During the week of March 5-12 twenty students, myself, and my teaching partner from Hong Kong International School visited Yaowawit School, which is about a 90-minute drive northeast of Phuket in southern Thailand. The basic goal of the trip was to visit a community that in 2004 had suffered greatly from the tsunami and to contribute to the ongoing needs of a school in this area. Over the last five years a group from our school had made an annual visit to Khao Lak to build homes through Habitat for Humanity. However, Habitat has now completed rebuilding homes and have shut down their operations.
While this was indeed good news, I wondered about the psychological needs of the children, and about the poverty that resulted from the tsunami. We were pleased to hear of the opportunity to visit Yaowawit School, established in 2006 by a German entrepreneur to support the long-term needs of Thai children affected by the tsunami or those who had other social disadvantages.
Now having returned to Hong Kong I am evaluating the effects of the trip upon my students. By all accounts, students thoroughly enjoyed the trip, and felt that the English teaching and the building of a labyrinth in the open-air theater was worthwhile and rewarding. All students have expressed that the trip was a positive experience for them.
As described in previous posts, as a humanities teacher teaching at the school, I am also quite interested in the spiritual dimension of service learning. In particular, would students consider this meaningful week to be a “spiritual” experience? In order to answer this question, I have analyzed two sources of student feedback. First, I asked each student to fill out a questionnaire related to the spiritual dimension of the trip. Secondly, all students wrote a reflection of the trip about their learning.
I will summarize the approach taken in this action research project, the results of the research, and then compare these results to the conclusions drawn by Astin, Astin, and Lindholm (2010) in their book Cultivating the Spirit. At the end of this post, I will offer a few thoughts on the primary goal of this three-part series, to explore the relationship between service learning and spiritual growth.
A Working Definition of Spirituality
Students were asked to fill out an on-line survey that asked four questions:
1. Would you describe your experience at Yaowawit as “spiritual?”
2. If you said “yes”, explain why. If you said “no”, explain why not.
3. What suggestions would you make for the trip in order to increase the sense of spiritual growth among students?
4. Based on your answers above, what is your definition of the word “spiritual?”
I received 13 of 20 responses from the students. Nine students said they thought the trip could be considered “spiritual”, while 4 responded that they did not think the experience could be described in this manner.
In order to develop a working definition of spirituality, it is helpful to look at student responses to question 4. Students considered the word “spiritual” to mean:
- A connection to or understanding of the inner self
- A deep, emotional experience that enlightens and changes a person, and brings about personal fulfillment
- Something of nonmaterial value
Using these characteristics, this group of students can be said to define an experience as “spiritual” when it involves “an emotionally engaged inner connectivity and self-understanding that results in some personal change and a sense of fulfillment.” A number of students linked “spiritual” to religion, while about the same number of students explicitly commented that it had nothing to do with religion. In contrast to this ambivalence about the role of religion in spirituality, students unequivocally perceived spirituality in terms of inner growth. Only one of the thirteen students linked spirituality to something outside of themselves, such as helping the children at the school.
Students’ Experiences at Yaowawit
As a school-wide requirement, each student wrote a 250-500 word reflection about what they had gained personally from their interim experience. I included a number of additional prompts such as Campbell’s Heroic Journey Cycle, Wilber’s AQAL as well as a few other questions, but students appeared to feel free to simply share what the trip had meant to them. Three themes emerged from the student reflections:
1) The Joy of Relationships: The most obvious theme in reading the students’ writing was simply the deep bonds of friendship and care that developed between HKIS students and the Yaowawit students. Here are number of comments:
The kids . . . I can’t even . . . I can’t even begin to describe. They had honest and open personalities, and we have discovered that in every single one of them contains the most radiant and beautiful soul . . . . Making and being friends with the Yaowawit kids remains to me the most important part of this unforgettable interim (Anna M.)
