The Soul of Education

Helping Students Find Connection, Compassion, and Character at School

by Rachael Kessler

Copyright © 2000 by Rachael Kessler. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission from the author. Readers who wish to duplicate material copyrighted by ASCD or the author may do so for a small fee by contacting the Copyright Clearance Center, 222 Rosewood Dr., Danvers, MA 01923, USA (telephone: 978-750-8400; fax: 978-750-4470). ASCD has authorized the CCC to collect such fees on its behalf. Requests to reprint rather than photocopy should be directed to ASCD's permissions office at 703-578-9600.


by Parker J. Palmer

Parker J. Palmer is a writer, teacher, and activist who lives in Madison, Wisconsin. His most recent books are The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, folk singer Woody Guthrie wrote and recorded an instant classic called "The Talkin' Dust Bowl Blues." Among its many bittersweet lines is this one: "That soup was so thin you could read a magazine through it."

The 20th century, for all its scientific and technological amazements, might be described as a century of thin soup, and not only because too many people went hungry. It was a century in which we watered down our own humanity—turning wisdom into information, community into consumerism, politics into manipulation, destiny into DNA—making it increasingly difficult to find nourishment for the hungers of the heart.

Education has not been exempt from this process. Early in the century, eager to create factory workers who could produce material prosperity, we took teaching and learning—that ancient exchange between student and teacher and world in which human beings have always explored the depths of the soul—and started thinning it down into little more than the amassing of data and the mastering of technique.

That's the bad news. The good news is that the educational soup became so thin—and our hunger for real life so deep—that in the last decades of the 20th century people started seeing right through it. Teachers, administrators, parents, and citizens who care about education have been working hard to reclaim the integrity of teaching and learning so that it can once again become a process in which the whole person is nourished.

If you are, or want to become, part of this ongoing effort, you will find no better resource than the volume you hold in your hands. The Soul of Education is a remarkable book. It offers a compelling vision of depth in education. It is grounded in encouraging stories of practice from the real world of teaching and learning. And it was written by a teacher's teacher. Rachael Kessler understands the dynamics of teaching and learning, the deepest needs of our children, the longings of our own adult hearts, and what will be required of us if we are to reclaim our humanity in 21st century life.

This book calls not only for changes in classroom practice but for a new direction in our national conversation about educational reform. Many of us who care about public education are disheartened by the "fixes" put forward by our political leaders. They too often promote simplistic answers that attempt to change education from the outside in—such as establishing one-size-fits-all "standards" to which students and teachers must measure up or be judged as failures.

Standards are important in education, of course, but the standards soup is now so thin that we can see some of its sad consequences: teachers preparing students for the test rather than for their lives; teachers helping their students cheat on the test, knowing that the standards can never be achieved honestly with the resources at hand; states whose scores are a public embarrassment surreptitiously lowering the standards or abandoning them altogether.

Kessler's book does not ignore the standards movement, but responds creatively to the deeper yearning behind it: the desire to truly engage and equip today's young people for effective learning. We must address what has heart and meaning for them if we want them to learn. The Soul of Education is replete with concrete examples of how to do so.

In "The Talkin' Dust Bowl Blues," the line, "That soup was so thin you could read a magazine through it," ends with these words: "If it had been any thinner, some of them politicians could' a seen right through it." If all of us, leaders and followers alike, would embrace the principles of soulful teaching and learning that Rachael Kessler advocates so convincingly in this book, we would neither tolerate nor promote an education that ignores the inner life. This book will give us eyes to see through the fictions that diminish our public schools today. It will give us the courage to create new forms of authentic education that can contribute to the healing of souls—our children's, our own, and the world's.

Copyright © 2000 by Rachael Kessler. All rights reserved.


A book entitled The Soul of Education inevitably raises the question "Should modern public school education even have a soul?"

Geometry and history, English and science—places and times for these subjects in the contemporary classroom are secure. But the soul? Doesn't that belong in church? Aren't questions of the soul private, spiritual matters that are best left at home?

If so, someone had better tell the children. While we adults continue to debate these questions, most students continue to bring their souls to school. Except for the very few who are so deadened by drugs, abuse, or neglect that their inner lives are numb, students of all ages come to school with their souls alive and seeking connection.

The question "Does a child's soul have a place in the classroom?" leads beyond yes or no. If we say "no," it leads to the untenable conclusion that modern schooling is soulless. But if we say "yes," it immediately ignites a firestorm of further questions—four of which we must explore now:

The power of these questions to trigger strong, polarized reactions shows that, even in our secular, high-tech world, our spirits hunger for answers. To me, the most important challenge has always been not whether we can address spiritual development in secular schools but how.

What Does "Soul of Education" Mean?

When soul is present in education, attention shifts. As the quality of attention shifts, we listen with great care not only to what people say but to the messages between the words—tones, gestures, the flicker of feeling across the face. And then we concentrate on what has heart and meaning. The yearning, wonder, wisdom, fear, and confusion of students become central to the curriculum. Questions become as important as answers.

When soul enters the classroom, masks drop away. Students dare to share the joy and talents they have feared would provoke jealousy in even their best friends. They risk exposing the pain or shame that peers might judge as weakness. Seeing deeply into the perspective of others, accepting what has felt unworthy in themselves, students discover compassion and begin to learn about forgiveness.

