One of the first meetings of the new “Spiritual Explorations” team in spring, 2017. This entry shares the new SPEX curriculum that emerged from our collective work, the first unit that we have just completed, and an analysis of students’ first essays reflecting on the course content.
How do we as religion teachers wake up young people to the possibility of a spiritual dimension of life? This must be the most important question among spiritually-oriented educators, and it’s the task that drove our religion teachers 14 months ago to discard our two required semester courses, World Religions and Biblical Traditions, and strike out into the uncharted territory of creating a new course that would boldly attempt to connect students to a greater reality beyond their academically-focused lives.
Last month we began teaching our new “Spiritual Explorations” (SPEX) course with the first unit called, “It’s Time to Wake Up,” and now students’ first essays have been submitted. What have we learned so far? This blog entry explains the approach we have taken in constructing this new class, the curriculum of the first unit, and analysis of student papers. This is our first sense of whether the gamble we took in December, 2016 appears to be paying off or not.
The SPEX Approach
Three aspects of the SPEX class make it stand out as a departure from standard educational practice. First, each class includes a spiritual practice, which so far in my classes has meant some form of sitting meditation or conscious walking. Their homework, too, is mostly practice-oriented. Students will be assigned a practice – say, the loving kindness meditation – and do it three times before the next class. Other teachers, for example, ask students to express gratitude for unacknowledged blessings in their lives, or to smile at someone whom they don’t usually engage with in this way, as homework (or “homeplay” as some of us call it) practices as well.
Secondly, since SPEX meets only about once a week, the outcome of each class aims to be either thematic or experiential rather than content-laden. We hope students remember, for example, that the first class was about “Waking Up” when we showed them David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” and then asked them to practice this by doing a conscious walk through campus afterwards. (All the teachers also brought a goldfish from our koi pond into class on that first day.) During the 3rd class we wanted my students to remember the vertical dimension by dramatically drawing a vertical bar through a horizontal timeline on the board. The goal, then, was to create an event, rather than simply lead them through a series of activities, emphasizing spiritual experience over content retention.
Thirdly, all grades receive credit or no credit. There are no A’s, B’s, or C’s. Students need to receive credit for all four of the major (summative) assignments in order to pass the class. The bold message we are sending is that we can offer a high quality educational experience without holding a bludgeon of academic reward or punishment above their heads.
All three aspects – practice-based, event-oriented, and grade-neutral (beyond credit/no credit) – are radical departures from conventional educational norms.
Teaching How to Wake Up
In the past year our SPEX team of 5 teachers has gathered regularly to construct a curriculum that would enable our students to cultivate a spiritual life. Starting from a blank slate was daunting, but enthusiasm swelled quickly as we started on what we felt even at the onset was a bold new path. In time a vision formed, which we have now rolled out in our first unit on waking up, the key themes of which are explained below (there are some variations among teachers, but I will only include what I taught since the data below comes from my classes):
- The first step on the spiritual journey is to wake up to your lived reality. We used a video version of David Foster Wallace’s baccalaureate address in which he explains that we are like fish that don’t know what water is.
- Nearly all cultures before modern culture have suggested that there is a vertical (spiritual) aspect of life that is infinite, more powerful and more beautiful than the horizontal (material) existence that we live in our daily lives.
- Religion uses powerful metaphors to talk about this vertical dimension, and what it means to live at the intersection of the horizontal and the vertical: a burning bush, a staircase, a repaired pot (Japanese kintsukuroi pottery).
- Our perspective of the vertical dimension is greatly influenced by our family and cultural background, especially the religious practice and spiritual sensitivity of our grandparents and parents.
- What prevents many of us from believing the universal message of the world’s religions that each of us is of infinite value is a low-grade self-critical voice telling us that we are not good enough.
- We break out of habitual horizontal autopilot behaviors and open to the vertical by cultivating the intelligences of the body, mind, and heart.
