Brigham Young University know it is one criterion used in determining their admission.
Although he taught adult Sunday school classes for several years, Stebbins still attends a monthly training session with other Seminary teachers in this area. Despite the early hours and occasional need to overcome normal teen behavior, he said, “I love this job in the church. It suits my personality and keeps me from becoming too focused on myself.”
The LDS Church welcomes teens of all faiths to this program. To learn more about attending Seminary in Gilroy, call 408-847-8563.
Chuck Flagg is a retired teacher with a passion for religion. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.