For the Holidays: A Student Question

The strip above was inspired by an actual conversation with a student a few years ago – a conversation that has stuck with me. It took me a long time to figure out how to use it in the strip.

The conversation with my real student happened after school one day. My student – “Roy” – visited me, and began talking about the ideas we had been looking at all year: the power of attention to shape our lives and selves; the power of definition to shape our view of reality; the idea of emotional intelligence; the power of stories and books and literacy to change who we are as people and shape our moral imaginations.

And then he asked me, “Are you a Christian?”

As a public school teacher, I tread very carefully on such ground. It is not my job to proselytize. In fact, I view keeping my classroom a place that honors all my students’ beliefs a top priority. Gathering young people from all kinds of backgrounds and beliefs and non-beliefs to discuss big ideas about life is, for me, sacred ground – however you define the sacred.

I answered Roy. “It depends on how you define Christian, but I don’t want to get into a theological discussion here. Why do you ask?”

I forget his exact words, but Roy’s reply in real life was something like the reply Roy makes in the strip. The ideas and concepts we explored in my class via inquiry units all seemed designed to improve their quality of life. My class was, in Roy’s eyes, a kind of ministry.

I told Roy that I did, indeed, design my class to benefit students on more levels than simply meeting standards and raising test scores. Framing my class around questions of definition, attention, emotional intelligence, happiness, and success is not my way of preaching, but of getting students to be more thoughtful about their lives – to open up discussion, let their assumptions (and sometimes mine) air out and have light shed on them.

Social-emotional learning has become the rage lately, but I wonder if we’ve had to suddenly start focusing on it because in our rush to focus everything that happens in schools on a very limited, stifling list of standards, we have lost the social-emotional, and even moral, teaching and learning that used to happen in schools naturally. Read Robert Cole’s book The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination, and you will journey back to a time when classroom talk about books wasn’t about nitpicking over key ideas and details, but about actually discussing what stories mean to our lives.

When I have asked students where else they get to talk about big ideas, many of them say they don’t have any other place. It doesn’t happen in many homes, and even students who are church-goers tell me that discussion isn’t as open-ended as it is in class.

As I began to write this year’s final holiday series about class discussion, here is the free-write I used to gather ideas. It sums up my thoughts fairly clearly.

I have often said that many of our students don’t talk about much at home. Many of them don’t go to houses of worship where they talk about big ideas. Many of them think big thoughts but lack a place to share them with others. 

So English class may be the one place in their lives where they get to talk about big ideas, about what matters in life, about meaning and purpose, about values and morals, about success and failure and what it means to be human. 

And that makes English class, for me, a potentially holy place, not in any particular religious sense, but in the sense that if being human matters, if meaning matters, English class is one place to explore how it matters and why it matters. My students are free, of course, to think religious thoughts and let their faith inform their ideas. But they are free as well to ponder what it means to be human in a world empty of the supernatural. 

The point is that talking about what matters… matters.

Whatever your beliefs and however you define the sacred, may we all find sacred spaces for dialogue and reflection in our lives. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and Happy New Year!