The body of the child will not grow if it is not fed; the mind will not flourish unless it is stimulated and guided. And the spirit will suffer if it is not nurtured. A soulful education embraces diverse ways to satisfy the spiritual hunger of today's youth. When guided to find constructive ways to express their spiritual longings, young people can find purpose in life, do better in school, strengthen ties to family and friends, and approach adult life with vitality and vision.

Clearly, this is not a metaphysical definition of soul or spirit. To engage those questions would take us into the realm of belief and dogma. While entirely appropriate for philosophy or religious education, basing curriculum on any particular definition of soul would inevitably divide us and violate the worldview of one group or another. For this reason, I use the word soul in this book to call for attention in schools to the inner life; to the depth dimension of human experience; to students' longings for something more than an ordinary, material, and fragmented existence.

Can We Come Together to Address Soul in Schools?

Educators are beginning to refer to a "spiritual problem" in our culture, scholars analyzing school violence speak of "spiritual emptiness," and members of Congress struggling for solutions lament the "spiritual darkness" that afflicts the young. A consensus is emerging that some kind of spiritual void exists for youth—and we must address it. As Warren Nord (1995) writes:

We modern day Americans have a spiritual problem. There is something fundamentally wrong with our culture. We who have succeeded so brilliantly in matters of economics, science, and technology have been less successful in matters of the heart and soul. This is evident in our manners and our morale; in our entertainment and our politics; in our preoccupation with sex and violence; in the ways we do our jobs and in the failure of our relationships; in our boredom and unhappiness in this, the richest of all societies (p. 380).

Naturally, our schools reflect this problem. But can we face together the question of nourishing soul in the classroom, or is it too tendentious to allow us to move forward?

I believe that we are better able to meet this challenge now than at any time in our history. On the one hand, the diversity of faiths and nonfaiths today in most school communities is so overwhelming that no single denomination could possibly be appropriate as an official, or even unofficial, school religion. On the other hand, with even physicists and astronomers joining in the quest for answers to the age-old questions about the meaning of life, educators can no longer pretend that banning spiritual questions from school property is feasible. And there is a growing awareness among parents and educators that a spiritual void is endangering our youth and our communities.

In the United States, we have had a series of "prevention wars" on drugs, teen pregnancy, youth suicide, and violence (Shriver & Weissberg, 1996). But the spiritual void—the emptiness, meaningless, and disconnection many students feel—is a root cause long left out of the analysis and the cure. Only recently, and particularly after the tragic epidemic of schoolyard massacres of the late 1990s, are policymakers and social scientists beginning to recognize our neglect of the souls of young people in schools and in our national life (Benson, 1997; "Kids Who Kill," 1999). "I think that's a very important part of all of this, the spiritual emptiness that so many kids feel," said Cornell professor James Garbarino when a panel of experts sought understanding on the day following the Columbine massacre in Littleton, Colorado. "And when they feel it, when things go bad in their lives, there's nothing to fall back on and also there's no limits to their behavior" ("Kids Who Kill," 1999).

Similarly, as a House subcommittee responded to the eruption of violence plaguing our youth, Congressman Tom Tancredo (R, 6th, CO) spoke of "a spiritual darkness that permeates the moral landscape of the nation." A member of the House Education Committee, Tancredo continued: "Our task is to now forgo cursing its existence and begin to light the candles that will pierce it" (cited in Romano, 1999, pp. 4, 11).

Although we must address the socioeconomic sources of the persistent violent and self-destructive behavior of our teenagers, we cannot really understand or heal from these plagues if we do not begin to recognize and meet the spiritual needs of our children. Do we need periodic reminders from sawed-off shotguns to show us that these young people feel? Is it possible that these senseless acts of violence are guiding us back to what, in our hearts, we know is a core mission of education in the first place?

Perhaps we do need these reminders. Many communities decided years ago that the inner life of our children was simply not the business of public schools. Many classrooms are "spiritually empty," not by accident, but by design.

We decided to exclude the spiritual dimension from education because we adults couldn't agree on what "it" was or how to teach "it." Liberals fear that "fundamentalists" will sue them as "New Agers" if they introduce a spiritual dimension into the classroom. Christians fear that secularists will paralyze their efforts to provide spiritual guidance to children in schools. Other religious groups are often not even included in the conversation. Collectively, we reached a standoff, and our children have been the losers.

Many communities have decided that the inner lives of our young people in the public schools wouldn't be anybody's business. Seeking a respectful way to deal with our differences, we educators turned away from matters of religion and spirituality. Of course, many teachers, schools, and communities are devoted to serving the social, emotional, moral, and even spiritual needs of students (Elias et al., 1997). But when schools systematically exclude heart and soul, students in growing numbers become depressed, attempt suicide, or succumb to eating disorders and substance abuse. Students struggle to find their motivation to learn, to stay in school, or to keep their attention on what is before them. And straight-A students drive BMWs on their way to shooting fellow students and attempting to incinerate their school with explosives. Welcoming soul into the classroom is not a panacea for all these ills; but it is crucial for addressing the suffering of our youth.

Until recently, educators would have met the subject of this book primarily with fear. Exploring spiritual development in schools, educators have feared, will bring down the wrath of people who will vilify them, sue them, and take away their jobs. But something is changing. Educators and social scientists are asking, "How can we fill the spiritual void?" because they see students destroying themselves and each other. Others have personally glimpsed the riches of the inner life in the wave of spiritual search and renewal among adults in the 1990s. Both groups are asking, "How can we appropriately address our students' spiritual growth in ways that do not violate the beliefs of families or the separation of church and state?"

