I was an unprepared 12th grader – by Matt Kopans

I had the pleasure of sitting in on Steve Balmer’s Open Main lesson today.  I’ll attempt to describe what I saw.

The class was grade 12’s “Transcendentalism” block – I hadn’t done any of the readings (because I’m not really in the class).  Moreover, I had never read Emerson, and hadn’t read Thoreau for over 20 years.  I hadn’t even brought a pencil!

Mr. Balmer started the class with the standard High School verse:

I look into the world
Wherein there shines the sun
Wherein there gleam the stars
Wherein there lie the stones.
The plants they live and grow.
The beasts they feel and live.
And humankind to spirit gives
A dwelling in the soul.
I look into the soul.
That living dwells in me
God’s spirit lives and weaves
In sunlight and in soul-light
In heights of worlds without
In depths of soul within
To thee O spirit of God,
I seeking turn myself
That strength and grace and skill
For learning and for work
In me may live and grow.

But instead of just asking the students to say the verse as they do in every other class, he asked them to consider how the verse relates to what they had been reading in class the past few weeks (mainly Emerson’s essay “Self Reliance”) and how the ideas in the verse tie back to an idea they were working with earlier that they were calling “agency”.  In addition, he asked them to think back to their 9th grade main lesson block on Moby Dick and its famous opening line “Call me Ishmael”.  How does Emerson, Moby Dick, and the morning verse help us understand the concept of agency and the individual?  He asked the question, but didn’t answer it!

Then we did the verse and, still standing, he asked the students to recite an Emerson poem that they had been working on memorizing which dealt with some of the same issues of individuality and infinity.  One of the students described how it sounded to him like “weak Buddhism” – the idea of infinity from the east, grounded in a “paranoid fearfulness of infinity” (me paraphrasing the student) from the west.  Mr. Balmer asked him to find textual evidence supporting that position for the next class.  We continued to discuss the idea of agency in the texts.  Mr. Balmer brought up Parsival,  a text they had discussed last year, and the idea of giving up individuality to achieve individual goals (I think – by this point I was feeling incredibly poorly read!)

After the poem everyone sat down and we got to the main work of this lesson: understanding the biography of Margaret Fuller – the last Transcendentalist author the students would be exploring.  Going through her bio, Mr. Balmer was constantly drawing connections both to Emerson and Thoreau, but also to Goethe and Waldorf education.  Moreover, he worked hard to make the students aware of the historical epoch in which she was working and the difficulties for a woman working in that era.  When the students learned of Fuller’s death and subsequent marginalizing at the hands of many of the male Transcendentalists whom they had been reverently reading earlier, the class prickled with outrage.  Upon learning that Hawthorne had disregarded her import after her death one of the students remarked “and he wrote the Scarlet Letter!” shocked that the author of such a pro-woman piece of fiction could be so misogynistic in his actual life.

I’m sure I’m leaving out much of what happened in this class – it was two hours and, as I said, I had forgot to bring a pencil to take notes!  I felt a little like I was back in grad school – sitting with other students who had read more and understood more than I did.  Mr. Balmer was clearly moved by the politics and thoughts of the Transcendentalist, but consciously kept questioning their motives and their lives to give a fuller picture of who they were and where their ideas came from.  The students sat attentively throughout the two hour class – taking in what their teacher brought and occasionally interjecting with trenchant comments or questions for clarification.

I left the class feeling even more unprepared then I did when I got there!  I am planning on reading Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” and Fuller’s “The Great Lawsuit – Man vs Men. Woman vs Women” over the break so I can begin to “catch up” to the High School students at the school!