The extended Thanksgiving break gifted me the time to read, to get lost in story as I burrowed into the corner chair next to my father’s fireplace, listening to the hum in the next room of adult conversation and stopping intermittently to peer out the window at my boys building bonfires by the riverbank.
My reading invitations included Karen Joy Fowler’s We Were All Completely Beside Ourselves, Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in American Cities, and Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Some of these were new reads for me, and other were opportunities to return home, to the comfort of words and chapters I have read before.
We all have a need for story, an invitation to construct our own plotlines and feel valued amidst the other books in the room. Our story is how we go out into the world and show up, and that showing up influences our interactions with others. It took me many years to understand the value of what I had to say. On a visceral level, I felt as if nobody cared to hear my story, that my plotline was insignificant. In response, I turned to telling my truths through painting, and as I grew older, developed a deep love for books, appreciating their invitation to hear the stories of others. Today, I recognize my draw to story was really a desire for spirit, a longing to connect. I was trying to find my spiritual story. Our spiritual story is a compilation of the threads of our experiences, woven together and connected to something larger than ourselves. Within those connections, we form a union with other. Through that joining, we discover our significance.
As a new Director of Middle School, the insignificant grab hold of my ankles each day and sometimes cause me to stumble before I move down the path to where I am supposed to be. To zoom in on our spiritual story is difficult work, especially in schools, when the unexpected beat of the day diverts our attention and tosses us across topics and turmoil – like the carpool line is backing up once again and parents are feeling frustrated or the stomach bug has hit hard and five girls have already reported to the nurse and it is not even 9am. Inside the daily chaos, it is easy to lose sight of what we believe.
As school leaders, we are charged to ask ourselves, “What is our spiritual story?” I don’t mean the school’s goals or yearly theme but the gravitational pull that forces us to move towards our core. For me, I feel compelled to create compassionate spaces for people to tell their spiritual stories and build understanding for the spiritual stories of others. Our Episcopal story begins, “Please come in, you have a home here, all are welcome at this table.”
But this spiritual story and work of welcome cannot thrive if it is limited to chapel services, volunteer hours, and special celebrations. For full integration, our spiritual story must “live” throughout the school day in our daily interactions, curriculum, and spiritual life.
So how does a reverence for spiritual stories play out in our Episcopal Middle School and why is its presence essential for fostering the spiritual growth, civic mindfulness, and critical thinking required of the global citizens our girls are charged to become as they step outside our walls and into their larger world community to serve?
Following, are eight intentional actions we have taken in our Middle School to zoom in on our spiritual story, encouraging our girls to claim their significance while celebrating the significance of others- each day asking three essential questions: Whose voices are heard in this spiritual story? Whose voices are silenced? Why does it matter? (Below each bullet, you will see links to books that have helped to inform my thinking.)
- Relationships: Through our rich advisory program and daily interactions, we come to know and value each girl’s spiritual story. We believe, that in order for deep learning to occur, we must first make an authentic and personal connection with the students we teach. Through coming to know their spiritual story, we create a classroom environment that is safe and encourages the girls to take the intellectual risks necessary to push their learning to new levels. Within that relationship, we co-construct opportunities for our students to enter curriculum in ways that are relevant and meaningful to their beliefs and life experiences.
- Project-Based Learning: When curriculum grows from meaningful project work, the girls come to see learning not as a series of facts but a story that crosses content areas. This work happens in class, not for homework, because we know it is essential to observe and work with the girls as they engage in new information. For example, in Geography class, our grade 6 girls explored the types of monuments society erects to honor societal contributions of groups and individuals. The girls then zoomed in on the monuments that line our own city’s streets, and through those contemplations and discussions, were moved to create their own monuments, highlighting people whose stories they felt deserved to be told. Our girls engaged in work of Jesus, telling the stories of the voiceless.
- Global Connections: Our stories are shaped by our direct experiences, so by their very nature, they are limited, representative of a specific way of knowing. To stretch the girls’ understandings of the spiritual stories of others, we intentionally seek out opportunities to connect through experiences like the Global Read Aloud Project, The Peace Crane Project, and Mystery Skypes. We also invite inspirational speakers to campus to share their narratives, such as Ambassador Faye of the Gambia and Dr. Christine Darden, one of NASA’s preeminent experts on supersonic flight and a featured character in the book Hidden Figures. When we simply present content, our girls learn facts, but when we offer opportunities to connect spirits, we honor the Christian call, “You shall love thy neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:34-40).
