Senior year in high school is a difficult, confusing, albeit exciting time for many of us. For the past thirty years, Ann Arbor Michigan Pioneer High School Philosophy teacher Jim Robert has offered his seniors an opportunity to take an inward look at themselves in a deep and meaningful way, and examine through books, poetry, essays, and discussion, their life journey and purpose. In an age in which grades and test scores seem to pervade all that one does, luminaries such as Jim continuously remind us of the words of Sai Baba, “The End of Education is Character”.

Tutoring and Test Preparation

Transcript (PDF)

Full Word-for-Word Transcription

James: Good afternoon. Yeah. Nearly 40 years ago – here at the
University of Michigan over in Angel Hall, Professor Nicholas Wight’s [SP]
History of Ancient Philosophy Class, I first came upon Socrates’ famous
expression, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” not knowing then
that it was going to become a guiding star in my life. I can’t tell you why
this quote has resonated so deeply in my life. But I do know in the 24
years that I’ve been a public high school teacher, it somehow has managed
to find its way into every class I’ve ever taught. 20 years ago, I began
writing the curriculum for a high school philosophy course, and in the
years since it’s taken on a life of its own. I’d like to think Socrates’
words have found a permanent home. Today, I want to take you into this
class and show you this home, and let’s go for a walk into my classroom.
This is my current classroom in the D2 Hall over at Pioneer High School.
Yeah. You may think it’s your dorm, but it’s not. It’s a place where my
students and I meet five times a week. In 17 years I’ve moved four times
into four different classrooms. But they all end up looking like this
filled with color and art, thousands of photographs of the students who’ve
come through, hockey sticks, ice skates with essays written on them,
mobiles made of ballet slippers. An array of projects made by the students
through the years, all an attempt to do what I’m going to try to do today,
and that’s capture the essence of the experience of this class.You should know right off the bat that this class targets a very
specific group of students, high school seniors. It’s a senior elective
class. You should also know, this is not an AP class. The kids that sign up
for this class, they cover the full spectrum of academic abilities,
ethnicity, and social class. You should also know that, if you couldn’t
tell from the images, this is not a typical introductory philosophy class,
although it started out this way. I quickly learned from the students
signing up, they were looking for something more. Something was missing
from their education. They wanted something more. They wanted it to be more
real. They wanted a place to be real. They wanted to look at themselves.
They wanted to look at their world in a way they hadn’t since they were
children. But most importantly, I think they were looking for a place to
process the monumental transition that senior year had become. Now, who am
I? Where have I been? Where am I going? What does it mean to be a human
being? What is this life all about? These became the questions, their
questions that guided the evolution of this class. Now, the heart and soul
of this philosophy class is a collective experience known as the council,
the process by which gaining awareness of others’ views and perspectives
enables us to critically examine our own. A very formal definition to be
sure, but here’s how it works. For the first month or so of each semester,
the entire emphasis of everything we do in the class, all the assignments,
the in-class activities, the readings, they’re all designed to accomplish
two interrelated tasks. The first, to lower the fear level in the class,
and the second is to create a trusting, caring learning community.

Now, as the weeks press on, as they grow more comfortable with me and
they grow more comfortable with each other, they come into class one day,
without any prior warning they have to respond in writing to the question,
“Who am I?” I take their responses, put them in a folder, and then three
days a week we draw a response from that folder. That student sits in a
very big, comfortable chair in front of the class. It’s called the “council
chair”. They read their response to the class and then for the remainder of
the hour they have their life examined by their classmates through a very
disciplined questioning process that has become known as the council. Now,
what separates this from other group processes is precisely that. Only
questions are allowed. So when that student is in the chair in front of the
class, only questions can be asked. No comments, no judgments, no
expressions of agreement or disagreement to anything he says or she says.
It’s just questions.

But what really makes this a unique experience and I think a very
powerful experience is the kind of communication that unfolds during the
council. David Bohm a great American theoretical physicist spent the last
years of his life examining human thought and communication in a remarkable
little book called “Bohm Dialogue”. It talks about two types of
communication. The first kind, the one we’re most familiar with, all of us
here today, is a one-directional type of communication that he calls “to
make something common”. It’s what I’m doing here. It’s what most of us have
been doing here today. I know something, my class. You don’t know it. I
tell it to you usually in a lecture form, and when I’m finished hopefully
I’ve made it common between us. Most of our educational research
suggestions this is probably not the most effective communication to use in
teaching a class.

The second kind of communication, the one that’s fused in the council
process and the one that seniors in high school are hungry for Bohm calls
“to make something in common.” Now, here we start with an idea or a topic
and we don’t know where we’re going to go with it. We don’t know of the
understanding that’s going to emerge. But it’s a dialogical process of give
and take, back and forth, questions, answers, thoughts, and in the end
whatever does emerge, whatever understanding does come out, we’ve done it
together. We’ve made it in common. Now, in this council experience what you
get metaphorically speaking is the entire class painting together on one
canvas. At the end of each hour of each council, the portrait that emerges
is a unique understanding that never existed before and the entire class
had a hand in creating it. What’s unfolding before my eyes over these 17
years has been one of the most intimate and remarkable journeys into the
nearly 4,000 seniors that have taken this class. I want you to picture this
for a minute.

