This semester is my first year ever teaching Early World Literature class to seniors in high school. Honestly, I am reading texts and writing lesson plans the night before (and sometimes on my lunch hour) and walking in to class more like the lead student than the teacher. It’s exhilarating, but daunting. I never know if it’s going to be a “hit” or a “miss.” Recently, I taught a lesson focused on a small excerpt of the Ancient Indian texts, The Upanishads.
The lesson went like this:
I had students write down a serious, thought-provoking and difficult question on a slip of paper and put it in a bowl at the front of the classroom. They became very excited and the room fell silent for a few moments as they put their pencils to their slips of paper and started writing. Interestingly enough, no one shared their questions with anyone. They quietly walked to the room and placed their papers in the bowl, beaming with pride and giddiness at the mysteries we were about to unfold.
I then read the questions out loud to the class. They were fascinating:
How big is the universe and is there a finite point where it retracts into itself?
If the Earth gets sucked into a black hole, what will happen to us?
If time stops, how will we know?
What is the soul composed of?
What does it physically feel like to die?
As I was reading them, some students tried to come up with answers and then fell short with statements like, “Oh man, I don’t know. That’s tough.” Others stared or smiled or shot serious, probing looks at me, while others commented on how good the questions were. No one had their heads on their desks (always a good sign).
After I read the questions, I asked them if they frequently use Google to answer their questions, regardless if they are valid questions with qualitative or quantitative answers or if they were unanswerable questions like the ones above. I even asked them if they typed in questions hoping for a prediction of how some situation in their life was going to turn out. Everyone’s hand (including mine) went up.
We want to know what we don’t already know. Or we want to know what we already think we know just to know that we know it. Or we want to know what we might need to know in case the situation or scenario we were imagining occurs so we will know what to do. It’s human nature.
I then gave them a brief overview of what The Upanishads are: Ancient Hindu philosophical texts that try to explain, through paradoxes, anecdotes and questions, the ultimate reality of pure consciousness, and the awareness of and the joining of the Self to Brahman (the essence of everything in nature and in man). In Eastern philosophy, the questions are more important than the answers. The journey to finding the truth by asking more questions and going deeper in your understanding of your questions and what they reveal (and don’t reveal) is far more important than the destination. I told them this key phrase: “You have to admit you don’t know in order to really know that you don’t know so you can work on knowing more than you knew before. That is how you gain knowledge and therefore gain wisdom.”
I instructed them on what a paradox is: a statement that seems to be contradictory but holds some wisdom or truth inside it like Oscar Wilde’s statement “I can resist anything but temptation,” or George Bernard Shaw’s famous quote, “Youth is wasted on the young.” Once they understood this concept (and even came up with a few of their own), I told them as I read the excerpt, they were to write down 3 paradoxes so we could discuss them afterwards.
We didn’t make it that far. Class was way too animated when I read the first lines “Who puts the thought into your mind? Who draws in your breath? Who is the radiant Being that puts sight into your eyes and sound in your ears? It is Brahman which cannot be thought, cannot be seen, cannot be heard. Brahman is not that which is worshiped by man. Once you think you know, you don’t know. You must experience it. But soon as you experience it, you are no more closer to knowing because now you’re trying to explain what cannot be explained in words, in thoughts, in sight nor in sound.” [FYI: I’m paraphrasing the Upanishad here and you’re still probably scratching your head asking yourself, “What the hell did I just read?” or “What the hell is she teaching these kids?”]
The fun really began when hands went up left and right and in the back and the front of the room and a class dialogue similar to this erupted:
Student: “How are we supposed to know anything about this when the speaker admits he doesn’t exactly know who or what Brahman is?”
Me: “I don’t know. Is it more important to know who or what Brahman is or is it more important to seek by asking questions and trying to find the answers which will lead to more questions which will then lead to more knowledge and wisdom?”
Student: “I don’t know that’s what I’m asking you.”
Me: “Well, do you have a better explanation of that which isn’t seen but makes us see?”
Student: “Yeah, well, no, well, I don’t know. Let’s continue reading. I’ll have another question in a moment.”
Student: “Why did students trust their teachers when their teachers didn’t know the answers to these questions either?”
Me: “What are you saying?”
Student: “I’m saying, do you know who or what this radiant Being is?”
Me: “No, I don’t know, but I know that according to this text I, and every living thing in nature, have experienced it. Does it matter if we can define it or not?”
Student: “Yeah, it matters.”
Me: “Why does it matter? Isn’t it more important to keep asking questions and realize that you are on a journey to finding out the truth eventually?”
Student: “Why are you being so frustrating?”
Me: “Why are you so frustrated?”
Student: “Ugh! Can we ask questions all the time and will you answer us?”
Me: “You can ask as many questions as you want, as often as you want. I might not answer them the way you like because I might not have the answers either and I might have to ask you questions.”
Student: “So, if I admit to you that I don’t know what is going on in this text, then I will magically know because I told you I don’t know.”
Me: “I don’t know because you might be fooling yourself into thinking you know just to shut me up and get this frustration out of the way. But frustration is good because that means you want to know and understand.”
Student: “So, being frustrated is good? Why? What good could possibly come out of being so frustrated? I feel more confused about how to read ancient texts, or texts in general, than I did when I came in. My brain hurts because it feels so full of information, and now I want to know what Brahman is so I can get a good grade on the test.”
Me: “Oh, you almost had it.”
Student: “Had what? What did I have? Did I have Brahman? Did I know him and I lost him?”
Me: “Now you’re getting somewhere. You don’t need to know this for a test, you need to know that you’re asking questions because you want to know more about what you don’t know.”
Student: “Oh, I know now what you mean. I think.”
Me: “Yes, you are thinking and that is the whole purpose of this text.”
Sighs of relieve, anxiety, frustration and amusement filled the classroom (and still no one had his head on his desk) and I was having fun. I laughed when the reading was over and they were still buzzing from what just happened. With a smirk on my face I said, “I hope you’re all a little pissed off right now.” In unison they replied, “We are!” I told them that was good because it means they want to learn and inquire more. One boy asked, “Wait? Did we learn something? What did we learn? I feel like we learned something, but I’m not sure. This was good, I know that.” Wanting to end their frustration and wrap everything up with the 2 minutes we had left, I asked them why they wrote down their particular questions on the slips of paper when they knew they would never get an answer that would explain even a fraction of what they really wanted to know. And a few kids said, “Because it is an important question and I still want to know it even if I know that I’ll probably never know the answer.”
I raised my hands and sang to them in an angelic voice “Cue the heavens opening and light shining down because you admit you don’t know but you still want to know, and that is all you need to know for today!”
Then the bell rang and I was exhausted. I had only created this lesson plan yesterday evening and over my lunch period today. I had no idea it would turn into something as wonderful and magical as this. As they were leaving the room, I heard them still chatting about the the class discussion and how different it was than other lessons. I started laughing as I gathered up my book, notebook and notes and I thought to myself, “If only they knew that I really don’t know anymore than they think they know right now.”