- Personalized Learning: A pertinent piece of each girl’s spiritual story is how she negotiates information. As we come to understand a girl’s experience at home, her passions outside of school, the study strategies she utilizes, and her level of skill mastery, we are able to create opportunities within the curriculum that zoom into her specific ways of knowing. For example, as the girls reflect on the major themes of The Giver, they were invited to explore their learning in diverse ways, giving them voice and choice in what they did. Instead of an essay or project guided by a standardized rubric, the girls wrote and carried out their own project work including short stories, photo essays, acrylic paintings, and spoken word poetry. As Episcopalians, we honor difference, welcoming diverse ways of knowing and being in the world. In the classroom, we live out our commitment to each individual’s spirit, by offering our girls multiple entryways to content and encouraging self-reflection.
- “E-VALUE-ation”: As a doctoral student at the University of Virginia, I was privileged to serve as Jane Hansen’s research assistant. Jane views assessment not as a multiple choice test but as an opportunity to seek value in the story and work of others. Today, when I sit down to conference with one of the writers in my grade 6 English class, I ask this essential question, “What do you value about your work?” Her answer, her story, shapes how we move forward. When she says, “I value how I used dialogue to open my narrative,” we celebrate her reflection and use it as a foundation for moving her writing forward. At the heart of our Christian identity is finding value within ourselves, so we can carry that light down the path to help others.
- Homework: Our girls have rich spiritual stories outside of school. Those stories include their family, participation in athletics, opportunities to spend time with friends, and quiet spaces for solitary contemplations. Those pieces of our girls’ stories are at the core of who they are and central to nourishing their spirit. As a Middle School, we have intentionally cut down on the amount of homework we give the girls on weekdays and moved away from all weekend and holiday homework. As educators and researchers, we reviewed the studies on the tenuous connection between homework and academic achievement and examined the practices of the top performing school systems across the globe, redefining our definition of rigor. As Jesus calls Martha out of the kitchen and into a collective conversation of spirit, we invite our girls to walk away from the “to do list” of school and into the pieces of their lives that feed their souls. “But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her'” (Luke 10:41).
- Restorative Justice: Inside of each girl’s struggle and misstep, is a complex story that has served to shape her behaviors in school. When a girl makes a mistake, whether it is consistent tardiness or inappropriate interactions with a peer, we no longer give detention. Instead, we create space for her to tell her spiritual story to those involved and then then work together to restore the damage. Though such an approach is time-consuming up front, the relationships we build, the understandings we develop, and the opportunities we have to co-construct an action plan to restore the hurt – repositions each girl’s school experience, inviting her to revise her plotline and reflect on who she wants to be. Through Restorative Justice we see the holiness in each other, recognizing the normality of mistakes and pushing back the walls to invite more voices into our community.
- Teacher as Researcher: Teachers are the number one change agent in schools, yet their stories are rarely told in academic research. Our Middle School teachers walk into their classrooms each day and ask, “What will our girls teach us today?” That stance charges our faculty to think deeply about their teaching, research instructional practices, seek out the support of their peers, and share out their learning to inform the practices of others. To make room for this work, each week faculty take time to discuss their teacher research question with their peers, meeting with their grade team members one week and their department members the next. Spiritual story work is complex and requires the soulful contributions of a team.
Our Middle School is a sacred space that holds our children’s spiritual stories with grace and care, each day encouraging our girls to connect with a higher purpose, whatever each girl defines that to be. Within those deep connections, she feels safe. This feeling of safety encourages her to reach for new understandings of content and herself. All of this spiritual story work prepares her to go out into the world to support the spiritual stories of others, continuing God’s work.
What is your spiritual story and how does your spiritual story shape the decisions you make at school? What is the next chapter you are writing as aspiring thought leaders in your community?
About the Author
Dorothy Suskind is the Director of Middle School at St. Catherine’s School in Richmond, Virginia. She also serves as an Associate Adjunct Professor at the University of Richmond and as a volunteer writing teacher in the women’s prison. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia and a B.A. and M.Ed. from Virginia Commonwealth University. Before coming to St. Catherine’s, Dorothy was as classroom teacher and the Action Research Coach for The Center for the Study of Boys at St. Christopher’s School. She has also served as an Assistant Professor at the University of Mary Washington and has taught multiple grade across the JK-12 spectrum in both public and independent schools. Dorothy has presented at over thirty local, state, and national conferences, as well as, spoken internationally. She has published one book and thirteen academic articles in journals including Language Arts, Kappan, Talking Points, and Social Studies Research and Practice. Her research interests include gender studies, creativity, critical literacy, and educational leadership. Dorothy enjoys spending time in the mountains with her two boys, husband, and basset hound.
Photos courtesy of St. Catherine’s School.