May 30, 2012

On Service Learning and Inter-being.

photo credit: Camila Romero

I am a teacher. I am also a student. Of life. Although this year has been one of my most challenging, career-wise, I have learned a lot from my 114 silly/studious/shy/social middle school students. I’ve had to remember the painful awkwardness of adolescence, in order to better empathize with their raging hormones and histrionic humor. I’ve needed to readjust my teaching style, especially when it came to leading a few minutes of mindfulness at the beginning of each new class period. I’ve been frustrated by their short attention spans, yet at times inspired by their youthful wisdom.

We’ve survived the year, almost. Some of them have even exhibited more mindfulness in their behavior and work performance. (Some of them.) This Friday, the kids will be in a “closing ceremony” marking the end of their middle school careers and the beginning of high school and “real life.”

My favorite unit this year was the social justice campaign. In my class (English Enrichment), the students worked together in small groups to develop videos and other awareness-building campaigns for critical issues facing their country and our world. Along with it, each section (we have five) developed plans for a community service project for five local Guatemalan nonprofit organizations. All in all, it was a great success. The group I chaperoned, for example, visited a safe house for teenage girls who have been victims of human trafficking and other forms of abuse. Our students created fun activities and spent a few hours with the girls, visibly brightening their day.

The numbers? 114 students from our school, 10 teachers, 5 organizations, more than Q20,000 fundraised (that’s about $2500), 800 pounds of food donated, over 400 trees planted, and over 250 kids and adults who benefited! I’ve pasted the five best videos from this year’s 8th grade social justice campaign project at the bottom of this post. I hope you’ll find them as inspiring as I do!

By the by, today is my 32nd birthday. On this day last year, I wrote a list of thirty-one things I was grateful for. I’m still grateful for all those things, and more.

But the thing I am most, most, most grateful for today and every moment of every day is this:


No matter how alone we feel, we are not alone. No matter how isolated we may wish to be, we are inherently and necessarily connected to every other being and every other thing in this universe. When we see through the illusion of the separate self, understand the depth and complexity of the story lines built all our lives around “I,” “me,” and “mine” — then and only then will we be liberated. The stories, ultimately, don’t matter. What has happened in the past got us here. The future is inevitably, continuously unfolding before us. The present, this precious moment, right here and now, is truly all there is. So live it up!

In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh (from The Heart of Understanding):

If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. “Interbeing” is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix “inter-” with the verb “to be,” we have a new verb, inter-be. Without a cloud and the sheet of paper inter-are.

If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We now the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way, we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.

Looking even more deeply, we can see we are in it too. This is not difficult to see, because when we look at a sheet of paper, the sheet of paper is part of our perception. Your mind is in here and mine is also. So we can say that everything is in here with this sheet of paper. You cannot point out one thing that is not here-time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper. That is why I think the word inter-be should be in the dictionary. “To be” is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is.

Suppose we try to return one of the elements to its source. Suppose we return the sunshine to the sun. Do you think that this sheet of paper will be possible? No, without sunshine nothing can be. And if we return the logger to his mother, then we have no sheet of paper either. The fact is that this sheet of paper is made up only of “non-paper elements.” And if we return these non-paper elements to their sources, then there can be no paper at all. Without “non-paper elements,” like mind, logger, sunshine and so on, there will be no paper. As thin as this sheet of paper is, it contains everything in the universe in it.

Student-Created Service Learning Videos

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