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Greater Love Hath No Man

This summer, during his professional-development-sponsored travels Down Under, long- time Saint David's master teacher Tom McLellan visited the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Mr. McLellan's emotional recollections of his visit to the Shrine resurrected memories from my childhood. Our school-wide theme this year is "the good," a term culled from the last sentence of our mission statement. How do we come to see the good? and how do we as teachers and parents help our children internalize the good? The answer lies not in perceiving true good directly, but through the experiences life affords, the connections that we build.
When I visited the Shrine of Remembrance as a child, I did not and could not have fully understood the meaning conveyed by its location and positioning or the significance of its architectural detail, let alone the words etched in stone at its center. Thirty years later, however, visiting it again vicariously through my conversations with Tom, strong feelings of connection were forged—to my heritage, my family, and my childhood.  

The annals of psychology and our own common sense tell us that experiences we have in childhood, especially powerful ones charged with emotion, have a lasting effect on how we perceive our world. During a recent visit to Saint David's, Dr. Edward Hallowell, noted author and psychiatrist, spoke of this in what he referred to as "connectedness." Dr. Hallowell suggested that strong, positive feelings of connection, made by children, to their parents, teachers, and schools are the most important factors in helping children grow to lead healthy, happy, and fulfilling lives. In addition to these benefits, this sense of connectedness can lead directly to the good, to morally informed decision making and behavior. This behavior, when reduced to its simplest form, reflects a sense of selflessness—the placing of the needs of others ahead of one's own.

When a child feels true connectedness to a group, Hallowell suggests1, he will not want to harm or bring dishonor to it by doing wrong or getting into trouble. Instead, he will want to do his part to be a valued and respected member. This connection to the larger group also helps to develop feelings of empathy. In part, being able to see the world from the perspective of others is essential to an underlying sense of what is right. Morality stems from this desire to do what is right. Examples of connectedness abound at Saint David's and their existence is not so much due to chance as it is to design. 

Recently, a colleague visiting Saint David's observed of the lunchroom, "It is such a happy place." In reflecting further on his observations, the visitor noted that he did not witness the teasing or mocking that is typically seen in similar age-group settings. Instead, he saw adults and children sitting together around the table, sharing the meal; conversation was meaningful. Manners were modeled and observed, and there was an underlying foundation of mutual respect evident, not only amongst the boys, but also between the boys and their teachers. It was natural and relaxed, he observed, right down to the "…First grader with the big milk mustache, wiping his mouth on his sleeve; there was a special spirit present." The presence of this special spirit—interconnectedness—pervades the very halls of Saint David's. It's what defines the essence of our school.

What intrigued me most about the visitor's observation, however, wasn't his identification of the "special spirit;" it was rather his use of the word "happy" in describing it. “Happy” suggests a balance; a sense that things are good and that life is moving along as it should. "Happy" implies the boys are comfortable in their surroundings, that they feel safe, emotionally and physically, and supported by each other and their teachers. "Happy" also indicates that a sense of mutual trust has been established and that feelings of belonging and "connectedness" are almost palpably present.

To complement this lunchroom observation, another recent visitor to the school, working this time directly with the faculty, commented similarly, noting the professional passion and mutual respect shared by the faculty for each other, their work, and the boys. "The mission," she said, "is embraced by everybody; it's a very special place!" The observer felt that what she saw was quite unique and refreshing. The professional atmosphere of Saint David's is singularly focused on the mission and on working together to bring that mission to fulfillment. That doesn't mean there are not days when the “moons don't align.” Saint David's is a place with a multiplicity of people, opinions, learning styles, and interests; it's a complex human system. However, the clear mission embraced by all within the community makes the more difficult times less frequent and shorter in duration. Saint David's may be complex, but because of this clarity of purpose, it's not complicated. The mission, its clear articulation and its sound acceptance by all, supplies a scaffolding on which these feelings of connectedness can be effectively and successfully cultivated.

The connectedness which two visitors independently observed did not occur by accident. It is implied and openly stated in our curriculum; teachers, administrators, and parents share in the values and virtues needed to teach and internalize the good found here. We purposefully and deliberately teach the skills necessary and provide the experiences essential to reinforce connected relationships. The Third Grade Immigration Unit with its mock Ellis Island role-play is one such curricular illustration. A fitting analogy for the boys as they begin their transition from the Lower School to the Upper School and for us as we transition from one century to the next, this new2 history program centers on New York City as a gateway from the old world to the new.

In this unit of study, boys examine early 20th century immigration and its impact on our city, state, and nation.  They explore how individuals and groups were either pushed or pulled to America, depending upon various socio-economic and political circumstances and variables. Using this simple, instructive analogy, teachers develop lessons that are broad yet perceptive, and also developmentally appropriate. The unit integrates skills from several disciplines, accommodates multiple intelligences, and helps students recognize and value differences and similarities among people. 3 One of the unit's major goals is to emphasize the personal experience of immigrants. This provides the boys an opportunity to empathize. In addition to dates and national events, teaching the history of immigration also raises the important issues of poverty, religious discrimination, and political persecution.

