Students, Teach Thy Teachers
A few months ago, on a dreary gray morning in mid-January, I experienced one of those moments that many teachers only dream about. In fact, it may well be the high point so far of my 25-year career. It was in my 9th grade Global Studies class, and we had been tackling the various tenets of Buddhism for several weeks. Buddhism is a tricky religion to study, in part because our western eyes have trouble comprehending what is so fundamentally eastern in form and construct, and in part because in its original form, Buddhism steered clear of the religious trappings of the Hindu culture in which it was born. (Indeed, the Buddha himself maintained a kind of "noble silence" on matters of divine orchestration of human affairs.)
So on this particular day in January, I wanted the 9th graders to wrestle deeply with Buddhist teachings. Was it a religion? A philosophy? Some kind of amalgamation of the two?
For homework, I had assigned them some readings on the Buddhist concept of nirvana, the ultimate state of being (total bliss, for lack of a better term) that Buddhists believe one reaches when one achieves Enlightenment. (Nirvana, too, is a tricky concept, because the word actually connotes perfect bliss and an extinguishing at the same time.) Being thus armed with at least some idea of what nirvana means, the boys entered class ready for a seminar. This is the statement I gave them:
As an ultimate goal, nirvana proves that Buddhism is a religion and not a philosophy.
Socratic seminars are designed in such a way that the teacher plays a minimalist, barely -noticeable role in the room. I take plenty of notes in order to record the ebb and flow of the conversation, but almost never do I lead or contribute to the discussion and almost never do I even make eye contact with the boys while they are talking. If I do my job right and the boys are well-prepared, they will completely forget that I'm there.
Before they began, I told the class we'd need to keep it short today because I had to go help set up an assembly. My plan was to end class 15 minutes early and we'd all head over to Ward Hall.
And then the seminar commenced.
Within 5 minutes, the boys had thoroughly immersed themselves in the topic at hand. They defined terms, offered insights from the readings, acknowledged each other's viewpoints but politely disagreed. They sought common understanding of what nirvana is and what it isn't; they debated whether nirvana is some kind of Buddhist equivalent of heaven; they asked clarifying questions and probed each other's thinking, all the while trying to establish whether nirvana qualified Buddhism to be a religion.
I had never seen a group of 9th graders more fully engaged and more fully alive. And then, as I kept my eye on the clock, it hit me: I could get up and leave this discussion and these remarkable 9th graders would very likely and very easily carry on without me. The conversation had become so much more than a mere seminar held in front of the teacher for the purpose of getting a grade. It had reached a level of profundity and maturity that transcended school itself. At that moment, Sua Sponte put on an entirely new set of clothes for me.
And so I stood up, quietly grabbed my coat, and whispered (whispered, mind you--it was almost like I was invading a sacred space) that they need to keep track of the time and not be late for assembly. And then I left the room while they carried on without me. (Later I was told that they had indeed lost track of time and that a teacher had to stop them and shoo them over to the hall.)
This is why I love teaching at Fenn. We have these incredibly bright and gifted young men who surround us every day. They take school and their teachers and each other and ideas seriously, not in a grumpy or stuffy kind of way but in a manner that says, "this idea matters; you matter; what we're doing here is important."
And so it is.
The mark of a good school is the extent to which its students are open to learning from each other; the mark of a great school is the extent to which its students teach its teachers. Those students taught me more in those 40 minutes than I could ever hope to teach them in a lifetime of classes or seminars. That's what Fenn boys do best--they take what we as teachers offer them and give it back to us as a gift.
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