My own work has been informed by two impulses: a desire to prevent violence and a desire to honor the spiritual yearnings in young people. I began my work with adolescents in the field of prevention—seeking to create curriculums and methods that would address the root causes of suffering in a "generation at risk." Working with teenagers, I also discovered an exquisite opening to spirit at the heart of the adolescent experience. Adolescence is a time when longings awaken with an intensity that many have misunderstood and dismissed as "hormones." The larger questions about meaning, identity, responsibility, and purpose begin to press with an urgency and loneliness we can all remember. Ignored or suppressed, the spiritual forces inside our young turn toxic and explosive. Providing students with opportunities to channel their energy constructively and to explore their mysteries with peers and supportive elders, I saw young people find balance, integrity, meaning, and connection.

The fears of integrating a spiritual dimension into the classroom have not gone away. But a broad cross-section of U.S. citizens now urgently wants to tend to the souls of our young people. Nowhere is this need stronger than among educators. When ASCD devoted an entire issue of Educational Leadership to "The Spirit of Education" (1998/1999), the editors received a windfall of unsolicited manuscripts of outstanding quality and won a Bronze Excel Award from the Society for National Association Publications for the issue. This journal has begun a long-overdue conversation that we can no longer postpone—a rare open moment in our field and in our culture to speak what has been unspeakable for decades.

The quest for soul in education can move forward only in communities where educators, parents, and civic leaders are willing to air their deepest differences in a spirit of dialogue and collaboration. This book provides dozens of practical examples of how educators actually welcome soul into the classroom.

Doesn't the "Separation of Church and State" Mean Leaving All This Alone?

One reason we have excluded any spiritual dimension from public education is a mistaken belief that this is required by the "separation of church and state." The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States protects public school children from the imposition of any particular worldview or religious practices. Any teacher who espouses spiritual beliefs or who conducts devotional practices in the classroom is indeed violating the "non-establishment" clause. At the same time, the First Amendment protects the rights of our children to freely express their own beliefs. Many teachers have tried to be so vigilant about keeping religion out of the classroom that they have unknowingly violated the rights of their students. It has become common practice for teachers to suppress student expression or exploration of their own beliefs, longings, or search for a spiritually meaningful experience.

We do need to be careful. If we define spirituality in terms of beliefs that one group holds and others do not, we violate the First Amendment by imposing such beliefs through curriculums in public schools. It is true that for many adults, spirituality is inextricably linked with their particular faith and doctrines. Listening to students for many years, however, has shown me that young people have experiences that nourish their spiritual development and yet are not directly related to worldview or religious dogma. We can honor the First Amendment without abandoning our children's spiritual development.

How Do We Nourish Spiritual Development Appropriately in Public Schools?

As we approached the millennium, the field of education began to discover the vital relationships among teaching, learning, and the education of the heart. Building on the earlier concepts of "intrapersonal" and "interpersonal intelligence" framed by Howard Gardner (1993), Daniel Goleman (1994) documented that "emotional intelligence" is a greater predictor of academic and life success than is IQ. Goleman introduced the concept of "emotional literacy"—a "shorthand term for the idea that children's emotional and social skills can be cultivated, and that doing so gives them decided advantages in their cognitive abilities, in their personal adjustment, and in their resiliency through life" (p. 33). This definition, and the solid research in his groundbreaking book, Emotional Intelligence (1995), gave educators a language and legitimacy for an aspect of education that has often been little understood or respected. In the same year, Robert Sylwester's work, A Celebration of Neurons, introduced the larger educational community to the implications of recent brain theory and research for schooling. "Emotion is very important to the educative process," wrote Sylwester (1995, p. 72), "because it drives attention, which drives learning and memory."

It is a small, but crucial step from the education of the heart to The Soul of Education. Nothing could be more "emotion laden" in a positive sense than the experiences that students recount as nourishing to their souls. As we face this question—"How can we nourish spiritual development in school?"—the fields of social and emotional learning, brain-based learning, and intelligence theory have been extremely useful. But they do not answer the question. The answer to this question comes from no textbook, existing research, or metaphysical treatise. Rather it begins in the hearts of the boys and girls, the young women and young men, who sit in classrooms in every community. For more than two decades, my colleagues and I have been listening to what young people wonder about themselves, about each other, and about the universe itself. I believe that, if we start with them, the answer to the question of "how" may emerge more clearly.

Over many years, my passion has been to understand what feeds the spirit of young people and to create curriculum, methodology, and teacher development that would serve this need. After working for several years in social policy on children's issues and then developing programs for teenage mothers in Massachusetts, I was hired in 1985 to chair a Department of Human Development at an innovative private school in Santa Monica, California. I led a team in creating the first curriculum for adolescents that integrated heart, spirit, and community with a strong academic curriculum at this highly successful college preparatory school. We designed a curriculum called the "Mysteries Program1," in response to the "mysteries" of teenagers: their usually unspoken questions and concerns.
1The Mysteries Program was initiated by Jack Zimmerman under the leadership of headmaster Paul Cummins at the Crossroads School in Santa Monica, California>

In the 1990s I expanded this approach, including what I had learned from many colleagues in the field of social and emotional learning. Renaming this curriculum the "Passages Program," I have brought this perspective into public and private schools. Whereas my own experience comes through courses for adolescents designated for social and emotional learning, the principles and methods that emerged have since been integrated by teachers into all grade levels and subject areas.