“Just as important as understanding the causes for immigration and the related issues, the unit aims to help the boys understand what it must have felt like to be an immigrant at the turn of the century,” noted Third Grade Teacher Anna-Bain Ladt, one of the designers of this unit. "We wanted to create a unit that not only provided basic factual knowledge and furthered the development of reading and writing skills; but one that engaged the boys' attitudes and beliefs as citizens of a democracy."

To help the boys make the connection, one learning activity within the unit has the boys receive a profile of an immigrant coming to the United States and asks him to role-play with his teachers the immigrant's interview experience upon arrival at Ellis Island. Teachers, acting as various immigration processors, (e.g. health, background, education and job processors), interview the boys. Some "immigrants" are accepted while others are not deemed worthy and are consequently detained for deportation. Through this exercise, the boys actually experience what an immigrant experienced and a genuine connection results. Upon reflection, Third Grade Teacher Amanda Mattei commented, "This activity supports all kinds of learners; the boys have to dramatize, write, and verbally respond to questions. After the activity, the boys articulate what an immigrant really feels as they are being processed through Ellis Island. They often mention how really brave the immigrants had to have been to enter a new world."

One of the texts used, Immigrant Kids by Russell Freedman, details what daily life was like for the immigrant children of New York's Lower East Side in the 1900s. Using this text further helps the boys identify with the immigrant experience. When this text is combined with group field trips to Ellis Island and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, the mock Ellis Island role-play, and reflective journal writing, it becomes a powerful and memorable learning experience.

Important both for boys' sense of well-being and success in general are the skills of collaboration, interpersonal relationship building, appreciation of difference, and empathy, all of which are encompassed in this study unit. In writing about skills essential for the 21st century, Howard Gardner identifies the need for educators and parents to cultivate and develop the "Respectful Mind" and the "Ethical Mind"4. Programs such as the immigration unit directly address these essential modes of thinking and the skills associated with each in highly tangible and meaningful ways.

As teachers and parents, we are often so focused on getting to the answer that we spend insufficient time making sure children understand the question and appreciate its significance. The immigration unit begins with a series of important questions that are discussed and examined up front. Having boys work through experiences that help them understand the question and connect to the subject matter, forces them to think about it. Hearing and seeing it are not enough; children, especially boys have to interact and experience it. Recent work in the field of cognitive science suggests that in order to get children to remember something, we have to get them to think about what it means; it must reside in working memory for a time. People remember what they think about. Memory, it is said, is the residue of thought—our goal should be to get children to always think about the meaning. The ultimate goal then is not simply to have children gain knowledge—it's to have them gain knowledge in service of effective thought—to connect and understand.

The following quote from one boy's journal, in which he reflected upon the difficulties immigrants often faced finding jobs, demonstrates this thinking: "Some American citizens would not want immigrants to come to America to work because they were willing to work for less money. I think the laws about jobs were unfair because the immigrants were giving everything they had to come to America and it would all be wasted if they had to go home."

This type of reflective journaling (writing being the ultimate expression of thought) also encourages boys to step into the shoes of the immigrants and to try to understand and appreciate their experience and perspective. This study aims to facilitate the boys' appreciation for people who come from diverse backgrounds, the challenges they face, and the important contributions that everyone can make to society.

The immigration unit culminates with a series of Family Heritage Projects, in which the boys investigate their own family immigrant history and share their research with their classmates and teachers, thereby connecting the immigrant experience at the turn of the last century with their own family history and their lives today. In so doing, the boys come to see the many similarities and differences in culture, history, and experience they and members of their families have with others. Powerful feelings of connection are developed while an important portion of American history is learned.

Collaboration, teamwork, and the development of the respectful mind and ethical mind, require working in teams, sharing communication of concepts, experiences and histories, and the building of agreement and consensus. It is based upon developing finely tuned skills associated with interpersonal relationship building. Respectful, moral, and ethical behavior demands a level of awareness that is sensitive to, and appreciative of difference.5 Teaching children to think broadly, to question critically, to employ a level of sensitivity and empathy are now essential skills, not just for the 21st century, but as means to help us find the good.

