Mormon Studies in the 7th Grade Utah Studies Classroom

By April 28, 2014

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.

Course Objective:

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.)

Primary Sources:

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).

Secondary Sources:

The Utah Journey

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.

Unique Activities:

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.


Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Courses Methodology, Academic Issues Miscellaneous Mormon Studies Courses Reflective Posts


  1. This class sounds 5000x better than the Utah Studies course I took as a seventh grader. Thanks for your post, Nate!

    Comment by J Stuart — April 28, 2014 @ 8:24 am

  2. Thanks, Joey! You’re welcome to join me for a refresher course any time.

    Comment by Nate R. — April 28, 2014 @ 9:31 am

  3. Many thanks for this, Nate. This is really good stuff. I can’t imagine the trepidation of dealing with Mormon history in such a setting. Do you get much backlash from Mormon kids who are not used to being taught about their own church in such a format?

    Comment by Ben P — April 28, 2014 @ 10:07 am

  4. Thanks for the comment, Ben. There is some backlash, but mostly in the form of “At church (or in my family) I was taught such & such,” when such & such is really incorrect. I have to dance around that and hopefully modify their thinking with “Well, that’s how many people have been taught to think about Mormonism, so I can understand why you might think that. Let’s talk about what really happened…”

    Comment by Nate R. — April 28, 2014 @ 10:14 am

  5. We were at the Church History Museum and my 7th grader daughter suddenly said, “Hey! That painting is in my Utah Studies book.” It made me curious as to what types of things she was learning about. This has been most timely in that regard.

    Comment by EmJen — April 28, 2014 @ 11:13 am

  6. I think Holtapfel’s team did a great job with the visual record (though the book includes only one portrait of Joseph Smith Jr., and not the typical one, either). Part of the problem is that there’s such a rich visual culture of Mormonism, but so little space can be devoted to it in a textbook to meet the demands of the Utah Studies course. Kudos to your daughter for paying attention, EmJen!

    Comment by Nate R. — April 28, 2014 @ 11:45 am

  7. Nate, Your students are lucky to have you as a teacher. I was thoroughly frustrated with my daughter’s 7th grade Utah Studies teacher. It was the middle of the year before she even talked about people. There was a unit on rocks, then volcanoes, then Utah’s counties and county seats. It seemed as if she were afraid to talk about people, perhaps because of the religious/cultural divide that permeates Utah. The objectives you quote seem to bear that out. And, I get it, Utah history should not be Mormon history, but avoiding Mormons seems the wrong approach too. How do you strike a balance in terms of content?

    And,as for your call for continuing education, the Tanner Humanities Center at the U offers Gateway to Learning Workshops every summer for public ed teachers. I’ve done a “Reconstructing Utah History” course for the last five or so years. There is more info here:

    Comment by Paul Reeve — April 28, 2014 @ 11:18 pm

  8. Thanks for the heads-up on the workshop series, Paul. How well attended is it? And do you find that it reaches teachers from across the state, or are the participants mostly from the Wasatch Front?

    As I was examining the curriculum/text for the year, I was frustrated that so much attention was given to inventions and developments like the Pony Express that, while unique and interesting in their own right, pale in comparative importance to things like the struggle over polygamy and the decades-long battle for statehood. So I handled that by simply skipping two chapters of the textbook, summing them up in ten minutes of discussion.

    And I figure that no one else is going to tackle the religious-cultural elephant in the room (er, state) for these students, so I have no qualms about providing a safe place for students to express their frustrations and ask honest questions. And your daughter’s teacher’s plight speaks loudly for expanded access to the kind of workshop you offer at the U. Did you tell her about the course?

    Thanks for the comment, Paul.

    Comment by Nate R. — April 29, 2014 @ 8:43 am

  9. Nate,
    The workshops are generally capped at 30 or so and the Reconstructing Utah History has filled, sometimes with a waiting list, every year. It is a bargain financially and seems to be quite popular among Granite district teachers (or Granite does a better job of advertising it, or something). It costs very little and the teachers earn three credits toward what they call “lane changes” or pay scale advances. The bulk of the teachers are from the Wasatch Front, but I’ve had teachers from across the state too. Not all of the teachers who enroll are Utah Studies teachers or even history teachers, but the bulk are. Each time I teach it there is usually at least one teacher, frequently more, who was asked/told that s/he was going to be teaching Utah Studies the coming year. These teachers have no background or content knowledge and are thrown into the classroom. They take the workshop in an effort to gain some Utah Studies content knowledge as well as curriculum ideas.
    And I think you are right for tackling the elephant.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — April 29, 2014 @ 9:48 am

  10. Great stuff, Nate. I agree with Ben, this is clearly a daunting prospect but you seem to handle it well.

    Comment by Ryan T. — April 30, 2014 @ 11:50 am

  11. Thanks, Ryan! I think it is made less daunting by the fact that I am so much taller, and smell so much better, and know so many more words, than my students.

    Comment by Nate R. — April 30, 2014 @ 4:18 pm


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