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Early Morning Seminary

on September 17, 2017 - 5:58am
Tamyra Smith teaching freshman seminary class. Photo by Deborah Fillerup Weagel
By Deborah Fillerup Weagel, PhD
  • LDS Los Alamos High School Students Participate In Morning Seminary Program

During this past school year when many residents in the Los Alamos area were still sleeping, about 40 young high school students arose at approximately 5-5:30 a.m. Almost every day high school was in session, these teenagers started their morning by attending seminary at 6:20 a.m. This year they studied The New Testament.

These students are part of a much larger international program established by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints more than 100 years ago, and it now includes hundreds of thousands of youth in more than 150 different countries. Although it is sponsored by the Church, teenagers from any religious background may attend. This is a four-year program for youth about 14-18 years of age in which they study the four standard works of the Church: The Old Testament, The New Testament, The Book of Mormon, and The Doctrine and Covenants. Each text is studied for one academic year, so those who complete all four years have studied all four works.
In Los Alamos, the teachers and students meet in classrooms rented by the Church in the “D” wing of Los Alamos High School. They are divided into four groups, depending on their status at school: freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. Each group has a teacher, a volunteer who also has his or her own profession in addition to this teaching responsibility.
These instructors prepare lessons, get up extra early each morning, and teach a class in religious instruction before going to their regular day job. Tamyra Smith, who works with freshmen, has her own music studio and teaches violin, viola and piano; Jeremy Conlin, instructor of sophomores, is a physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory; David Woodruff, who teaches juniors, is president and CEO of Zia Credit Union; and Robert Forsyth, who instructs seniors, is a materials science technologist at LANL.
Joseph Harris, senior at Los Alamos High School, studying scriptures in his seminary class. Photo by Deborah Fillerup Weagel
Many students find this program to be of benefit to them in their lives. Joseph Harris, who just graduated from Los Alamos High School, explained why he attended early-morning seminary for four years: “I noticed how much good it brought to my life. It gave me a sense of peace and strength. I learned so much. Studying the scriptures was fascinating.” Harris, whose teacher this year was Robert Forsyth, is interested in writing fiction. Son of a physician assistant, he received a Los Alamos Youth Business Grant to start a window washing business. Now that he has graduated from high school and seminary, he plans to serve an LDS mission for two years before attending college.
Annie Conlin, sophomore at Los Alamos High School. Photo by Deborah Fillerup Weagel
Annie Conlin, who was a sophomore at Los Alamos High School, was another seminary student who found value in the instruction she received. Her father, Jeremy Conlin, was her seminary teacher this year. She expressed, “I enjoy the scriptures more, because by attending seminary I understand them better.” She also tries to read the scriptures at home, at least one chapter a night, before she goes to sleep. At school she loves drama (she was the understudy for Mary Poppins) and ballroom dancing, and she wants to be a nurse for her career.
David Woodruff, seminary instructor of the junior class. Photo by Deborah Fillerup Weagel
Students were not the only people who gained knowledge and a sense of peace and strength by attending seminary. David Woodruff, who just completed his fourth year teaching in this early-morning program, said he learned more about the scriptures from his preparation as well as how to be a better teacher.
In terms of his teaching method, Woodruff explained, “I try to help the students gain confidence in their scripture study, to learn approaches that will help them throughout their lives. They can search and discover for themselves: what is the context, what is the content, and what are the doctrines.” He also avoids simply lecturing and telling students the information. He wants them to search, to engage, and to interact with other students during class time.
Tamyra Smith, who has a busy schedule with her music studio, arose even earlier than most. She said of her seminary teaching experience: “I am not a morning person, but surprisingly it was not difficult to get up at 4:30 each morning to spend time with 16 to 20 freshmen at Los Alamos High School. The faith and integrity they had never ceased to amaze me. It gave me great hope for the future.”
Students have the opportunity to graduate from the seminary program. The requirements to complete each year include 75 percent attendance, completing the assigned scriptural text (for the 2016-2017 academic year, The New Testament), and passing two assessments. Once students fulfill these annual requirements for four years and receive an ecclesiastical endorsement from a Church leader, they are eligible for graduation. 
By completing additional work, each student can become a “Scripture Scholar.” Some of the requirements include reading the scriptures outside of class at least 15 minutes daily; 80 percent attendance; understanding, applying, and explaining 100 scripture verses or passages; memorizing the names of the books of scripture in order; and demonstrating an understanding of basic church doctrines.
In the unique community of Los Alamos, which ranks as one of the “brainiest” areas in the world, with one of the highest number of PhDs per capita and one of the lowest levels of child poverty in the country, these young seminary students and their teachers have the opportunity to thrive. With their varied interests and their passion for scripture study, they contribute to the diverse community which exists in this mountainous area of northern New Mexico (with an altitude of more than 7,000 feet). Both students and instructors are to be commended for their discipline, effort and determination to rise early, study the scriptures, and seek to incorporate the teachings therein in their own lives.