After listening to thousands of students, both my own and those of my colleagues from around the country, I began to hear a pattern. In their stories and questions, young people celebrate the dimensions of life that satisfied their souls:

The beauty, the majesty—it's indescribable, the power I feel inside when I'm deep in the forest or walking along a rushing river.

I was the geek, the dork you all made fun of. I'm still not cool. I know it. But you guys have really taken me in; you've accepted me, you've respected me. I know how far you've come.

There is something that happens to me in pottery class—I lose myself in the feeling of wet clay rolling smoothly under my hands as the wheel spins. I have it last period, so no matter how difficult the day was, pottery makes every day a good day. It's almost magical—to feel so good, so serene.

Over and over, students identified certain experiences as precious and meaningful to them. In my mind, a map of seven gateways to the soul of students began to emerge (see Chapter 1). Each subsequent chapter is devoted to one of these gateways. Through the stories of students and educators, these chapters explore the risks and opportunities of creating ways to invite these experiences into the classroom.

From the outset, however, I want to distinguish between two kinds of experiences: (1) "religious education" and "devotional practices" and (2) ordinary experiences that can nourish spiritual development. Here, I focus on the latter. I provide both a theoretical framework and a wide range of concrete activities for students, teachers, and parents that respect the diverse belief systems and cultures present in our classrooms.

I could never have developed this framework or these methods alone. Like any educator, I have my own biography and biases. To create this approach to spiritual development while respecting diverse points of view, I have been blessed with the guidance and support of a diverse group of colleagues—secular, holistic, and Christian educators and theorists. All have sensitized me to the different, often seemingly polarized, convictions that must be respected by educators who seek a place for soul in the classroom. Along with the stories of students and teachers, the insights and warnings of these varying perspectives appear throughout the book.

The teachers who provided many of the book's stories and examples have found ways to cultivate soul in their classes while respecting the content of their particular curriculum. Teachers of math, science, English, foreign languages, and social studies have all used the methods described here. Once teachers have a framework for supporting the spiritual dimension of their students' growth, they are remarkably inventive in developing new ways for doing so. When I use stories from these teachers, I use full names for those who chose to share their stories and insights with me specifically for this book. When I use first names only, I am protecting anonymity for teachers who spoke with no knowledge of my writing.

In addition to the counsel of fellow educators, this framework has profoundly benefitted from the thousands of students with whom I have worked. The map of the seven gateways described in this work grows directly out of their statements and stories, their questions and yearnings. Although I have changed the names of all students to protect their privacy, the hundreds of student voices in these pages represent actual students, taught by me or by my colleagues. I have not created composites or fictional characters. Within the limits of memory, the student voices come from specific young people.

Meet now a few of the scores of students who speak out in this book:

The inner life of these and other young people is intimately bound up with matters of meaning, purpose, and connection, with creative expression and moments of joy and transcendence. All these qualities are central to both emotional intelligence and to constructively filling the spiritual void. Classroom environments that acknowledge and invite such experiences help students break down stereotypes, improve discipline, increase academic motivation, foster creativity, and keep more kids in school. Let us dare to consider together the possibilities and pitfalls of consciously honoring in school the inner lives of our students.

Copyright © 2000 by Rachael Kessler. All rights reserved.

Chapter 4

Meaning and Purpose

I feel like I'm on a road at a huge intersection with thousands of streets, yet I'm at a loss. There is no one to tell me the way, no "411" in the real world. You can't just call up and say, "Hey, I need a destination, I need a place to go." Even if someone did tell me where to go, I wouldn't listen. Sometimes I feel like I'm going nowhere. Sure, I'm on the Santa Monica freeway, but where am I going in life?

The powerful "road" metaphor in this senior's mysteries question captures the deep search that many students undertake to find meaning and purpose in their lives. Adolescence is a time when big questions—what the French call les profondeurs—begin to surface with volcanic urgency. These existential questions are so deep that we can never find the bottom. Certainly by the time a child enters adolescence, "each senses mystery in the cosmos and needs relationship to that mystery" (Gurian, 1998, p. 264). Without such connection, our experience of life can be meaningless, what William James called a "blooming, buzzing confusion" (cited in Sloan, 1994, p. 12).

I've found that adolescents make a subtle but critical difference between their search for meaning and their yearning for purpose. Questions of purpose—what will give meaning to my own life—arise in students' questions about their future and their goals and in their struggle to define what is most important to them:

Students also ponder what gives meaning to life itself:

In their questions, students reveal a longing to connect to some larger, ongoing frame of meaning. "Soul is at home in a sense of time that reaches beyond the limits of ordinary human life," writes Thomas Moore (1992). "The soul is interested in eternal issues, even as it is embedded in the particulars of ordinary life. This, the interpenetration of time and eternity, is one of the great mysteries explored by many religions . . . and mythologies" (p. 223).

Through their stories, students reveal their need for an enduring frame of meaning. Through religious beliefs or connection to lineage or nature; through concepts of social justice, evolution, or progress; or through creative expression, students respond to "the challenge of finding or composing some kind of order, unity and coherence in the force fields of our lives" (Fowler, 1991, p. 24). When we as teachers create opportunities at school for students to articulate these frames of meaning, we can substantially contribute to their spiritual development.

"It's not important where you think the soul is; it's what you're looking for with it, that's important," said a 13-year-old girl to Robert Coles (1990). In The Spiritual Life of Children, Coles discovered in children an "intense, penetrating rumination" (pp. 301–302) that moved him deeply.

