School’s back in session. Several weeks of early mornings have burned through the summer sleep reservoir. Inevitably, the debate over school start times sputters to life, ignited this year by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who tweeted “Common sense to improve student achievement that too few have implemented: let teens sleep more, start school later.” Duncan’s statement references both the sleep science suggesting that teenagers’ circadian rhythms shift toward later wake and sleep times, and the small but growing initiative to delay high school bell schedules to better accommodate the students’ biological reality and, potentially, improve their academic performance.
For some LDS teens, there’s another wrinkle to the debate (and under their parents’ sleepy eyes): early morning seminary. It’s just so early. (1) Classes start as early as 5:30 AM in some areas, in order to accommodate students involved in zero-hour school activities. Assuming a 5:30 AM seminary start means a 5:00 AM alarm, a seminary student who needs eight hours of sleep at night would have to be in bed by 9:00 pm. Yet my daughter didn’t get home from her Young Women activity last night until 9:00. The hours just don’t add up.
This is a familiar complaint, and I make it out of craven self-interest, as I have a seventh-grader this year and I dread the imposition that early-morning seminary will soon make on the quality of our family life in the mornings and on my children’s other pursuits: before-school musical instrument practicing is an institution in our home, and if my morning is eaten up with driving kids to and from seminary, that can’t happen. I know, I know, boo hoo for me and my little Mozarts. Thousands of others families have figured it out, and we can too.
But I think it’s worth making the case for change again now, because something else has changed the equation: the missionary age. We’re seeing trickle-down effects all through LDS institutional and personal life. Missionary service is now a line-item on the standard life-script for all of our youth, and it starts right after high school. This means that all of our youth need to know the scriptures, know the gospel, and know how to teach by the time they graduate from high school. And that means that we need the most effective teaching and the most efficient learning.
With full knowledge that my suggestions carry absolutely no weight, I nevertheless suggest that we do away with traditional early-morning seminary, a venue in which even the students who do show up and stay awake — and there are many who don’t — are not learning efficiently. In its place, we use the weeknight youth activity slot for a two-hour, intensive institute-style missionary prep class, taught by the very best teachers in the stake. Twelve and 13-year-olds could continue traditional YW and Scouting activities, but in high school the focus shifts to mission prep. The weekly classes would be supplemented with fifteen minutes of daily online study from home, for a total of 75 minutes of online study and about 100 minutes of group class instruction per week. In terms of sheer minutes, that stacks up pretty well against early morning seminary, which, by the time you subtract five minutes of start-up and wind-down time from both ends of the class period, offers about 200 minutes of instructional time per week.
This will not be fool-proof system perfectly meeting the needs of every student. Some kids will have extra-curriculars in the evenings for part of the year, and perhaps a fully online option can be offered for them. But the weeknight youth activity is already a known quantity for LDS families, and we’ve coped with it in our family calendars in some fashion. Using that time for gospel instruction can ease the hardship of early morning instruction without introducing yet another church obligation into family life.
There are signs that change is afoot in CES. A re-vamped online home study seminar program was introduced last week, and it could be use seamlessly with weekly evening seminars to replace early morning instruction. We know that home-study, evening and after-school seminary has worked for LDS youth in other countries. Broader educational paradigms are shifting toward online learning, and we’re beginning to know what works and what doesn’t. Now is a good time to consider retiring early morning seminary for our youth.
(1) There are many virtues to early morning seminary, of which I am a graduate. Early rising is a time-honored austerity practice, and I believe it has value. Those students who attend faithfully each morning no doubt cherish the experience because they sacrificed for it. Morning seminary offers an opportunity for spiritual connection before the gauntlet of the school day. It can build camaraderie and friendship among students, especially those who attend different high schools and wouldn’t otherwise connect daily. There are some truly outstanding early morning seminary teachers out there, including my own mother and sister, and they change lives every year. These virtues are real, and some of them will not be reproduced in a less-onerous instructional setting. Nevertheless, I believe that the value of reaching those youth who, for whatever reason, are not attending or are not learning from early morning seminary will outweigh these virtues, in the end.