The Best Learning in My Classroom this Year Had Nothing to do with Me

who-is-godBy Nick McDaniels — Last week at the beginning of class, as I was taking attendance, I heard some of my students in my “quiet” class getting loud and starting to yell at each other.

Four years ago, I would have come flying into the conversation with some wisdom about why we should speak peacefully to one another. Now, I just let these things play out for a second or two because my instincts about what is and what isn’t going to get worse are better, fights don’t happen as often as they used to, and perhaps, I’m just a little more tired.

Regardless, I’m glad I let it go. After listening for a few more seconds, it occurred to me what the argument was about. No one hid someone else’s hello kitty cell phone cover, no one bonked anyone on the head for saying something dumb (this game is called Bonkaz and is as childish as it sounds), and no one made fun of (packed up) anyone’s shoes.

Of course: the ontological argument (I’m sure some more well-versed MU theologians than I might disagree about my terminology here, but bear with this non-Catholic for the sake of argument).

Why not? My students were arguing about the existence of a higher power. What fun!

I snuck from my desk up into one of the student desks, just outside of the argument — which at this point was engaging about 80% of the class. First things first, the argument was really well structured. People were listening as others spoke, people were taking time to think, people were deferring to “experts” (the preacher’s kid). I couldn’t have designed this if I had tried.

One student, Jermaine (names have been changed to protect the innocent), was asking most of the questions.

So He just snaps his fingers and the world is made? He hears everything? If I am saved, does that mean I can still go to hell? Are God and Jesus the same person? Is God a person? How come when I pray for stuff I never get it?

All open ended, all for which it was clear he had no answer. Then Marissa started weighing in with answers from her experience. And “Brother James,” the future preacher, started talking about God as perfection and humans as sinners. Then the cool guys, John and Javon, lent their approval to the conversation by quieting people down when they wanted to hear a particular answer.

I let it go for 20 minutes, void of test prep, void of teaching, oops. So fire me!

Then they asked me. What about all the other religions? What about their Gods? Can there be more than one?

I started into a discourse about world religions as constructs for creating meaning and answering the unanswerable. I tried to get them to fathom the expanse of the universe, and just when their brains started to hurt, I told them that if they needed a higher power, right where their brains started to hurt, that’s where it would be. In my mind, this seemed like a fun exercise. Naturally, they got bored, so I stopped and they started again, realizing that they didn’t need me for this one, because I, probably more than most of them, have no answers for their questions. And then Jermaine realized, as many admit, the answer often times cannot come from without. Wow! Everyone nodded and that was it.

On that day, my students asked a ton of questions, and I answered none. That sounds like bad teaching. But in this case, it was the best teaching I could have done. Sometimes we just need to get out of their way. I’m grateful to my students for reminding me of that.

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