But without a compassionate, inquisitive adult like Coles in their lives, where do most children get this opportunity to express these urgent mysteries or the "clues" they are finding along the way?

Before we explore the opportunities in the classroom for meaning and purpose, we must ask why educators rarely welcome students' "big questions" into the classroom. What happens if there is no forum, no safe place for young people to air their questions? What are the consequences for students when schools exclude their quest for meaning from the curriculum?

Loss of Meaning: How It Affects Learning and Risk

Without meaning in their lives, students' motivation to learn is imperiled. Many students today cannot focus, listen, or even feel the will to learn. Helping these students find their own motivation is increasingly important. Young people who have the opportunity to discover what has meaning for them and who feel they are going somewhere in life can be more easily engaged in learning and persisting through obstacles and setbacks. "Deep meanings are the source of most intrinsic motivation," write Renate and Geoffrey Caine (1997) in Education on the Edge of Possibility. "They are the source of our reasons to keep going even when we do not understand" (p. 112).

Not only motivation but the learning process itself relies on the student's ability to make meaningful connections, to discover and create patterns of meaning. Though many educators understand the importance of meaning at this level, they still find it difficult to make a place in school for "meaning" in its more mysterious, ultimate levels. As the Caines (1997) write:

To advocate teaching for meaning and then to deny students the opportunity to explore and ask the most profound questions about how what they are learning relates to a meaningful life is absurd. . . .

In our opinion, the gateways will be really opened for individuals to "become what they can be" when the deep and profound questions are invited into education. . . . Clearly, we are now at the meeting ground of science; spirituality; and in many countries, the law and the constitution. These are questions with which educators and society have to deal, and which require extensive examination in intellectually rich and safe forums (p. 96).

Or, as a recent high school graduate put it, "If you can't ask the big questions, it's like you're building something without a foundation."

Certainly students' will and capacity to learn are impaired when they lack meaning and purpose. This void also puts them at risk in a more fundamental way. It undermines their motivation to live. "Millions of children are not safe physically, educationally, economically, or spiritually," writes Marian Wright Edelman (cited in Brendtro et al., 1990). "The poor black youths who shoot up drugs on street corners and the rich white youths who do the same thing in their mansions share a common disconnectedness from any hope or purpose" (p. 26).

Troubled teenagers are often hiding from a sense of emptiness inside, a sense of meaninglessness that comes when social and religious traditions no longer provide a sense of meaning, continuity, and participation in a larger whole. "Why this emptiness, in this world, in my heart? How does this emptiness get there, go away, and come back again?" asks one 10th grade student. The vacuum of spiritual guidance and fulfilment in their lives leads to despair and alienation. Only recently are educators and social scientists beginning to see that this absence of meaning is a critical variable in violent and self-destructive behavior in our youth.

Many students have lost even the capacity to ask. They are deflected from their own search by the distortion of meaning when commercial media rush in to fill the void. "Find beauty and meaning in what is external—in what can be bought and sold," croon the advertisers. "Seek satisfaction and connection through drugs and sexuality," urge the images that flood television, film, video games, and the Internet. Such pervasive messages offer our students a seductive and ultimately empty alternative to the existential search.

Social scientists search for the keys to the resilience of young people. Many students thrive; they have the capacity to respond constructively to the challenges, suffering, and unexpected changes inevitable in all lives and tragically prominent in the lives of some children. It is precisely this mysterious capacity that Viktor Frankl (1984) explored in Man's Search for Meaning. Frankl asked why some people could physically and spiritually survive horrific experiences that killed or brutalized others. Observing his fellow prisoners in a series of concentration camps, he saw prisoners who endured despite greater physical frailty than those who perished. Delving deeply into their resilience (and his own), he saw people who had a sense of purpose for their lives, people who knew how to put their experiences, even the most inhumane suffering, into a larger context of meaning.

Although the search for meaning is critical to learning and even survival, it has been largely omitted from the schools where our children spend most of their lives. At the college level, philosophy and religion courses offer some students this chance. But for the children and adolescents who crowd our public schools, these questions are often excluded from the curriculum. Many teachers are troubled by such unfathomable dilemmas for which they have no answers. Others believe they do have answers; they also know that to provide such answers in schools would violate the First Amendment. So the curriculum rarely makes a place to even pose the questions, leaving young people to fend for themselves. A natural place to explore purpose is in career planning or goal setting. "A senior in high school must make colossal decisions whether he or she is ready or not," writes one student. "The more people can be honest about and aware of their own needs when making these decisions, the healthier the decisions will be."

When career-planning or goal-setting programs foster authentic self-discovery, students become "purposeful"—determined to accomplish their goals. And not only high schoolers—some researchers have seen positive results from such programs for middle school students at high risk for criminal behavior: "If they can be helped to discover their gifts and how these gifts can and will be utilized through work in the future, they begin to feel a sense of purpose that can protect them from criminal behavior even at this young age" (Greenberg, interview, 1996).

But even in lessons on decision making, teachers often ignore the larger questions of personal meaning and purpose in life. Educators teach mechanical techniques that engage the rational mind. They rarely give students tools to access what wisdom they might possess about their life mission.

If we don't cultivate the inner life of adolescents as part of their search for goals or careers, they will likely make their decisions based on external pressures. "So many of my friends are so clueless," writes one senior. "They don't know what they want to do, they know what they're supposed to do. They don't know how they feel, they know how they're supposed to feel." Denied the guidance to penetrate beyond the surface, students can access only what is superficial and obvious.

