I teach Honor's Senior English (and journalism, photography, and rock) at Newport High School on the central Oregon coast. It's a sweet gig, the best of my 20-year career. From my classroom, I can hear sea lions barking down on the Bayfront, and during mushroom season, hard-core Oregon kids cook chanterelles in the parking lot and then share their bounty with me at lunch. I also get to stage an outdoor rock festival every spring.
One of the highlights of my job is teaching my seniors Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, a book almost universally read by high school students in the 1960s and '70s, but which has since fallen deeply out of favor, nearly into the abyss. But when I started this gig three years ago, I found a ragged class set and taught the novel for the first time.
I always conclude the unit with the following activity. Feel free to post your answers.
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Siddhartha-Directed Discussion Questions
Each student should write three 50-75 word responses to the following questions/statements. Students will then read their responses to contribute to the classroom discussion. Everyone must participate in the discussion by reading a response or commenting upon another student's response.
- Experience is the best teacher.
- "Nothing is permanent," said the Buddha. What does that statement suggest or imply?
- What is the one attachment most American teenagers might want to let go of on their path to adulthood?
- In Siddhartha, the river is offered as the central metaphor for human existence. What do you think it is?
- What makes the soul sick?
- What is the best way to eliminate human suffering?
- Is there anything inherently wrong with materialism and consumerism?
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The discussion these prompts generate is truly incredible and it always astonishes me how many fresh insights I glean from my students' arguments.
I've found teaching Siddhartha does strange wonderful things to me in the classroom and I'd like to share (some of my readers might recognize this first anecdote).
Last year, I smashed a student's cell phone to smithereens in class after we finished reading Siddhartha. Undoubtedly, if ever humans created the perfectly evil antithesis to the perfectly simple, slow, and attentive vibe this novel has to offer, it is the cell phone.
With five minutes to go in second period, I had asked the class if anyone felt addicted to their phone, if they absolutely knew they never lived in the moment because of it. I'd also asked if they had lost the ability to concentrate or were ashamed how easily they used their machine to facilitate lie after lie after lie. Those who weren't actually using their phones while I remonstrated appeared shocked, dismayed.
A few seconds later a senior boy sitting on a couch directly in front of me wordlessly offered his phone. I said nothing, set the shiny idol on my favorite teaching stool and shut off the overhead lights. I turned on two spotlights hanging from the ceiling and they shot a narrow beam of illumination to the stool. The class was completely silent. I told everyone to turn their obnoxious ring tones to maximum. Louder! Let them glow! Hold them aloft!
Then I took out my trusty hand sledgehammer, stashed in the bookshelf behind me. I love this ancient tool — grooved wood, rusted steel, and nothing else. I discovered it years ago in a derelict garage and subsequently pounded the shit out of many things that needed a good pounding.
Holding the hammer in my right hand, I raised it slowly above my shoulders. I said nothing. A few students raised panicked objections but I didn't acknowledge them. I brought the hammer down mightily with a Buddhist serenity that Siddhartha would have extolled. I smote the phone; it shattered into flying silver pieces.
The hammer also splintered the stool and that greatly saddened me. My father had given me the stool many years ago and it had served me well in several classrooms. I wrote many fine sentences upon its lacquered pine seat. A noble stool. A noble sacrifice.
My destruction of the cell phone was complete. The boy cried. Metaphor planted. The bell rang. Class dismissed.
A week ago, I read the following letter to this year's class of Honor's Senior English students. I had intended to tape it to the door, but changed my mind at the last minute.
Please read: For those of you tardy to second period Honor's English on November 18, 2010
During the reading of Siddhartha, which most of you have not attempted, we held several excellent classroom discussions and wrote on the topic of who or what is the best teacher. In the course of our sharing, a consensus emerged: experience.
Today, I present you with a unique Siddhartha-coated learning experience. What you choose to do with it is entirely up to you. I suggest, however, as Siddhartha suggests in the novel, that you look within to gain something from the experience.
As you well know, I treat tardiness gently, never assigning detentions or exacting other petty measures. I have done this my entire career in hope that the student will recognize the problem and take the necessary, mature steps at self-correction. For a vast majority of students that has worked. But for one group this year, in second period, my approach has utterly failed.
You are locked out today because, yesterday, as I watched one student after another enter the classroom long after the tardy bell had rung, at least one senior carrying the red holiday cup of corporate coffee (meaning she consciously facilitated being tardy), I realized that there existed a small group who have made it a habit to show up late to class. By doing so, they have showed consistent disrespect, even contempt, for the teacher and the learning environment I have worked hard to create.
Normally, this contempt might irritate me, but I read the novel too, again, and believe the most important lesson it can teach is the concept of letting go. Thus, some of you are about to be let go by your teacher, or, you will make the decision to let go of this class.
This morning, you have missed the vocabulary test and the instructions for the culminating Siddhartha assignment. It may or may not have changed since I last outlined it. I may dismiss the assignment altogether. Who knows? I tend to get a bit in the moment when I teach this novel so I can't really predict.
Something else is at stake, perhaps much larger than a test or assignment, although this determination is up to you to decide. At the semester, I am dropping anywhere between 5-8 students in this overly large class of 43 to make room for other more dedicated seniors and juniors who want to enroll and earn WR 121 credit. I have such a waiting list now. It grows weekly. This is my decision alone, and because of the special nature of this class and its accreditation by PSU, I have that power. Should you be dropped or drop yourself, other academic options exist, on campus and off. Some with teachers. Some with only computers.
So what will you decide to do with this experience? I invite you to take this opportunity to self-reflect. Go to the river and listen, as Siddhartha did. The ocean is a good place too.
If by some chance, you are a student who is not habitually tardy and experienced an unexpected obstacle this morning to arriving on time, naturally, I will listen to your story. Do not become aggrieved. Talk to me. I know who you are really are in this tardy or not tardy context.
As for the rest of you, well, we shall see.
I can't wait to teach the novel next year!