- These intelligences can be trained through regular spiritual practice, such as meditation, conscious walking, loving kindness meditation, body scans, and being grateful.
- All of us are on a spiritual journey navigating our way through one of three stages: construction of a faith or belief system (which for many includes scientism, atheism, or agnosticism); deconstruction what we were taught/received; or reconstruction a worldview that fits our experience of reality.
These eight themes as well as writing the paper were the essential elements of the first seven class periods.
Themes of Student Essays
To close out the first unit we asked the students to write a paper in which they answered a series of questions all related to the theme of how they could benefit from the SPEX class.* This was their first major assignment.
Having recently completed reading two classes of essays, I wanted to theorize what students have actually gained so far from the course. Below, then, I have gathered their thoughts and opinions into six themes. I introduce each theme with my analysis of student perceptions and then provide a series of student quotes illustrating this particular concept.
Theme 1: A Sense of Orientation and Spiritual Direction
The student essays make it clear that as 14 and 15-year old students they have received many conflicting messages about what to believe about religion and spirituality. Many students have had some kind of religious orientation, such as attending church when they were young or having strong Buddhist influences from a parent or grandparent, but have lost that initial warm sense of belonging to a tradition because of either the impact of science or due simply to the busyness of life. Other students, perhaps equal in number, have been raised in an atheist or agnostic background and have had little direct exposure to religion.
The key ideas we introduced in this unit, especially the horizontal and vertical dimensions and the emphasis on using practices to help them cultivate their own spiritual belief, have provided a map-like orientation which enables students to participate every class period in what they have heard constitutes a “spiritual journey.” This simple, open-minded laying out of a playing field has been easily grasped by students and has caused them to enter into consideration of these profound questions on both intellectual and participatory levels – with the course emphasizing the latter even more than the former. The following comments illustrate these points:
- Girl: “Being in Humanities I in Action and Spiritual Exploration I think I now have a grasp of what I want my life to be like. I used to be very ungrateful, selfish, and full of hate. Learning from Humanities I in Action, I don’t want to live in the horizontal world. In my eyes, it is filled with greed, envy, hate, materialism, and competition. I used to only be in the horizontal world. In my eyes, the vertical world is loving, accepting, and full of forgiveness. I think that learning about spirituality and the real world has helped me in rebuilding my life. I now want to do service, make others happy, and be a forgiving person.”
- Boy: “This spiritual unit has really made me reflect about who I am as a person, and question the spiritual practice I have been living with for many years. The practice that has been THE most useful is no doubt meditation at school, home or practically anywhere where you can do it. This makes me think about the non-materialistic things about life and how I can improve on the deeper things in life…The goal I am going to set is to meditate at least 3 times a week, as it helps me find myself at times of trouble and, ultimately, keep myself calm. I will not only use this practice, but keep into consideration all of the things I have learned in class!”
- Girl: “Whether or not I end up feeling a sudden, new religious connection doesn’t matter to me, I just hope that I am able to take the skills from this class and integrate them into my life, allowing me to live with more than just the known, and potentially leading me towards a discovery of something brand new inside myself or out in the world.”
- Girl: “Soon I decided that I wasn’t much of a religious person, just a spiritual one. I’m at the early stage of reconstruction right now, because my mind is evolving. Knowledge is power, and the more I learned about the world, the more I became sure of myself and my inner being. I don’t quite know what I am, but I know that I’m on the journey to figuring it out. This semester, I think my biggest goal is to just absorb information like a sponge. Making decisions about my spirituality can only result from sufficient knowledge, and I definitely don’t have enough.”
Theme 2: New Insights into the Spiritual Life
The combination of laying out a playing field and then giving students the opportunity to start “playing the game” has resulted in genuine spiritual insights in the papers. While the following comments are the most incisive, many papers included clear statements of intentions, for example, to learn about the vertical dimension, or experience more relaxation through spiritual practices. Nearly every paper showed respect for and curiosity about this supposed invisible dimension of reality that all cultures before our own have claimed is true and accessible. Even the students who identified themselves as “committed horizontalists” stated that they were open to spiritual growth, but simply had had no exposure or experience with something beyond the material.
