Community and Experience in Education

by Stephen G. Adubato

My students are a constant reminder of my need for Divine providence—I end so many of my days on my knees moaning, “God, I have no idea how to teach these kids! Help me!”

My school is located in the heart of downtown Newark, New Jersey–the #7 murder capital in the US. Needless to say, many of my students have to deal with poverty and abuse at home, on top of the regular stressors that come with being a high school student. Being that the school is run by Benedictine monks, we strive to foster a sense of brotherhood, accountability, and community amongst the students. Some take to it right away, but others take a longer, more turbulent route to becoming one of the “brothers.”

As much as we try to offer a supportive space for students to sort out their emotional and existential dramas, plenty of students still continue to struggle, most prominently in their academic performance. Because they have so much on their minds, many of my students have a hard time paying attention in class.

And as if that isn’t difficult enough, throwing smartphones into the mix make it near impossible to get their full attention. Some days I’m convinced that there is no hope in trying to teach Generation Z (or the iGen). This dopamine-addicted class of adolescent human beings can’t seem to stop checking their phones. Even when they’re sitting in the middle of class, I see they’re hands start to slide into their pockets…just to feel that it’s still there.

I’m even more concerned about the effect that smartphone usage is having on their capacity to retain information. When the students aren’t stimulated, when I’m not putting on a song and dance for them, they usually drop their heads and take a power nap. When I am teaching a lesson without a PowerPoint, they seem incapable of processing the information on their own and taking notes.

So what’s the deal? Is the iGen really hopeless? What, Lord, if anything, can I do to get these kids to learn!? It was at the Scala Summer Seminar that God started revealing some answers to my prayers.

Perhaps what helped me most was that Professor Mooney emphasized the key role that community and experience play in an education. This enabled us to open up to her and to each other, making for more lively and intense discussions during each seminar. I felt like I could really bring my heart into all of the discussions precisely because we had become a community—I was among people who care about my journey and who want to walk with me toward the answers I am seeking.

In addition to fostering a sense of community, Professor Mooney always found ways to connect what we were discussing in the seminars to all of the activities we engaged in. Whether it was continuing a heated debate about sexual morality that had begun during a seminar a half hour later at dinner, or discussing the challenges to living one’s faith in a secular society while visiting Castle Howard (where Brideshead Revisited was filmed), to recognizing our need to experience our bodies as connected to our minds while playing field games…all of the topics we discussed were in some way connected to life outside the classroom.

The ways we engaged with each other were congruent with much of what we read in the seminars. Two authors that stand out are Matthew Crawford and Luigi Giussani.

In his book The World Beyond Your Head, Crawford describes how our increasing dependence on technology has changed the way we process information. “Our changing technological environment generates a need for ever more  stimulation. The content of the stimulation almost becomes irrel­evant. Our distractibility seems to indicate that we are agnostic on the question of what is worth paying attention to that is, what to value.”

Surely, most people will agree that paying attention in school and striving to do well in classes  are important values in themselves. But in the “attentional commons,” the most stimulating options tend to hold more sway over our choices than do value-based goals. Sure, we may be tempted to check our emails or Instagram in the middle of a dry lecture, but does this mean that teachers are doomed to lose to the almighty cell phone?

Crawford continues: “But it is also true that our attention is directed to a world that
is shared; one’s attention is not simply one’s own, for the simple reason that its objects are often present to others as well. And in­deed there is a moral imperative to pay attention to the shared world, and not get locked up in your own head.”

Rather than throwing our hands up in the air, educators should find ways to direct their students attentions by means of shared experiences. Sure, the will to direct our attention to a self-determined goal (like taking good notes in class) may be weakened by our dopamine-addicted brains. But this is all the more of a reason to reevaluate the way information is presented. When information is tied to shared experiences, it not only captures student’s attention, it allows them to enter into the truth of the content matter in a more intimate way.

Luigi Giussani explains how the journey to Christ as ultimate truth happens through experience: “Rational evidence could lead to faith only from within the experience of a human need; and further, this need must be confronted from within a lived Christian reality, an involvement that would treat Christianity as a social, communal event.”

Giussani appropriates his theological vision to the task of education in his book The Risk of Education. Education becomes a means of unveiling the Mystery of God, insofar as it seeks to discover truth through engagement with “the real” by experiencing it directly. A major proponent of experiential education, he takes the presuppositions of pragmatic experimentalist pedagogues like John Dewey a step further by linking the truths discerned in experience to God as Origin of all thats exists.

“The person grows as a result of experience; that is, the appreciation of an objective relationship. . . To have an experience means to comprehend the meaning of something. . .  It is also true, however, that we are not creators of meaning. The connection that binds something to everything else is an objective one. Therefore true experience . . . is composed of making things our own, but in such a way that we proceed within their objective meaning, which is the Word of an Other”

Now that I’m back at school teaching, I’ve been trying to implement some of the things I’ve learned at Scala in my own classes. During our summer semester, I teach World Religions and Intro to Philosophy…both of which can get pretty heady. So rather than throw a bunch of facts and information at them, I’ve decided to start with shared experiences.

To begin the unit on Islam, I took the students to a nearby Mosque for Friday Jumma (midday) prayer and to lunch with the imam afterwards. When we returned to class, I asked the students to talk about what struck them in particular. From there, I started to teach them about the 5 pillars of Islam, the history and meaning of the Qur’an, and the struggles that Muslims face in Western countries…always referring to specific things we encountered during our visit to the Mosque.

After covering Islam, we went on to cover Judaism. To do so, we started with having a Passover seder dinner. The focal part of the seder is the haggadah, a set of prayers and stories which are rooted in the Exodus story. Much of Christian communion/Eucharistic services are loosely based on this prayer, as it was what Jesus himself prayed at the Last Supper. This experience played a key role in the lessons that followed about the origins of Judaism, as well as the Jewish sense of having been chosen as God’s people and His fidelity to them. The questions that the students asked during these lessons reflected a deep personal curiosity about the Jewish faith, which always seemed to refer back to their experience of celebrating the seder.

For the first time in a while, my students are “getting it.” They’re excited to talk about the content we are learning, and are retaining the information. It’s amazing to see how engaging with Islam and Judaism firsthand has enabled them to make the information “their own.”

On top of that, I’ve been looking for ways to foster a sense of community amongst the students. I’ve started talking more about my experience visiting Muslim countries, and the questions that those experiences have raised for me. I have also invited them to start asking their own personal question in relation to faith and life in general.

I started the class session in which we discussed ISIS and Islamic extremism with a question about their own experiences with violence. Being in an inner city school, many of the students have gotten into fights, or even have to deal with violence in their own homes. Creating that space for them to open up made it easier for them to think about the reality of violence in the name of religion….not as an abstract issue somewhere else in the world, but as a human issue that is relevant to all of us.

The things I learned at the Scala Summer Seminar have opened the doors of my arid World Religions class to a new and fresh way of engaging my students. My lessons, which last year consisted of a dry, mechanical presentation of facts, has now been brought to life by the shared experiences upon which I’ve based my lessons. I’m looking forward to seeing where these insights will lead us next!


[author] [author_info] Stephen Adubato graduated from Fordham University in 2013 with a degree in Religious Studies & Spanish Literature, and is pursuing a graduate degree in theology at Immaculate Conception Seminary, Seton Hall.[/author_info] [/author]