The Third Grade Immigration Unit, our family-style lunch format, and our collaborative approach to curriculum planning and development, are just a few examples of the many explicit and purposeful ways that Saint David's is teaching connection and connectedness. Even with a strong sense of connectedness, seeing or choosing the good, the morally right thing is not always easy. Understanding, appreciating, and accepting differences in ethnicity, religious beliefs, customs and traditions, coming to terms with strong differences of opinion, ingrained methods or prejudices, immoral but socially accepted or mandated practice; not joining the teasers or not being complicit in the bulling of a peer, can seem almost impossible challenges. Benjamin Franklin tells in his autobiography6 the story of a man who, in buying an ax from a blacksmith, desired to have the whole of the ax's surface be as bright as the edge. The blacksmith agreed to grind it down bright for him if he would turn the wheel. So, the man turned while the smith pressed the face of the ax against the stone. It was hard work. The man came over every now and then from turning the wheel to see how the work was coming along; before long, the man said he'd take the ax as it was, without further grinding. "No," said the smith, "turn on, turn on; we shall have it bright by-and-by; as yet it is only speckled." "Yes," said the man, "but I think I like a speckled ax best." Even though the want is there, and all the other pieces may be in place, the difficulty lies in sustaining the patience, the will, and the strength necessary to achieve the good; we can easily give up the struggle, and settle for something less.

Unfortunately, our popular culture often celebrates or at the least highlights, in a seemingly endless stream of reporting, examples of the failures of famous sportsmen, actors, executives, or politicians at the height of their chosen careers; they are like William Golding's character, Ralph, in Lord of the Flies, who despite all the best intentions ultimately yield to an easier, not so virtuous path. Schools like Saint David's are the antidote, providing and celebrating the times and the people who don't yield, but stay strong and aspire to the good by ensuring the creation of those strong feelings of connectedness.

On a hill at the intersection of Anzac Avenue and St. Kilda Road in the City of Melbourne, Victoria, I stood as a child and witnessed the bowing of heads around the sacred stone at the center of the Shrine of Remembrance. Etched in this stone block, beneath the surface of the floor7 are the words "Greater love hath no man." Architecturally, it's a beautiful and moving monument. The inspiration for its external outline comes from one of the seven wonders of the ancient world: the mausoleum at Halicarnassus to King Mausolus of Caria in South West Asia Minor, constructed around 353 BC. Built in the style of an ancient Greek temple, Doric columns grace the Shrine's façade and coffered ceilings its interior. Following ancient tradition, all vertical lines have a double inclination, and if projected would meet at a point 2.25 km above the Shrine's floor. Every aspect has a purpose and every architectural detail a meaning, including its placement. The location of the memorial was chosen for its high elevation and steepness, allowing its silhouette to stand out against the skyline and be seen from all corners of the Victorian capital, and yet remain somewhat removed, sacred.

What makes this memorial so powerful and moving however, isn't its location or architectural detail, both of which are significant and carefully orchestrated to reflect and memorialize its purpose,8 but more what happens at one particular minute, on one particular day each and every year. On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month,9 the rays of the sun's light, through a precisely positioned oculus in the ceiling high above, illuminate specifically and precisely the word "love." The remainder of the phrase, not etched in the stone can be found in John 15:13 and it speaks of the giving of one's life for one's brother—perhaps one of the greatest examples of selflessness. Men and women like those memorialized at the Shrine made this sacrifice. Those of us who have not given so much, and may never choose to or be called upon to give so much, can however learn from them. Socrates once perceptively noted that the greatest good of man is to converse daily about virtue. Schools like Saint David's are places where this happens—education is the pathway to the good and it's our strong feelings of connectedness with entities and groups larger than ourselves that help us aspire to get there.


Notes:


1. Hallowell, Edward, M. (2002). The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness. Ballantine Books: New York.

2. The Curriculum Initiative, begun six years ago, is now at its fifth stage of implementation. The Faculty is currently working on the "How" questions: How do we know our boys “understand” what they are learning? and How do we know our teaching is effective? At this stage of the school's work, we are adapting a model developed by Project Zero at Harvard University, entitled Teaching for Understanding.


3. Ladt, Anna-Bain. “Citizens of Democracy,” Saint David’s Magazine, Summer 2009.


4. Gardner, Howard. (2007). Five Minds for the Future. Harvard Business School Press: Boston, MA.


5. Learning to appreciate and understand difference is an area of our work at Saint David's that remains an important goal. The world our boys will enter, as independent adults, will require a level of comfort in, appreciation for and understanding of diversity that has yet to be fully realized.


6. Franklin, Benjamin. His Autobiography, in The Harvard Classics, Vol. 1. Edited by Charles W. Eliot, LLD. (1909-14). P. F. Collier & Son: New York.


7. The stone is sunken for two reasons: firstly, so that no hands may touch it, and secondly, that all heads must bow in reverence to read its inscription.


8. The Shrine of Remembrance was built by the people of Victoria between July 1928 and November 1934 in remembrance of the 114,000 men and women of Victoria, Australia who served and those who died in the Great War of 1914-1918, and all conflicts since.


9. The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month commemorates the armistice agreement signed at Compiègne, France for the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front. It took effect at eleven o'clock in the morning on November 11, 1918. It marked, it was said, the end of the war to end all wars.




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