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Navigating life as a Mormon youth

Published: Thursday, Aug. 22 2013 1:13 p.m. MDT

A ballroom dance class during Education Week at Brigham Young University on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013, in Provo. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) A ballroom dance class during Education Week at Brigham Young University on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013, in Provo. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

PROVO — Most of the 1,000-plus classes offered at BYU's Campus Education Week cater to adults, but teenagers have been part of the program for more than 50 years.

This week, youths ages 14-18 (and in some cases their parents, church leaders or any other curious adults) have flooded the Smith Fieldhouse and Spencer W. Kimball Tower to dance and socialize, but also receive spiritual instruction.

The youth track of Education Week, which began Monday and goes through Friday, focuses on navigating life as a youth in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“It’s surprising to me how interesting these classes are," said Rosa Swan, a teenager who is attending Education Week for the first time. "I expected it to be really boring and to be wriggling in my seat, but so far it has ended up being really interesting.”

Karson and Betsy Denney instruct a ballroom dance class focused on teens during Education Week at Brigham Young University on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013, in Provo. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Karson and Betsy Denney instruct a ballroom dance class focused on teens during Education Week at Brigham Young University on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013, in Provo. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

Earlier in the youth program’s history, many classes focused on "temporal" topics such as sports instruction, social dance, conducting music and public speaking. The focus has now moved toward a greater emphasis on the spiritual.

“The goal of this program is to build testimonies in the youth,” said Bruce Payne, Education Week program administrator. “We don’t just want them to be entertained; we want them to get a message."

Payne, who is in his 20th year with Education Week and 15th as program administrator, believes the young people who participate in the event are capable and eager.

“Sometimes people don’t give the youth enough credit for what they can learn,” Payne said.

Darren E. Schmidt, who is in his fourth year of teaching teens at Education Week and is a seminary teacher in Salt Lake City, said the youths are looking to "have a spiritual experience."

A ballroom dance class for teens during Education Week at Brigham Young University on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013, in Provo. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) A ballroom dance class for teens during Education Week at Brigham Young University on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013, in Provo. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

"And they will because they seek out that kind of stuff," said Schmidt, who described LDS youths today as "prepared."

"Sometimes, I’ll compliment parents of my students on their job as a parent, and they’ll often say, ‘They came with it,'" he said. "And I think we’re starting to see that from when I started teaching seminary 10 to 15 years ago. They’re just more prepared.”

The instructors who are chosen to teach the youth classes understand teens' capacity to understand as well as their desire to grow.

“I think that having a good gospel message without having to be too entertaining is important,” Payne said.

A ballroom dance class is geared for teens at BYU's Education Week on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013, in Provo. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) A ballroom dance class is geared for teens at BYU's Education Week on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013, in Provo. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

But “having some charisma helps too,” he added.

“With 70-plus youth classes and 1,000-plus adult classes, we obviously have fewer instructors for the youth,” Payne said. “But the ones that we have, we feel really confident in, and we know that the youth are going to have a really good experience and gain something from it if they listen.”

Along with veterans like Schmidt, favorites such as John Bytheway, Brad Wilcox and Hank Smith have returned, while a few new speakers have made their debuts.

Friends Chandler England and Brandt Hull, both 17, are in their fifth year of attending Education Week and have seen their share of instructors.

“I think ultimately the fact that (the instructors) are teaching with the Spirit is especially important for this age group," England said. "Maybe it sounds weird saying that, but it really is because the Holy Ghost is the one that teaches and testifies.”

Jonathan Terry and Jane Pratt participate in a ballroom dance class for teens during Education Week at Brigham Young University on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013, in Provo. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Jonathan Terry and Jane Pratt participate in a ballroom dance class for teens during Education Week at Brigham Young University on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013, in Provo. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

Said Hull: “For me, the experience changes every time, so you come with a different question each year. And each time you go in with a question, you pick up new stuff and it helps fill in the cracks. So it’s important that teachers are teaching with the Spirit because people are coming and looking for answers. … Education Week is kind of like recharging an iPhone or something and getting different apps.”

Teen sisters Caree and Erin Campbell are at Education Week for the first time and agree the program is a good way to recharge.

“It’s just a great way to refresh before school starts, just to be with other people who are trying to learn more about the gospel,” Erin Campbell said.

“It’s cool to see all the youth gather together, and that people really want to be here," Caree Campbell said.

Betsy Denney instructs a ballroom dance class for teens during Education Week at Brigham Young University on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013, in Provo. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Betsy Denney instructs a ballroom dance class for teens during Education Week at Brigham Young University on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013, in Provo. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

While learning is an important part of the program, another component is application.

“You learn so much that it’s like, ‘Where do I start?’" Caree Campbell said. “But I guess I would say a couple things I want to do are to make goals, try to grow closer to the Savior and cherish and gain a testimony — just good things.”

Her sister added, “I think I’m probably going to study a lot more about anything I have questions about. This is good because it gives you a kick-start to learning and being more motivated to figure things out.”

Instructors also understand their teaching can only go so far.

“(Book of Mormon prophet) Alma talks about planting,” Schmidt said. “We plant a seed and let it grow. There’s a lot of experiences happening in families and wards, you know, on a very individual level, that are kind of nourishing experiences.

A ballroom dance class is geared for teens at BYU's Education Week on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013, in Provo. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) A ballroom dance class is geared for teens at BYU's Education Week on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013, in Provo. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

“I’ve always seen youth conferences and (Especially for Youth programs) and Education Weeks as kind of a planting," he continued. "We plant some seeds and then let them be nourished. And I think that all avenues are helpful and effective in their own way. They can allow that seed to go deeper.

“But if they leave it at that and don’t go back and act on the things that they’ve learned and felt, and parents and leaders don’t facilitate, it’s too bad. We’re really all in it together. We all help exalt each other. … It’s a great thing that BYU opens campus up to just take care of another little avenue that can be a benefit to these kids as they grow up and become amazing.”

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