Monday, February 25, 2013

Excerpts from “With Relation to Time and Eternity” Earlham College Convocation Address March 3, 1999

From time to time, this blog will highlight past writings to compliment new reflections on Quaker education. This post is from Paul Lacey, Retired Earlham College professor, whom we have heard from once already in the short run of this blog. Paul's contributions to the dialogue on Quaker education is vast. If you do not know of his work or writtings, I encourage you to read his book, "Growing Into Goodness: Essays on Quaker Education." In this book, as the introduction states, Paul "tries to address practical issues of teaching and learning from historical perspectives, to see what insights Quakerism in particular has offered, and to discover what influences have been most powerful on Quakers concerned with education."

Here today, you can read an excerpt from Paul's 1999 Earlham Convocation Address.

Perhaps Quaker education makes its greatest contributions to both the spiritual and the practical work by introducing students to the preparatory practices of silent waiting and then to the deeper disciplines of meeting for worship and actions grounded in the links between worship and service to others. Describing the plans for Ackworth School in 1779, Dr. John Fothergill says "To habituate children, from their early infancy, to silence and attention, is of the greatest advantage to them, not only as a preparative to their advancement in a religious life, but as the groundwork of a well cultivated understanding." Early habits of "silent attention" strengthen our capacity for patience and recollection, he says. The mid-nineteenth century British philanthropist Samuel Tuke says the "doctrine of an inward Divine Light" modified the character of those who received it, affected the means pursued in the moral training of young people, and had an influence on the intellectual character of the rising generation."
Quaker receptivity to the study of science, a strong characteristic since our earliest days, rests not only on the conviction that all truth is from God, and on the capacity to trust that the sacred can be revealed through the physical world, but also on the capacity to wait and attend quietly as an observation or experiment unfolds. The child who learns how to sit still while waiting for a bird to land or a deer to emerge from the thicket is laying the foundation for greeting the sacred, for centering outside the self, for knowing herself as a part of a world of beauty and order, as well as for learning how to collect data.

Two former students at Germantown Friends School attest to the power of this kind of silence in recalling, more than a dozen years afterwards, their experience of learning science in the lower school. They write of their teacher, Joseph Cadbury, "...there was something rare about Mr. Cadbury that distinguishes him in one's mind from all other teachers. He knew a lot about nature..., and he could explain scientific data with magnificent clarity; but it wasn't filling our heads with facts that he had in mind. We remember a strange silence that he liked to keep, as if the important facts of Nature lay beyond the reach of names and explanations....When some one asked a really good question, he would roll his head from side to side, look into each of our expectant faces...and he wouldn't say a word. In that Silence there was something else, that no words could touch, that words if they were spoken would obscure. It was a feeling...that came gently at first, but grew in the Silence until it was everywhere and in everything....His Silence was a way of inspiring wonder within us....It was a Silence that recalls our school's greatest classroom: the Meeting House."

Such waiting in silence can teach us how to entertain a question, to be hospitable to it as we are hospitable to a friend. If silence is welcomed, to allow time for entertaining a question or propounding one's own, students can learn how to wait for one another to contribute to a cooperative activity. The spirit of the classroom can change. At its best, Quaker education teaches the same lesson in the classroom or laboratory, in fieldwork, as well as in meeting for worship, how to wait attentively, in silence, for way to open or knowledge to come to us.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Making it “Real” for the Middle School Mind

By Kiri Harris, Dean of Students and Sixth Grade Teacher at Greene Street Friends School in Philadelphia, PA

Our youngest students seem to slide so contentedly along the stream of Quaker beliefs shaping their days. They appear shipshape within the structure carved out by this stream, and they aren’t likely to question its direction or source. When Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote about “a willing suspension of disbelief,” he also called the concept “poetic faith” (1817, Biographia Literaria). To my imagination this is what carries our youngest students along – pure, poetic faith in wonders such as peace, equality, and Light.

Disbelief likes to make its entrance in middle school. You start to see faint flickers of skepticism, or eyes glazing over at the mention of peace. It’s a delicate entrance, because disbelief can easily be pushed into the wings if not encouraged to find its voice. For the middle school mind – ready to see all the gradations of gray – Quaker ideals on their own can start to seem airy, implausible, precious or childish. If we talk only peace without also exploring the shades of conflict, we risk losing our students’ full trust. My sixth graders recently floored me with their comments on the benefits of conflict. To their minds, at their age, “conflicts make you who you are.” Middle school kids need to see Quaker ideals in three-dimensions.

Last year, as part of a developing plan to teach Quakerism more completely at Greene Street Friends, we brought Quaker history to life for our middle school – one “Big Quake” at a time. Teachers researched and portrayed pivotal Quakers in a series of seven assemblies. During winter, we met George Fox, Margaret Fell, Mary Dyer, William Penn, John Woolman, Lucretia Mott and Bayard Rustin. As hoped, the messages pitched in first person (and in costume) by teachers were “made to stick” (Heath & Heath, 2007) because they were delivered as stories hinging on concrete details.

For example, students loved learning that Margaret Fell adored bright colors so much she had the dyer make custom sea-green and sky colored stockings for her daughters. According to one anecdote, when Fell wore a red dress to Meeting and was labeled “gaudy” by another Quaker woman for not dressing plainly enough, she retorted: “It’s silly, poor gospel to question my dress.” This feisty moment (not to mention Fell’s initial questioning of the Quaker dress code) instantly earned her “kindred spirit status” with our twentieth century audience. Once that personal bond clicked into place, students were more on board to cheer about Fell’s important, impressive work for women’s rights and freedom of conscience.

Last year’s series culminated in a “Quaker Olympics,” with mixed-age teams of students rotating through multi-modal stations, applying, connecting and synthesizing information about the seven “Big Quakes.” Introducing and celebrating these Quakers’ lives in this way has energized students and faculty alike. We’ll add a new series of speakers to match our testimony themes for each upcoming year. It’s a start. With enough three-dimensional examples, maybe we’ll even set the stage for a re-entrance of poetic faith.