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An Exercise in Looking Beneath the Surface
December 7, 2011 by | Posted in Teaching Tips

Sometime, before having students watch a film you hope they’ll understand on a level that requires more than a dazed regard for moving pictures, introduce the lesson with a provocative concept: thought underlies everything — even physical reality.

Begin by asking what might have occurred in the mind of an individual that led to the invention of a chair? What thought drove him or her to pound together a few chunks of wood so that someone may sit?

The kids drift through various suggestions: desire for comfort, avoidance of dirt or bugs, an effort to keep dry in wet weather. Usually, to spark deeper thought, I create a vision of the after school rush to a parking lot when we hear the cry “shotgun” ring out from every kid who doesn’t drive. We talk about the status in a family that allows one member to sit on the best chair in front of the television or the pecking order that determines who sits where at a dining table. When appropriate, I even mention the difference between the chair occupied by a judge who presides over a trial and the chair in which the defendant sits. (I may even point out the contrast between the cushy chair behind my desk at the back of the classroom and their hard and chilly desk seats.)

Eventually someone gets it: power. The chair is a status symbol; it shows the power of the individual who sits. A king on his throne, an executive in a corner office, etc.

Next ask the kids what is meant by the words exchanged in any casual greeting that they no doubt have heard a dozen times before they got to school today. Role play, if you will:

“Hello,” you say.
“Hi,” some kid will respond.
“How are you?” you add to the dialogue.
“Fine, and you?” the kid will likely respond.

Then, ask the student to do the role playing experience again. This time, have the kid begin the exchange:

“Hello,” the kid will say. (You may notice that some kids point their chins a bit and say “sup” instead of “hello.” Oh well, the lesson still works.)

But instead of responding with a return hello, (or “sup”) you simply stare at the kid. Maybe he or she will repeat the greeting; you remain silent. Guaranteed, discomfort will ensue. If you stare long enough, the kids will accuse you of mad-dogging.

You might want to do another dialogue and when the kid asks, “How are you?” you respond with a lengthy discourse on the condition of your hangnail or the problem you are having with tendonitis on your six mile jogs.

Very soon the kids realize that the standard greeting is really a culturally conditioned manner of insuring the safety of each individual in a world wherein the true danger to humans is other humans. The actual meaning of the dialogue is thus:

“I see you there before me.”
“I see you as well.”
“I am no danger to you.”
“Nor am I a danger to you.”

You will find dozens of examples that show how what lies beneath simple objects, like a chair, and beneath simple words exchanged in common greeting, is a very serious thought.

Now you can show the film you have in mind and require the kids to look beneath the images they see and the dialogue they hear.

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