It is indeed quite surprising that in only seven class periods, which included one period for writing and peer review, that students could make such insightful comments. Here are some of the most striking student observations:
- Boy: “Everything in the world needs balance [of your body, mind, and heart], especially your life….Unfortunately, the society we live in today is unbalanced, which messes up the balance of your own life. School is primarily focused on strengthening the mind, sometimes the body, but practically never the heart. This is a particularly devastating issue, because the heart is arguably the most important of the three. When I’m really old and about to die I don’t want to know how to solve quadratic equations or all the comma rules, but instead be surrounded by people I love. Strengthening the mind is a great practice, but if it’s not balanced with the other two it’ll end up doing more harm than good.”
- Girl: “Talking about my past beliefs made me think about what I used to believe in, reminding me of the importance of faith. Therefore, I think that I am in the “fading vertical” phase but simultaneously “fading horizontal” phase due to the faint return of my faith. Just after a few weeks of SPEX, I already think that I have a new insight; I should focus on the vertical dimension more. To do so, I need to concentrate on my body and heart more by walking and eating consciously, and become more present to the moment. In conclusion, I should become more present and take care of my body and heart better.”
- Girl: “In the end, I have learned more about myself from the past few classes. I have learned that I am very much a spiritual person more than I am religious. I want to keep on learning more about this and learning about myself. I want to work on connecting more with my heart and my body instead of just using my mind. I want to continue to learn how [to] shut off autopilot and my brain when I am not in school. I want to connect to the vertical dimension more and more. I want to bring myself to living fully in both worlds at all time. I want to keep on learning about me.”
- Girl: “I have learned a lot this semester, but I would like to learn more about my body, heart, and mind because I feel like knowing that would help me a lot while growing up.”
Theme 3: Gratitude for Time to Make Sense of Life
One of the more subtle themes in the papers was a sense of gratitude that the school is providing time for this kind of exploration that students feel they just can’t find time for in their busy schedules. Even for those who have no particular interest in religion, having time to slow down, reflect, and do some kind of centering practice was welcome, and seemed for some to be a source of renewal during their day.
- Girl: “I was extremely grateful for Spiritual Exploration that part of the class was scheduled JUST for meditation, meaning I wouldn’t have to make an effort to plan to do it later on in my day. I especially enjoyed the Loving Kindness Meditation because it allowed me to be aware of and spread kindness toward myself, and even some people who I may not be getting along with. This part of the meditation really made me feel at peace….As of now, I believe my spiritual beliefs are in the process of reconstruction, as I am actively using resources such as this class to investigate the spiritual realm, as well as to fortify or create a new foundation for myself.”
- Girl: “Having time to think, to take a breath, it’s also helped me heal. One of the reasons why I’m thankful for spirituality class is because it teaches me to have a balanced life. I never got any time to use my other brains, which is why I think my “starting over” point was so hard to cross. I only ever really used my mind, and never my heart. Because of this I didn’t know how to heal when my heart was broken….I hope that with Spex I’ll learn more on the life I want to reconstruct for myself, I’ll start to build the stairs up to the door, and I’ll learn how to have balance in my life.”
- Boy: “Spiritual explorations has clearly helped me to live a better life for the time being, as I have reflected more and noticed more. However, I think the most important thing for me going into the future is to ensure that I keep up with some of the things that we do in this class, whether it be the conscious walking or the short meditations. Every time we learn something in any class or even outside of school, it can feel extremely temporary. For the rest of the semester I’m really hoping that for what we do in class lasts instead of just fading away over the years.”
We as SPEX teachers are thrilled to see comments like the one by the boy above. The original impetus of this entire SPEX program was so that students would have a chance to explore their spiritual lives every year of high school. Over the next three years SPEX will expand to grades 10, 11, and 12, so that in three years time all 750+ students will have 20 classes a year focused on strengthening their spiritual life.
