As my contribution to the Juvenile Instructor’s series on Mormon Studies in the Classroom, I thought I’d discuss the place of Mormonism in the Utah Studies course, which is a required class for all 7th graders in the state’s public schools. The structure, sources, and activities for such a class are necessarily tailored to a younger audience than those of the other courses that will make up this series, but I think it’s important to consider how less-seasoned—and more often than not, less-willing—students interact with Mormon studies.
I’m only in my second year teaching the Utah Studies Course, but have been given a lot of latitude by my school (which is a charter school that employs the Core Knowledge Sequence for its main curriculum). So I’ve put a lot of thought into what I’d like my course to look like, where I think Mormonism should fit, and what I want my adolescent audience to take away from the course.
The Utah Core Curriculum introduction to the Utah Studies Course says this:
Utah is a state diverse in landscape and people. This course is designed to help students understand the state of Utah at a deeper level by reviewing Utah’s early history and particularly emphasizing Utah from statehood to the present. Students will understand the interaction between Utah’s geography and its inhabitants, as well as the formative contributions of Native American Indians, explorers, and Utah pioneers. The course will also investigate relationships between government and the people of Utah, the many opportunities people have to make a living in Utah, the diverse nature of Utah’s people and cultures, and the impact of contemporary events on the land and people of Utah. The Utah Studies core is designed to meet the needs of a semester-length course. Full-year Utah Studies courses may expand the scope and detail of this course to meet specific needs.
Besides the veiled references to Mormons (included in, but not solely, “Utah pioneers”, as well as one of the potential focuses of “relationships between government and the people of Utah”), Mormons make little appearance even in the specific standards themselves. (For the full Utah Social Studies Core Curriculum see this link, and for lesson plans related to the standards discussed below, see this link and this link). Only Standard 2, objective 3 mentions the Mormons by name:
Objective 3: Describe the significance of pioneers in Utah history.
a. Explain the reasons for the Mormon migration to Utah.
b. Explore the pattern of Mormon settlement throughout the West. Recognize how the Mormon pioneers’ heritage influences Utah today.
c. Investigate the contributions of Utah’s “new pioneers”, i.e., ethnic/multicultural/religious/scientific/technological groups
And Standard 3, Objective 1 (“Examine Utah’s struggle for statehood”) does not mention the Mormons as the central element of the struggle.
Fortunately for Social Studies teachers in Utah, the Standards are still more like guidelines than actual rules (obligatory nod to Captain Barbossa). With that latitude, and the latitude given me by my school, my personal objective has been to help my students understand and view Mormons in a prominent place not only historically, but also in contemporary Utah. Students should leave my class conversant in (1) the reasons for tension between the Mormons and their neighbors (and the U.S. Government) from the 1830s through today; (2) religious, social, cultural, and economic features of Mormonism that shaped Utah settlement and continue to impact Utah today; and (3) the idea of Mormonism as a religion that is deserving of respect, regardless of their personal feelings about it. My school is in West Valley City and attracts a diverse crowd ethnically and religiously, so I spend a lot of time dispelling myths about Mormons for believers and nonbelievers alike. (My personal project this year has been one student who began by writing only intolerant things: “I hate Mormons!” “Mormons use the stupid Bible,” etc.)
Because of the (im)maturity level of the students I teach, I choose mostly excerpted primary sources that can resonate with them. I use excerpts of the LDS scriptures to highlight beliefs like the importance of gathering, Brigham Young’s organization of the Saints at Winter Quarters, the polygamy doctrine, the Manifesto, etc. Students love to handle a facsimile copy of the 1830 Book of Mormon (“Where are all the verses?!” exclaim the LDS students in class). Letter and diary excerpts give the students insight into the thoughts and feelings of Mormons throughout time. And I love to use Mormon music (chiefly hymns) and art, like that of C.C.A. Christensen, to highlight Mormon culture and emphasize the lived religion and transmission of memory that takes place among the Mormons. Photographs of large polygamous families provide a great visual representation of the exception to the rule in polygamous life–one of the hot topics that kids know very little about (“Eww, gross!” being the most commonly uttered first reaction to the historical lifestyle, though an increasing number are familiar with the “pop culture polygamy” of TLC reality shows Sister Wives and My Five Wives).
The standard text for Utah Studies courses these days is Holtzapfel and Myers, The Utah Journey (Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith, Publisher, 2009). I like this book because it attempts to place Mormonism within an appropriate context, while not ignoring the central role it played/plays in Utah’s development. It is visually stunning and replete with primary source examples, although its text is often short on analysis, repetitive and vague. I usually supplement the book with excerpts from other sources, though there are few written at a 7th grade level. Some appropriate readings are available via Utah’s “History to Go” website. Since many of my students love audio-visual immersion, I use some videos to supplement what we’re learning, as well, though the series that are available are all dated. Dean May’s “A Peoples’ History of Utah” has a number of good episodes that address Mormon-related topics (though his series recently prompted a fiery discussion among JIers over who would have made a more captivating host—the list was long, but I think the consensus was that James Earl Jones would be the most engrossing). Albert Fisher’s “Geography of Utah” series has an episode or two on the Mormon settlement of Utah, and there are excerpts from both Ken Verdoia’s “Utah: The Struggle for Statehood” series and PBS’ “The Mormons” that are accessible for 7th graders. There are many resources available online via the Utah Education Network’s multimedia collection, though it is poorly organized and you almost have to know exactly what you’re searching for to be able to find it.
As my teaching of the course is still a work in progress (isn’t every class?!), there are a few things I’d like to implement to better accomplish my objectives. Since more and more primary sources are becoming available digitally, a project examining emigrant diaries and culminating in the writing of some historical fiction would work well with my students. Temple Square, the Beehive House, and the DUP Museum are just a short TRAX ride away, so a field trip is very feasible, where we can see both artifacts from the Mormon past and how the LDS Church and others interpret its past today. One thing that we will continue to do is discuss current events weekly on Fridays; Mormons inevitably come up in the Utah news whether it’s Mitt Romney or pulling missionaries out of volatile areas or opposition to same-gender marriage. And if my students want to explore the dynamics of modern fundamentalism, I can always send them across the street to our neighbor school, rumored to enroll children of polygamous families. (I’m serious—it’s right across the street.)
I would like to see Utah do more in terms of continuing education for teachers of the Utah Studies course, as there are few opportunities sponsored by the state or its institutions for improving content knowledge applicable to Utah Studies (Utah’s Core Academy, for example, regularly focuses on broad social studies-related skills like “teaching with primary sources,” but there needs to be more Utah-specific instruction, in my opinion). I do enjoy teaching Utah Studies, as it has added some breadth to my understanding of Mormonism’s place in the west, even while I’m striving to give my students an increased depth of understanding regarding Mormonism. If any of our readers have experience teaching the course, I’d love to hear their perspectives on how they’ve included Mormonism.