Peers, parents, teachers—their external expectations and values are paramount in the decision-making process for students who have not had the guidance from teachers to look within for a possible larger sense of purpose. Such goals or career decisions are often unsatisfying and short lived. Schools, academic majors, and careers chosen without passion, without a sense of purpose often lead to high turnover or sticking it out with low motivation; low performance; and, sometimes, physical or psychological disabilities.

How then do we create opportunities for students to search for meaning and purpose? How can we awaken this search in students who may have lost even the ability to ask these questions?

Safely Inviting the Big Questions

Simply seeing the universality of these big questions from their peers helps students validate their own questions and nourishes their souls. As we saw in Chapter 1, students embark on a search for meaning and purpose when educators give them the opportunity to anonymously write down their questions about themselves and about life. When we read these questions back to the group, we validate our students' quest.

Throughout the curriculum—in literature, history, foreign languages, and science, as well as in social and emotional learning courses—teachers can create a safe environment where students can reveal and explore their bigger questions. In a class for high school seniors called "Society and Nature," science teacher Doug Eaton (interview, 1999) addresses his students' "cosmic" questions in a council meeting held during a field trip they take to an old-growth forest. Fifth-grade teacher Meg Kenny in Vermont begins each school year by encouraging students to write their questions about themselves and the world. "There are always questions about the beginnings of things, conflict and justice, . . . mysteries, and unknowable things" (Mann, 1998, p. 1).

But creating a safe environment is the key. Too many teachers ignore or even laugh at the audacity or naiveté of students who ask such questions in the school environment. Sadly, I have watched this kind of behavior dampen and sometimes damage the spirit in students:

Two middle school teachers invite me to observe them "adapt" my approach to their human development curriculum.

Instead of offering their students an opportunity to pose questions anonymously in writing, Bill and Carol corral a large group of students and require them to each ask a question out loud.

"Tell us what you're wondering about these days," instructs Carol. When a student hesitates, she insists: "You must have a question!" Carol asks the group to wait until this reluctant student "participates."

Halfway through this ordeal, one shy and serious girl says brightly, "I wonder about what happens when you die."

"Oh, yeah," Bill guffaws. "We could really get far with that one."

Despite being a compassionate and caring teacher, Bill was so unnerved that he responded to her heartfelt and timeless question by dismissing it with a nervous laugh. In a profession where much of our authority has been predicated on our ability to "know," or to have the "right answer," teachers are often loathe to allow the bigger questions in the classroom.

Questions about personal purpose or the meaning of life can lead to the issue of ultimate causes and religious beliefs. Like Bill, teachers often mishandle such questions or shy away from creating a forum for them. Afraid to violate the First Amendment by imposing our own views, we prefer to avoid these questions altogether. Especially to young children, this can feel like we are discouraging or condemning the quest. Montessori specialist Aline Wolf (1996, pp. 157–162) offers a series of strategies for honoring children's questions about God.

Instead of setting aside such questions with responses like "I think you should ask your parents," or "We'll talk about that some other time," questions like these should be honored as audible signs of children's developing spirituality. "That's a very good question, Nicky" or "I have often wondered about that myself," is a good response with which to start.

She encourages teachers to express their own uncertainty or sense of mystery without feeling that not knowing in any way undermines their authority. We can also show respect for the views of both believers and nonbelievers without giving priority to any one point of view. As Wolf says:

When a child asks if God made the world, a response might be, "Some people think that God made the world and other people do not think that God made the world. It's a question that people have been trying to answer for thousands of years. I am glad you are thinking about it, too."

Because most parents care deeply about the primary importance of their own beliefs in shaping their children's development, we can also encourage children to share these questions at home.

Ultimately, Wolf (1996, pp. 157–162) believes that the most useful response to encourage the student's spiritual growth is to "return the question." After letting the child know that we value their search, we can give it back to the child and the other students to draw forth their own wisdom and wonder:

"That is a question that each of us can think about. Where do you think God is?"

"I think God is up in the sky," a child might reply. And this answer may spark a variety of ideas from other children:

"Maybe God is the sun watching us."

"My Dad says, 'God is in the church.'"

"Maybe God is right here but we can't see Him."

"Returning the question" is the guiding principle I have used in my own work with adolescents to explore these profound mysteries. I have also used activities to encourage students to find their own answers or "clues" to what gives meaning and purpose in their lives. The next sections present some of these activities and highlight opportunities for students to develop a deeper sense of meaning and purpose.

Exploring Individual Purpose

Although questions of meaning and purpose often intertwine, many students are responsive to activities that focus on their own personal destiny or purpose. To explore their life's mission and to set goals that reflect it is a noble educational goal. But how can it be done? Here are a few approaches that work.

Instead of beginning with lofty words like mission, I create a council for my 10th grade students on the subject of success. "How do you define success?" I ask them. "What does it mean to you personally? Tell us a story about your future that helps us understand what might be going on for you when you're feeling like a success?"

When working with seniors, I ask them more directly what they do or don't know about their purpose.

"So many of your mysteries questions are about what you're here for, about your destiny, your future," I say at the beginning of council. "If you do know something, what have been the clues? If you don't feel you know anything yet, how does that feel?"

"I see a lot of my purpose in people—in the connections I make and the impact I make on people's lives," says Josh.

"I find a lot of my purpose in being a child of God, in my faith, in walking that Way," says Petra, holding the talking stone in one hand and placing the other hand over the cross on her heart. "While God creates and names every single star, he knows my name, thoughts, and needs."