Now back in Hong Kong I feel out of place and not where I should be. I feel almost uncomfortable as well as terribly missing Yaowawit and the kids. I need the simple pleasures in life: a hand to hold and a smile (Carter).
To enter a place, secluded from the rest of the world, neighbor to the sites of one of history’s greatest natural disasters . . . and find some of the world’s greatest stories of hope, love, and genuinely beautiful souls exceeded far and beyond any conceivable expectations . . . . Through this trip I gained a little taste of the incomprehensible joy that comes with putting myself out there, and I without a doubt hope that others will gather the strength to do that too because it takes bravery to love and put a part of yourself in someone else’s life (Jodi).
A number of students contrasted the relationships on interim to the technology-infused world of their Hong Kong life. For example, Fiona wrote:
Living on the school grounds and interacting with the students both in and outside of class allowed students to develop strong relationships with the school children.
2) A Change in Mindset
If the joy of relationships was the most obvious theme in the reflections, a shift in perspectives was the most pervasive quality in the essays. For a number of students, the trip caused them to reconsider their values back in Hong Kong. Here are some examples:
Reflecting back on interim, I’ve gotten the experience of a lifetime and learnt that if I go through life with such a pessimistic mindset, everything will just pass by me in a blur and I’ll never be truly happy.
I want to be able to change my own mindset and change other people’s mindset on living and enjoying what we have rather than desiring for what we don’t need.
Before I went on the interim, I thought service at HKIS was a bit of a show for our college resumes . . . . Maybe this was because I never went on a service trip before and was too quick to judge . . . . However, after a couple of days into the week, I learnt more about the place [Yaowawit School] and how difficult it is to run it. Everything seemed very real to me all of sudden . . . . As Hong Kongers, we enjoy many luxuries that cannot be afforded in many less fortunate parts of the world . . . . This interim has been a fantastic experience. It helped me gain insight and reflect on how fortunate I am on so many levels.
The first day or two I was being shallow and just did not understand how those people had the will power to do something like that. I was too caught up in mother culture and my spoiled expat ways to realize . . . . Another thing about this interim was that I got to reflect a lot on myself. I realized what was making me unhappy and what makes me happy. I have seen what a selfish person I have been and I’m trying my best to change and I know that I feel my best when I’m helping people. I thought I wanted to be a bsunesswoman when I grow up, but now I see what an unsatisfying life that would be. I want to help the world become a better place, even it it’s just a small step. “But we can do small things with great love” (Mother Teresa).
For other students, the change in mindset included a new belief that doing service was more rewarding than other trips focused on adventure or culture. Two such examples are:
I will now forever sign up for service trips because this was so much more rewarding than our trip last year.
Being with the kids really sparked my desire to pursue service even in the future, because I felt that they really gave back to me as well as I was able to be myself around them. I think that by giving the Yaowawit School so much, they were able to give back to us as well, making it a two-way relationship between us and them. Overall, the Thailand Tsunami Relief Interim helped me to change my perspective on life and service (Radhika).
For other students the change in perception was more about quality of life that they experienced at the school in contrast to the frenetic pace most feel back at school. Several students linked this change in perception to spiritual growth. Benny commented:
One of the most valuable insights I’ve gained is the restructuring of my perception of the world. Life seems to be very fast-paced and stressful when living in the metropolis that is Hong Kong . . . . At the Yaowawit School in Phuket, one of the highlights was how we had learned to embrace our spirituality through meditation in the sacred temple at the school. I believe that through repetition, we would eventually find our inner peace and feel more connected to spirituality and the natural world than we ever would living in Hong Kong. The beauty of this interim is how simple we lived our lives at Yaowawit School . . . . I’d like to try and make meditation a common practice for me at my home and try to find my inner peace and feel more connected to the spiritual and natural world.
Implicit in all of these changes of perception is a better self-understanding. One of the students, Fiona, expressed this explicitly:
The happiness of forming strong bonds with other people and understanding oneself is the greatest gift that has been given to me by the children.