4,000 times, semester after semester, year after year, together with
my class we get to explore the hopes and fears, the failures and successes,
the families, the relationships, love, loss, drugs, alcohol, the values,
the politics, the religious beliefs. You can only imagine the territory
seniors want to cover when they get the opportunity to examine each others’
lives, and in searching to understand their own. I can’t take you into a
full council in this short time, but I do want you to hear some of the
voices that have spoken from that council chair. The clip you’re about to
see is sort of a few years back, one of my old classrooms. But it really
captures the spirit of this process. The very beginning of the process
anyway, because it’s the kids sitting there reading their “Who am I?”
statements to the class.

[video: Student 1: I feel this won’t fulfill the assignment. I worry too
much so I’m callus and apathetic.

Student 2: I am a combination of all the mistakes I’ve ever made, of all
the victories I’ve had.

Student 3: I care about my friends and I sacrifice for them.

Student 4: Who am I? I am the loud noise in the city, friends to the
celebrities, model in perfection, a house divided.

Student 5: But my feelings change, so I change. Why not? But then why can
you ask me who I am? Fuck you.

Student 6: I have a beautiful family. I care about my family.

Student 7: I trap myself in my thoughts. I think of my father more than I
openly admit.

Student 8: I live up to a certain set of ideals and try my hardest to be
who I love and love who I am. I am a girl, a Caucasian, a student, a 16-
year-old, an employee, a Social Security Number, and a birth certificate.

Student 9: I’m angry. This question is unfair. I cannot pinpoint myself
because I am different everyday.

Student 10: I am a Christian. I am afraid to die.

Student 11: I love sports. I love people. I love relation. I love

Student 12: I am a child of divorce, the victim of an eating disorder
and many doses of criticism.

Student 13: I’m curious. I will be curious forever.

Student 14: I am afraid of the future. I am afraid of failing.
Luckily, I’m not afraid to try, therefore I move forward.

Student 15: I am the result of my past, of what I did and what I

Student 16: I will tell you that the mental illness and drug use of my
family causes me nervousness, and I cannot tell you why the thoughts
screaming through my brain right now are having so much trouble coming out

Tim: I know who I am, but I lack efficient language to tell you. I’m Tim.
No more, no less.

Ben: I am Ben, Benjamin Truiny [SP].

Student 17: Who am I? Just a young woman trying to find her way.

Student 18: I am a human, living, thinking, breathing, changing, growing,
crying, laughing, playing, listening, waking, running, working, being. I am
that, I think.

James: It really is a bridge to their council, where, when they write
these, I only give them 20 minutes to do it. I mean, “Who am I?” that’s
probably one of the most important questions you could ever ask yourself,
but I only give them 20 minutes to do it and it leads into the council. So,
if you can imagine each of these students having to feel 50 minutes worth
of questions from their classmates having everything and anything to do
with their life. It’s a remarkable process. I’d like to leave you with
three thoughts to think about based on my experience in this class. The
first is embodied in this quote by American educator, John Gardener, “It’s
characteristic of youth that what will appear later as accomplishment
appears first as longing.” The search for an authentic self is one of the
primary tasks of adolescence. It’s especially acute for high school

By affording these students the opportunity to examine each others’
world view and perspectives, they learn to examine and uncover the
foundations of their own. But in learning to really listen to each other,
to feel both safe and vulnerable, to sit in that chair and have their life
examined, they gain access to this authentic self, even if only for a
moment, and the powerfully liberating sense of freedom that comes with that
experience. The impact these councils have had on my students’ lives makes
it clear there’s both a need and a place for this kind of work in our
schools. The great lie being told in public education, it’s being told and
believed, is that the skills most needed to successfully transition to
becoming an accomplished adult are the same skills being measured on the
barrage of standardized tests they’ve had to endure throughout their
educational career. The second point has to do with community-building.
Along with this search for an authentic self, a real and meaningful sense
of belonging is another major yearning of adolescence. Creating a caring
and trusting learning community in my classroom not only helps to satisfy
that longing, but it also serves as a model for these students for the much
greater task of community-building they’ll be doing outside the classroom
as adults.

Learning to understand and embrace multiple perspectives, becoming
comfortable with ambiguity, uncertainty, and not knowing, and the
experience that our differences are just as important and necessary as our
similarities in any healthy and vibrant community… These are all
important skills that need to be developed and find a more permanent home
in our schools. My last point brings us full circle to Socrates. “The
unexamined life is not worth living,” is a radical calling for greater self-
awareness. In my classroom, it is an inward turning of their attention
based on the recognition we can never hope to understand ourselves or
actualize our full potential as human beings if we don’t carve out the time
to do this kind of self-examination and reflection. In an education system
devoted more and more to turning our students’ attention outward on the
instrumental rewards of knowledge – like social status and wealth and
material things – Socrates’ quote is a much needed reminder that the end of
education is not facts or grades or test scores, what college you go to, or
even what job or title you hold in life. But rather, the words of the great
Indian saint, the end of education is character. Thank you very much.

What were your impressions of Jim’s talk? What was the best class you took in high school?

Post your tips/comments below.

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