Theme 4: Positive Impact of Spiritual Practice
The most common theme of all was that students were already beginning to reap the benefits of spiritual practice in their lives. The most useful practice for my two classes was conscious walking in which they break out of their hurried, getting-from-point-A-to-point-B routine and instead focus their attention on observing the natural beauty of our outdoor campus or noting its (award-winning) architectural design. Even for me as a teacher that has implemented these practices for the last six years in World Religions, the impact of something so simple as mindful walking in such a small number of classes has exceeded any expectation I had.
- Boy: “I think my favourite and most impactful practice so far this year would be the conscious walking. I had heard about this before from parents, friends ect., but I never had the urge to do it. When I was forced to do it by Mr. Schmidt, I was amazed by the results. I was asked to walk around the school (places I’ve been to hundreds of times) and just be aware of my surroundings. The first time I did this, I focused on other people. While I was doing my conscious walking, I came across a lady in the Noodle Shop just outside the cafeteria. It was January and freezing outside and all she had was an apron and a short sleeve shirt. I immediately felt a large sense of empathy when I realised how cold she was. Although I didn’t do anything at the time because we had to return to the classroom, this experience showed how there are many small things you can do to make a person’s day. With the conscious walking, I looked at things from a different perspective. I was able to drift away from the auto-pilot mind-set that I am often fixated on. I believe that doing activities such as these can make an enormous impact on becoming your best future self.”
- Boy: “The way I perform conscious walking is using my experience of walking as the center of our attention. I am aware of what happens outside. Awareness of objects, the wind, the sun and the rain, but also the sounds of nature, people, cars. This allows me to be in a vulnerable state of mind, which unlocks the possibility of entering the divine world…my goal is to utilize the body, mind, and heart plus spiritual practices to attain a balance between the finite and infinite world during the remainder of the course, allowing me to progress on my spiritual journey.”
- Boy: “In this [mindful walking] exercise we first did some meditation and then walked outside to all of our classes in our schedule in slow motion. Doing this I noticed things I never see when going to my classes as I am either with my friends or on my phone. I was almost confused not knowing what to do or what to pay attention to. This made me realize that sometimes I need to pause and look at my surroundings and see what’s around me. This helps you achieve a balanced and healthy life has you are no longer following the same routine, you get to pay attention to your body and mind. You get to push your thoughts away and think about the present time instead of the past or future. This helps you lead a very healthy life.
Other students have benefited from the sitting meditation that we have done in class or that they have done as homework, especially the loving kindness meditation:
- Girl: “A few things in SPEX that has helped me realize how much easier it is being in touch with the vertical world is the loving kindness meditation and the mindfulness walk. With the loving kindness meditation I realized how much easier it is to heal when I only exude forgiveness and love. With the mindfulness walk, sometimes I would take it as a time to reflect. I think reflecting on my “past life” will help me rebuild my new one.”
- Boy: “I [also] think the 3 minute breathing exercise has really helped me and been the most beneficial to me. This breathing exercise has been used in many places for me. Sometimes when I think about something and get mad I would stop for a second and just breath, I would do this exercise and it would calm me down. Another use of this exercise is when I’m trying to go to sleep. It only takes me three minutes of just breathing for me to fall asleep.”
- Girl: “I don’t know why but this [loving kindness meditation] practice brings me a sense of peace and happiness.”
- Girl: “I have found that both meditation and conscious walking have helped me become more optimistic about life in general after only doing it for a few times.”
Since the fundamental commitment of SPEX is to provide time in every class for spiritual practice, it is indeed deeply affirming to receive these comments at the completion of our initial unit of this four-year program; this portends well for their growth throughout their high school career.