Immersing themselves in a very different culture for a week caused many students to reflect deeply about their lives and the values that they hold.
3) A Sense of Accomplishment
A third category of responses was the sense of accomplishment students felt in relationship to specific tasks that were undertaken during the week. For example, numerous students felt proud that they had built a labyrinth in the main play area for the children:
In making the labyrinth and trying to make a basketball hoop (which didn’t work out the way we thought . . .) was also very important to me. We accomplished in leaving something behind for them to remember us. For them to remember there are lots and lots of people that still pay attention to them and want to help them in the world (Kendrick).
Building of the labyrinth [was] very fulfilling during and after we finished it. I realized that by helping out with this, I was helping build up the spirituality of Yaowawit School and it had a huge impact on the children, as a labyrinth is like a walking meditation. As they meditate every day, I believe that the labyrinth would help them (Radhika).
In bringing new spiritual energy to the theater [through building the labyrinth], I contributed to the school and succeeded in discovering an inner peace (Fiona).
Completing the labyrinth with the kids surely did give everybody a good feeling of accomplishment (Roman).
A number of students also felt a sense of accomplishment by creating and posting short descriptions of various plants in the herb garden. Tolison commented:
Knowing that that gardener can now tell other hotel guests: “Come and see the Herb Garden, where you can learn about X, Y, and Z plants, with info cards made by visiting HKIS students!” will always bring strength whenever I need to push through hard and/or tedious work.
Accomplishing tasks, especially through the teamwork of a larger group, was particularly rewarding for students.
Student Experience and Spirituality
Students on the interim defined spiritual as “an emotionally engaged inner connectivity and self-understanding that results in some personal change and a sense of fulfillment.” In light of this definition, the themes that emerged from the student essays – joy in relationships, change in mindset, and a sense of accomplishment – all can be defined as spiritual experiences. In brief, the joy students experienced engaged them emotionally; a change in mindset required much self-exploration and resulted in personal growth; and a sense of accomplishment seemed to elicit a sense of fulfillment within students. Based on a composite student perspective, then, it appears that the week students spent at Yaowawat indeed could be considered a “spiritual” experience.
Yet why might 4 of the 13 students state that the week should not be considered spiritual in nature? Student comments suggest an answer:
Other than meditating half an hour each night, there wasn’t any other spirituality related things we did. The experience we had at Yaowawit is what I would call a more surreal experience where we could just forget everything and help. I don’t know if there is a specific word for that.
It was not a spiritual experience, however it was very fun :>.
I believe that it was mostly an emotional experience to be with the kids.
I was rather skeptical about the whole spirituality and “positive energy” thing about the labyrinth. I had more fun with actually painting it, and doing other things that I could definitely see and feel.
These comments suggest that students struggle to define what spirituality means. Beyond something that generates inner growth, there is no agreement what constitutes activities to develop one’s spiritual identity. The 9 students who said that the week could be described as a spiritual referred to the time with the students, the nightly meditation and their own internal realizations as evidence of this kind of growth. However, for some of the students, such personal insights and experiences weren’t seen as spiritual.
It’s important to note, too, that some aspects of the trip that I thought students might find spiritual received little comment. We had two speakers, a Westerner who spent ten days in a local Buddhist monastery and a Thai Buddhist teacher, who spoke about Buddhist faith and practice, yet there was almost no references to these sessions in the survey or essays.
I had also hoped that walking the labyrinth, whether in Hong Kong before we came or during the week, might be considered of spiritual benefit. While perhaps two students felt that this walking meditation was of value, most students did not experience this practice as something spiritual. On the whole, building the labyrinth was far more meaningful for the students than walking it.
What can be said definitively is that service learning appears to play an important and perhaps indispensable role in adolescent spiritual development, for serving the needs of others seem to be a “spiritual baseline” experience that positively affects the most number of students. Beyond this baseline, some will be open to meditation and others to religious teaching. However, from my perspective as a teacher of religion, it is a concern that students that seem to have had a spiritual experience don’t think of it as such. I will comment further on this in the conclusion.