As we go around the circle, most students say something about love. Peter is firm about what is most important in his mission: "My destiny is not to be an astronaut or great politician but to bring love."

Khalil is lost in concepts: "I believe that destiny is not what's going to happen to you in the future but what's happened 'til now to bring you here."

Like Khalil, the idea of destiny is taking Nancy into the past. She is making sense—making meaning—about all the things that brought her to where she is today. "My suffering has been part of my destiny."

From her previous stories, we all know that Nancy had been raped.1

See Chapter 7 and the Conclusion for a discussion of how educators can appropriately and compassionately respond to difficult emotional content—such as rape—that students may raise in class.

She had told us that she jammed the memory into her unconscious, never telling anyone, including herself, what happened. A year later she began to suffer from insomnia, then depression. When her thoughts turned to suicide, she went to her parents for help. Within a few weeks of therapy, the memory of the rape came back; and a long healing process began.

"I know it's hard for you guys to believe, but [my suffering] has given me so many gifts already. I think my destiny is to use those gifts somehow—to help others."

"You know that little man I drew when we did that symbol exercise weeks ago?" asks Kenny, looking around the room for nods of recognition. "That little man is my music. And sometimes I hate this little man, and sometimes I love him. I put my bass aside for a time, a long time, thinking, 'I don't like doing music. I'm just gonna stop.' But then it's like I have to go back to it. And then when I go back to it, it's like I'm a different person."

"When I think of purpose, I think of power," says Karim. "Not the kind of power that puts other people down. I want the kind of power that lets you do what you want to do with your life."

Cathy, one of the last to speak, has the courage to admit she hasn't given this subject much thought: "I really don't have a clue. But this is interesting, what everyone else is saying. I'm kind of amazed that everyone else has been thinking about this. I've learned a lot, just listening to you guys. I have a feeling it might get me thinking about it myself."

When asked too directly, many young people, like Cathy, cannot easily express what really matters to them. They may even be afraid to know, lest they be disappointed by circumstances that make them feel it's impossible to achieve what they really want. Or they may simply lack tools to access their deeper yearnings. At the simplest level, giving students time for quiet reflection can begin to open these channels. More actively, calling them to envision their futures can sometimes help them tap into their deeper values. Teachers at University Heights help students set authentic goals by using an imaginative journey into their futures, including writing their own obituaries. (These teachers had taken an in-depth workshop I provided on working with grief. They are prepared to respond compassionately to issues that might arise in working with this metaphor.)

"I was surprised to see that we had to write our own obituary," wrote Caesar. "At first it was uncomfortable but then it was fun." This senior went on to write:

Caesar Rivera died today at the age of 100. He was known for his great blockbuster movies. He was a director, producer and writer of most of his own films. . . . He was known for the billions he donated to charity over the years. He began his film study in Brooklyn College. . . . He was married with two kids which will take over as the presidents of his production company.

The obituary of another student in the Bronx took a different turn:

Martinez, Roberto. Invented the Pentiem III system. . . . He was well known in his community for helping to improve the safety and value of his community. He will be most remembered for his shyish ways and warm heart. Roberto Martinez was known for being there when needed. He had two children and wife which he loved deeply. Roberto will indeed be missed by both his family and the community.

When we help students squarely face the inevitable limits of life, we can motivate students like Roberto and Caesar to think more actively about what really matters to them.

A cumulative process of self-definition occurs in classes where students regularly write or tell stories that relate content themes to stories from their own lives. When students feel that people genuinely listen to them as they share their lives, they begin to sense their own significance as human beings. "Every time that I speak, I feel that I am being listened to and that I am affecting your lives," writes Lisa, a senior in Colorado. "I feel like you want to hear what I have to say; it makes me feel purposeful." This process can occur in most subject areas and at most grade levels. Connecting their own experiences to larger themes in the human story, students begin to realize the thread of purpose and meaning running through their life.

Service Learning and the Search for Meaning and Purpose

Many students find meaning through opportunities to contribute to their world. Sheldon Berman (1997), an educator who has devoted much of his work to understanding the development of social responsibility, believes that people must, sooner or later, turn purpose into action. "Young people are continually negotiating a sense of meaning, place and commitment," writes Berman. "In often subtle ways they ask: Do I have a meaningful place in the social and political world? Are there values that I can make a commitment to and people I can stand with? Am I capable of contributing something useful to others that they will welcome and appreciate?" (p. 28).

Jose, a junior at Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut, began to discover answers to these fundamental life questions through his experience in the school's community service program:

When I go over to the local elementary school to tutor two Spanish-speaking children, they are so excited to see me. I guess they don't get too much attention from a teacher and a classroom that is strictly English-speaking....

When I am with them, I feel special. I am an average student at my school, I don't hold any elected positions, I am not on any varsity team. I do not stand out in any way, and that is OK with me. It is OK with me because for three hours each week, Maria and Miguel make me feel like I am the most important person in the world. It has been really great for us because now the entire class wants to learn some Spanish; we are counting and learning simple phrases. I feel proud to share my heritage, language, and culture with little children (Pashley, personal communication, 1999).

As Jose's essay underscores, school and community service programs give many students an experience of contributing real value to their community. How we introduce community service into education, however, is important. "Mandatory volunteerism" programs, which many cities and states in the United States are now legislating, can become so large and impersonal that the system can drain heart and spirit out of the experience. Although such programs often grow out of the intention to build character and good citizenship, educators and policymakers also need to be aware of the potential of such programs for nourishing the spiritual development of youth volunteers— and design the programs accordingly (Kessler, 1999/2000).