Theme 5: Dampening of the Inner Critic
On the second day of class I explained that a universal message in the world’s religions is that each person is of infinite value. What pulls us out of this realization for most people in modern society is a voice in our heads that says we are not good enough to meet the “standard” in so many areas of our lives, which can be called the Inner Critic. Although I only taught this in one class, a surprising number of students picked up on this theme as an important change in their self-perception as they dealt with this problem by doing the loving kindness meditation.
During that class period that I introduced the concept of the Inner Critic, one female student wrote: “I was bullied a lot when I was a kid and I always let what people say to me get to me. If someone said I was dumb I guess I am dumb then. I never stood up for myself either. My mom used to tell me I was a doormat and that I am weak for letting people get to me. I don’t create my inner critic; other people do and it gets so strong that it now has a mind of its own. I am not mentally strong, I know that…My mind has the better control over me. I am not myself; I am my inner critic.” In another part of her comment she even wrote (which was heart-breaking to read) that she wasn’t even worth the breath that kept her alive. So, it was with much relief that I read this student’s comment in her paper: “I have been doing the loving-kindness meditation. I really enjoy this practice and it has helped greatly not only to silence my inner critic but to relax me. I haven’t really seen a lot of my inner critic lately and I think that could be because of this practice.”
Other students benefited a great deal even from this very brief treatment of the Inner Critic.
- Girl: “Since 6th grade, I have my inner critic to make me think that I am not good enough and that I won’t ever be. I have been criticizing myself badly for the whole of middle school, and I have finally started to stop once entering SPEX class…[Doing the loving kindness meditation] reduced me from believing what it [inner critic] was saying.”
- Girl: “I also want to learn to be more familiar with my inner critic. I want to know how the other [her name] operates and how it negatively and positively impacts me. My inner critic will dwell within me forever and I think it’s important to learn how to deal with it when it starts talking.”
- Boy: “Conscious walking has improved my self-confidence and subdued the inner critic which pervaded my mind before I began this spiritual practice.”
Theme 6: Greater Life Balance and Less Stress
The number one complaint of HKIS students is that they are always stressed out. While this has always been true at our school, there is reason to believe that the 24-7 technology inundation since 2012 has altered the way students deal with life, and so it appears that students are suffering from the effects of stress far more than in the past. Over and over again students in our practice-oriented classes talk about how even a few minutes of conscious breathing, walking, drawing, eating, and other spiritual practices on a regular basis can shift their perceptions of their stress levels. To a remarkable and apparently unanimous degree, students embraced the need to balance their bodies, minds, and hearts, which they already are reporting brings some sense of calm into their lives.
- Boy: “I want to use my mind, body, and heart through everything, in everything I do. I want to be a more spiritual intact person and be calm and unstressed with every challenge…Before [SPEX] I [was] always stressed and wondering how I would do the next assignment and when things were due. Now I still pay attention to those things I just am not stressing as much over it. I’m able to be more calm when a huge summative is coming up. That’s what I feel like is the point of Spiritual Explorations to [be] less stressed and more calm, while also being attentive, through connecting with your three minds and using all three.”
- Boy: “A great spiritual practice that we use in class in in fact, the meditation. This helps me reconnect to the body, mind, and the spirit. I have been intending to have a balanced approach on life.”
- Girl: “The more times I do the exercise of meditation, I have been told by my family that there has been a change of mood [in me]. Usually, I am stressed, and negative about the people around me, however, I believe that the Loving Kindness meditation has made me a calmer and kinder person.”
- Boy: “To me, the breathing-space practice is the most useful. This practice is to breathe and take deep breathes and relax one’s self. During the process, my stress and worries fade about, I feel relieved and more relaxed. For example, I was stressing about the summative the following day and feel afraid of it even though I took time studying for it. But after the breathing-space, I feel like ‘I got this’ ‘don’t worry’, etc.”
To see an excellent example of a video summary of the course and its impact, hit here to watch Blythe Wong’s end-of-semester reflection.
