How did you do the homework?

“The question to ask your students is not ‘Did you do the homework?’ Instead, it’s ‘How did you do the homework?’”

I heard these words this summer from Kevin Mattingly, an educator I deeply admire (and the creator of the EdX course on the Science of Learning). They struck me the minute I heard them, because they helped me to see that I had assumed that students knew how to reach texts in Philosophy or Religious Studies – an assumption that no longer strikes me as a good one.

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I used to think…but now I think…

dvd_jacket_206How can we help students reflect on their own thinking? How can we make their thinking — and their learning — visible to them? These questions are at the heart of engaged teaching, and I’ve been using some resources from Harvard’s Visible Thinking Routines in an effort to help students do this work.

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Alternate Ways of Being in the World

Into-the-wildDuring a weekly faculty mindfulness group I’ve been participating in this year, a colleague mentioned that he showed the film “Into the Wild” to his students. Usually he shows this film to his 12th grade students in a class on identity, but he also showed it to his 9th graders this spring. The results, he said, were quite positive. After learning about Christopher McCandless’s story — donating his trust fund to Oxfam, cutting up his credit cards, heading to Alaska — several students wrote him inspiring emails late at night, clearly moved by this example.

Things do not end well for McCandless, of course. And while there are some parts of his life to value, it’s also an important cautionary tale. But my colleague’s comments came as I was teaching a unit on Marx, gender, and advertising and resonated with some of my experiences there.

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Buddhist Art in Japan

I was fortunate enough to spend three weeks in Japan this summer through the Japan Society’s Educators’ Study Tour. It was an incredible experience: we explored Kyoto, Nara, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Tokyo; we also had a three-day homestay in Obu City, which is in Aichi Prefecture. We also met with several hibakusha, Japanese survivors of the atomic bombs. These encounters were particularly humbling and moving.

It will take me some time to reflect fully on the trip and to translate my learning into lessons and posts. In the interim, however, I did want to share some pictures of Buddhas and bodhisattvas from the trip.


This Buddha is from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. It was recovered not long after the atomic bomb was dropped in 1945.


This statue is known as Maria Kannon: Maria, in reference to the Virgin Mary, and Kannon, in reference to the bodhisattva of compassion. (Kannon is the Japanese name; this figure also goes by Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit and Guanyin in Chinese.) During the Tokugawa Era in Japan (17th-19th Centuries), Christianity was banned. However, some Christians still practiced in secret. To express their devotion to Mary, the created statues that resembled those used by Buddhists to worship Kannon. This statue is from Nagasaki, where Christianity was first brought to Japan by Portuguese Catholics in the mid-16th Century.

Engakuji Kannon

This Kannon statue is from Engaku-ji monastery in Kamakura. This monastery is an important Zen training center and has had an important place in Japanese Buddhism since its founding in the 13th Century.


The great Kamakura Daibutsu! This bronze statue of Amitabha Buddha is over 40 feet tall. Visitors can even go inside this Buddha statue.


This mossy bodhisattva resides in the Japanese garden of the Nezu museum in Tokyo. I have a particular fondness for this figure.

(Special thanks to JW, my guide to several of these sites around Tokyo.)



Repost: “Shoveling Snow with Buddha,” by Billy Collins

Readers of this blog will know that I first posted this poem in November, after our first snow of the season. At that time, no shoveling was required. This time, plenty was: we have been shoveling for days here in northern MA, and it seemed appropriate to post this poem again.

I was also able to track down a recording of Collins reading this poem. It can be found here.

Shoveling Snow With Buddha

In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok
you would never see him doing such a thing,
tossing the dry snow over a mountain
of his bare, round shoulder,
his hair tied in a knot,
a model of concentration.

Sitting is more his speed, if that is the word
for what he does, or does not do.

Even the season is wrong for him.
In all his manifestations, is it not warm or slightly humid?
Is this not implied by his serene expression,
that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe?

But here we are, working our way down the driveway,
one shovelful at a time.
We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear
and become lost to each other
in these sudden clouds of our own making,
these fountain-bursts of snow.

This is so much better than a sermon in church,
I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling.
This is the true religion, the religion of snow,
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.

He has thrown himself into shoveling snow
as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway
you could back the car down easily
and drive off into the vanities of the world
with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.

All morning long we work side by side,
me with my commentary
and he inside his generous pocket of silence,
until the hour is nearly noon
and the snow is piled high all around us;
then, I hear him speak.

After this, he asks,
can we go inside and play cards?

Certainly, I reply, and I will heat some milk
and bring cups of hot chocolate to the table
while you shuffle the deck.
and our boots stand dripping by the door.

Aaah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes
and leaning for a moment on his shovel
before he drives the thin blade again
deep into the glittering white snow.