Service learning may, indeed, become another "should" in the curriculum, imposing by external command rather than appealing to students' emerging compassion and generosity. "There is no compassion without a sense of wonder and reverence for the mystery of being," writes Abraham Heschel (cited in Gross, 1989). He believes that cultivating character "can only be carried out in depth, as cultivation of total sensitivity" (p. 70).

Mary Pashley (personal communication, 1999), director of community service for Choate Rosemary Hall, inspires her students with the example of Albert Schweitzer (1949), who was keenly aware that service to others is an outpouring of blessing from and to the soul:

In helpfulness to others, every man can find on his own doorstep adventures for the soul—our surest source of true peace and lifelong satisfaction. . . . In this unselfish labor a blessing falls on both the helper and the helped. . . .

I do not know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know; the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve. . . .

Without such spiritual adventures the man or woman of today walks in darkness. In the pressures of modern society we tend to lose our individuality. Our craving for creation and self-expression is stifled; true civilization is to that extent retarded.

What is the remedy? No matter how busy one is, any human being can assert his personality by seizing every opportunity for spiritual activity (pp. 1–5).

Giving students the chance to discover how to match their particular passions to the needs of others takes students indirectly to the issue of meaning and purpose. Acknowledging the spiritual dimension more directly can deepen rather than detour their search.

For some students, meaning can come from giving that is not about individual talents or interests, but from expressing their most basic humanity. In activities like packaging and delivering food to the hungry or sitting with a sick child or lonely elder, students experience the simple gifts of being present with an open heart or doing menial labor that will nurture those in need.

As Dayna, a 16-year-old junior, writes:

I have always volunteered with the Special Populations swim program at our school because of the way I feel afterwards. While I am there in the pool, I forget all about the stresses of my everyday life. . . . I look forward to Thursday evenings as much as the people involved do, I love seeing them smile after they have swam an entire length of the pool, that is something I have always just taken for granted (Pashley, personal communication, 1999).

"Young people cannot develop a sense of their own value unless they have opportunities to be of value to others," write Brendtro and colleagues (1990, p. 26) in Reclaiming Youth at Risk. And the behavior of many young people confirms this search for meaning through service. "Contrary to the stereotype of young adults being aloof and devoid of deep convictions," concluded researchers in a recent study of young Americans, "today's young Americans have a strong sense of values and principles, and a well-defined direction for contributing to their community and country" (Hart, 1998, p. 3).

Youth in the 1990s have a profoundly different style in expressing their commitment to service. Although most young Americans of all races engage in community activities, studies show that they are indeed alienated from traditional political and charity-based approaches to social change. Young people seek a more soulful, less institutional approach, where an experience of genuine connection is possible.

A recent example was the "Lilith Fair"—an all-female rock music tour that had charitable fundraising as its main goal. "Think about it," said Sarah McLachlan, the organizing force behind the tour, "Religion is often about feeling like a part of something greater. And music can be a conduit for that." A journalist interviewing the popular singer concludes that it is "this power coupled with the Fair's charitable acts and sense of community that makes the tour a success" (McLachlan, cited in Childerhose, p. 49).

As teachers, we can affirm this soulful dimension of youth culture. Examples of altruism and activism from popular culture can provide a bridge for alienated adolescents to connect with their own yearning for finding meaning through service to others. Instead of judging and distancing ourselves from popular youth culture, we can support this expression of soul in our students by naming and honoring it whenever we see it.

Sheldon Berman (1997) writes: "One of the tasks of adolescence is to find one's own place in the world, to find the intersection of one's personal history with history itself" (p. 62). A service program can respond to the yearning of young people for connection to a larger frame of meaning.

A soulful approach to community service can take students beyond "rules" to empathy, beyond fulfilling mandated "service learning" requirements to finding meaning and purpose through giving. Students develop social responsibility not as a burden or obligation, but out of a sense of connection and empowerment. They discover the compassion that makes humans want to alleviate the suffering of others. Through experience, they find that choice and change are possible—first in themselves and, by extension, in the community and society at large.

Copyright © 2000 by Rachael Kessler. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Rachael Kessler is the director of The Institute for Social and Emotional Learning, where she consults on curriculum, staff training, and organizational development for schools, communities and individual educators. Her focus has been integrating heart, spirit, and community into the classroom and empowering educators to create constructive rites of passage for adolescents. Called by Daniel Goleman in the New York Times a "leader in a new movement for emotional literacy," Kessler is also a coauthor of Promoting Social and Emotional Learning: Guidelines for Educators (ASCD, 1997), the author of numerous articles, and producer and publisher of the 1992 video Honoring Young Voices: A Vision for Education.

Kessler also works with her husband, Mark Gerzon, to conduct training on facilitating community building and constructive dialogue in highly polarized settings. Their primary clients are educational and civic leaders, including the U.S. Congress. In 1997 and 1999, Kessler and Gerzon provided a design, training, and facilitation for the first and second Bipartisan Congressional Retreat. She is also the mother of three young men: Shane, Ari, and Mikael Gerzon-Kessler.

To contact the author or receive information on training, con- sultation, or other publications, write to The Institute for Social and Emotional Learning, 3833 North 57th Street, Boulder, CO 80301 (URL:; e-mail: (Please note the second "a" in rachael for the correct e-mail address.)

Copyright © 2000 by Rachael Kessler. All rights reserved.

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