Comparisons with Cultivating the Spirit
In part I of this series of posts, I summarized the research provided in the book Cultivating the Spirit as suggesting that spirituality among adolescents is best developed through four pedagogical strategies. As predicted by the Astin, Astin, and Lindholm, these four areas did contribute to the spiritual development of students:
2) Interdisciplinarity: Since this was not a course, it is not possible to draw solid conclusions on this aspect of the research. However, learning about an array of related topics – the effects of the tsunami, Buddhism, social entrepreneurship, and Thai culture – did seem to result in student introspection and critical thinking.
3) Service learning: As suggested above, this “spiritual baseline” of coming to Yaowawit School to help the Thai childrens was highly effective in enhancing student self-reflection.
Thus, this action research project generally supports the findings of Cultivating the Spirit.
The trip to Yaowawit School was ostensibly successful in all areas. Given that I hadn’t been to the school before and had many questions going into the trip, I am quite satisfied by the results. The relationships that were built, the teaching that was done, the positive memories that were shared, the labyrinth that was created, the new ideas that were brainstormed, and the significant donation that we left behind contributed in important ways to the school. For example, just this week a parent in our school community visited the school and is planning a large fundraiser to support the school. From the students’ perspectives, they had a highly engaging and rewarding time with the Yaowawit students. In addition, the majority of students considered this to be a spiritual experience. Even those that wouldn’t provide it with this label did in fact have an experience that seems to match the definition of spirituality generated by the students.
Despite these very positive results, I as a teacher who wants to help students develop all aspects of themselves would like to do more to help students appreciate or realize the spiritual dimension of the week. While by their own definition they are engaged in a spiritual process, they don’t seem to recognize it as such. While this has some advantages in that students don’t raise concerns about the approach, the downside is that they also aren’t opened up to the potential benefits of spiritual communities and spiritual practices, especially as the consider their future in university and beyond. While in general they enthusiastically endorse service learning experiences and social conscience courses, they don’t hold religion courses in high regard and are wary of anything described as “spiritual.”
Twenty years ago service learning was not highly respected at our school, but since then our school culture has undergone a dramatic change. Although we have no service requirement, we estimate that in any given year 95% of students participate in some type of service activity through the school. Can the same be done for spirituality?
In our multicultural world, I understand that religion and spirituality are fraught with far more baggage than service activities. But I also believe there is much truth in the adage, “The next century will be spiritual or it will not be at all.” As students grow in so many ways with the knowledge explosion, it becomes all the more crucial that we provide them with the means by which to help them “make sense of it all,” which in the end is a spiritual process. However, if many students instinctively distance themselves from anything spiritual or religious, they are cutting themselves off from a primary path to meaning, joy, and harmony for themselves and a crucial disposition for the long-term viability of the planet.
This action research project has found that service learning at Yaowawit School did bring personal and spiritual growth to students, as Cultivating the Spirit predicted. Students and teachers enjoyed the trip and we feel satisfied with our week at Yaowawit. I plan to take another group of students to Yaowawit next March.
From a longer term perspective of helping students value spiritual growth, however, I feel that there is still much work to do. We as teachers need to find ways to lower the barriers to make spiritual exploration a non-threatening and even enticing opportunity for students. My tentative conclusion is that schools need to help students develop their own definitions of spirituality, preferably through out-of-the-classroom experiences, and that we as teachers then need to open up as many avenues for personal exploration as possible. Through a gentle introduction of beliefs and practices that have stood the test of time, it ishoped that students will recognize that the modern quest for “connectedness” and “finding the inner self” is not altogether different from many forms of spiritual practices that are best preserved in our global religious heritage.
Astin, A.W., Astin, H.S., & Lindholm, J.A. (2011). Cultivating the spirit: How college can enhance students’ spiritual lives. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.