Fourteen months ago a few of us religion teachers sat around a table and re-imagined religious education at the high school. To our surprise, the school quickly embraced the concept, which re-organized student schedules for the coming year, combining PE, Counseling, and the SPEX course into a wellness block. It was a substantive and complex curricular change that happened with lightning speed. I attribute its swift acceptance to the intuitive sense among our school administration and faculty that we need a program that intentionally integrates the body, mind, and heart of our students. Even as it happened, it felt like a once-in-a-generation attempt to re-orient school life towards something beyond the primary academic focus of high school life. With such high stakes, some of us (myself included) felt it should be delayed until we had more time to prepare our materials. However, these first student papers affirm the wisdom-of-the-crowd intuition that the time for change was that moment rather than waiting another year.
Reading the papers has brought no small measure of relief that our pedagogical gamble appears at this early juncture to be paying off. We seem to be on a firmer foundation than we had understood. This only strengthens our energy to return to the papers and lesson plans, confident that we are easing the burdens of our students and helping them to discover a more holistic orientation to life that offers them happier, healthier, and more meaningful experiences in multiple dimensions of their high school career.
* This is the assignment given to students reflecting on the first unit of SPEX:
Spiritual Explorations (SPEX) 9 – Summative Assessment #1 – Reflective Essay
Writing Prompt – How can spiritual exploration help me live a better life?
You are to answer this question from your personal and multicultural perspective. You must respond to the following seven prompts below:
- Explain what we mean when we talk about the horizontal and vertical dimensions (finite/infinite). How does this framework help you answer the questions “who am I & why am I here”?
- Explain an image or metaphor (fishbowl, cracked pot, butterfly circus, vertical ladder, staircase, etc.) that we explored in class or that you have other knowledge about which makes sense to meaningful life?
- What can you learn from the body, mind, heart framework we’ve discussed? How does this balanced approach personally lead to a more meaningful &/or healthy life?
- Describe in detail a spiritual practice we have used in this class and the intended impact of the practice. Which practice has been most beneficial to you so far?
- How have your own life experiences and family upbringing in regards to religious background raised you with a similar or different worldview from the vertical dimension we’ve explored in class? Where did you lie in the vertical framework?
- What role has faith and doubt played in your spiritual development? (construction, deconstruction, reconstruction). What phase are you currently in, or have you remained steadfast in your current beliefs?
- Conclusion – Considering your responses to the above questions, what would you like to learn this semester? Set a goal/intention for yourself or explain what you would like to better understand this semester. Or, what has been something we’ve discussed so far that has struck your curiosity?
*Note – Make sure to specificially address the more objective questions by integrating specific class language into the essay to demonstrate your understanding. You must integrate at least three specific class materials into the essay. Make sure you answer the overarching question, “How can Spiritual Exploration help me live a better life”.
Reflective Essay – Assessment Rubric
|Standards Assessed / Criteria||Credit (Exemplifying or Meeting the Standard)||No Credit (Approaching the Standard)
Objective course materials discussed
|Essay responds directly to the prompts (horizontal & vertical, metaphor, spiritual practices, etc.)
|Some prompts not addressed or lacking depth|
Personal reflection on self and course materials
|Essay reflects on faith and doubt (construction, destruction, & reconstruction)
Essay demonstrates deep personal reflection (religious background & goal/intention)
|Essay lacks honest reflection or goal/intention|
Evidence used to support claims
|Evidence from course materials used well to support essay
Evidence from personal life used well to support essay claims
|Lacks three specific pieces of evidence to support essay|
- 5b.HS Evaluate one’s personal, multicultural perspective.
- 10a.HS. Participate in a continuous spiritual journey to build my spiritual identity and identify areas for continued spiritual growth in my life.
- 10b.HS. Reflect on the roles of faith and doubt in spiritual development.
- 1.a.1.HS. Explain how religious experiences, as seen in the numinous, conversion, miracles and prayer may lead to belief in a deity.