Discovering Truth, Beauty and Goodness with Middle Schoolers

by Alicia Brummeler

In a less than a week’s time, I will stand in front of a new set of seventh graders, ready to embark on another year of learning. Some will exhibit  a deer-in-the-headlights look; others will portray a calm, cool and collected demeanor, perhaps masking a bit of fear and anxiety; some will be open enough to look excited about the coming year. I love that each year all of my students are brand new, particularly considering the social dynamics of middle school, where it helps to start with a somewhat level playing field.

But what really excites me about teaching middle schoolers are the discoveries we will make and share in the coming year. These discoveries—both implicitly and explicitly—will point students to truth, beauty, and goodness. At SBS, we believe the pursuit of these core ideas undergird what it means to be human—we simply cannot help but be attracted to them.

In the late 1990s, I first learned of the British educator Charlotte Mason (1842-1923). Immediately I was captivated by her educational philosophy. Beliefs such as “children are born persons” or “education is a life” echoed my own philosophical convictions about what it means to be an educator and to be educated. Take for instance the understanding that “children are born persons.” My students are not empty vessels waiting for me to fill them with information. Instead, they are whole persons and together we discover the wonder of God’s created world. In addition, at Stony Brook, we want our students to become life-long learners. For us, learning isn’t limited to the months of August-May. We continue to learn and to seek truth, beauty, and goodness in all facets of our lives. Thus, education is a life.

So what do I mean when I say “truth, beauty, and goodness?” Let me unpack this a bit in the following paragraphs.

Truth

As a English teacher, I love that the novels and poems my students read are filled with examples of truth. Sometimes truth announces itself in loud, easy-to-identify ways such as when Long John Silver murders Tom in cold blood when he refuses to join the mutineers in Treasure Island. No need to wonder if evil is a reality in this instance. And no need for the teacher to point out the reality–young people get the implicit moral truth that injustice has been done. Sometimes students have to dig for truth and pay attention. For instance, in the novel Wednesday Wars, the main character Holling Hoodhood realizes that underneath his sister’s sometimes tough exterior and rude comments is a deep love and care for him. The beauty of reading quality literature is that students discover truth, as well as beauty and goodness, without moralistic sidebars announcing, “Look, here is an example of a character showing love.” They realize that truth isn’t up for grabs or dependent on a mood or a trend. Real truth exists and can be discovered and known.

Moreover, truth isn’t limited to the pages of literature. My students see truth in the ordered world of grammar. As they learn the parts of speech and understand the construction of sentences, they begin to see that truth exists in this realm too. How helpful it is to know that the subject of a sentence will never be a part of a prepositional phrase. Over the course of a school year, my students encounter and discover truth as they learn about the world of literature and composition.

Beauty

Perhaps one of the most powerful scenes in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s narrative poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is the Mariner’s recognition of beauty in the sea creatures. “O happy living things! No tongue their beauty might declare: A spring of love gushed from my heart, and I blessed them unaware.” Earlier, the Mariner is unable to see beauty in the slimy sea creatures that surround his ship. Like the Mariner, my students embark on a journey throughout the year. They begin to see beauty in the evocative words of poetry, in the writing of well-crafted sentences, in the objects decorating our classroom, and in the cardinal perched on the branch outside our classroom window. Beauty beckons them in their real, everyday worlds as well as in the make-believe world of story.

Goodness

Few situations make me happier as a middle school teacher than when I see a student reach out to another student. For example,when one student helps another student pick up scattered papers when his binder “explodes,” or when one friend comforts another friend who is upset, or when one classmate makes room at the table or the bleacher for a fellow classmate so he or she doesn’t have to sit alone. These are examples of goodness. During the year, my students have numerous opportunities to see and practice goodness in regards to their relationships. In addition, when students participate in service opportunities they extend the good to a world that desperately needs hope. Our actions may be small, but they communicate care. Furthermore, the pages of our novels are filled with examples of goodness. Acts of selflessness and courage make regular appearances. When Boo Radley saves the lives of Jem and Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, my students cheer because they witness good triumphing over evil.

Each year I am surprised and delighted by my students’ observations and comments. Yes, I am their teacher, but often I am humbled as they model truth, beauty, and goodness by their words and actions to me and others. Indeed, it is a journey. One that is well worth traveling.

seanrileysbs

Sean A. Riley earned his Ph.D in philosophy from Baylor University in 2011. He has chaired the history department, taught English, Humanities, AP European History and two philosophy courses, coached football, tennis, and the Ethics Bowl team, and served as a dorm dad at The Stony Brook School on Long Island. He has also led summer travel courses to Greece, Turkey, and China. Prior to teaching at The Stony Brook School, he taught courses at Baylor University, McLennan Community College, and Live Oak Classical School in Waco, Texas. Sean is the author of Recovering the Saints from Modern Moral Theory, available on Kindle. He lives in Stony Brook with his wife, Emily, and his four children, Aidan, Liam, Honora, and Quinn.

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