What we are really saying

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My classroom. North Portland. September 2016.

This week, I will meet five new sets of students. It’s my seventh year as a full-time high school math teacher.

Today is our second day and the second day that I’m not doing any mathematics in the classroom.

I’m hoping to beat last year’s record of six days of instruction without math.

It teaches, I hope, that there are things more important than absolute value bars.

And it helps me learn about my students and for them to learn about what I expect.

Students arrive, and most stop at the small desk near the classroom door to pick up an origami-esque worksheet I have stacked there.

I told them yesterday that there would always be a piece of paper for them to take on their way in.

I am able to thank about half of the paper takers by name thanks to a head crammed with mnemonics. Those whose names I don’t remember, I thank as well. I just don’t use their names.

I’ll know most names by Friday because, again, my actions are more important than my words.

There is an educational aphorism I adhere to: “They don’t care what you know unless they know that you care.”

A boy wearing a hoodie, sitting in the front, forgot to grab a paper. He shouts over to a gal just arriving, “Yo, Lucida, grab me one.”

I feel eyes on me, gauging my lack of reaction.

Wearing a hoodie is against the dress code. Shouting, questionable classroom behavior. But, I figure, he is on task and ignore it.

After taking attendance and leading a prayer (it’s a Catholic school), I encourage the group to help each other as we spend ten minutes folding the paper into a box according to my step-by-step instructions.

“The skill we are working on,” I explain, “is transmuting my instructions into task completion.”

Hoodie-boy interjects and gets a laugh, “And, in English, Mr. Rabbi?”

“In English. I want to see, without the distraction of absolute value bars or any math, how well the class follows instructions. And how well you help each other. And, you, my hooded friend, have just earned the first sticker of the day.”

I walk over and hand him a small smiley-face sticker which he puts on the top of his origami creation, smiling, looking around the room. 

“I’m a little warm,” he says, as he removes his hoodie.

They might be in high school, but they aren’t beyond the human desire to please and be seen for doing well.

The rest of the week is filled with teachings about the stages of learning, Aristotle on anger, Plato on paradigm shifts, making zines out of paper, and logic puzzles to help them see their natural reactions to frustration.

No math.

On Friday, students find a gigantic stack of thick Algebra 2 books to take on their way in.

I purposely do not give them out at first because the books are intimidating.

The full-color, 956-page, 5.7-pound book sends a message that Algebra 2 is massive, heavy, burdensome.

The opposite of what I know and want them to believe.

I want them to see that what we are setting out to do is digestible, approachable, reasonable, intuitive.

I drop a book to the floor, making a terrific sound.

“These books are heavy, good for killing cockroaches. But, don’t let it scare you. I got you. We got this.”

***

Studies suggest that somewhere between 70 and 90 percent of communication is non-verbal.

Anyone who has misunderstood text messages knows this.

Anyone who has been on hold and told how important their call is knows this.

What we say is important. And how we say it is equally, if not more, important.

Attributed to St. Francis: “Preach the gospel often. Use words only when necessary.”

Actions teach more than words. 

***

I think about the non-verbal teachings of organized religion. 

  • Are the truest words of what God wants to be found in a language foreign and in a book thousands of years older than the radio?
  • Do petitions to the universe work better if there is a group of people all saying the same words?
  • Is there something inherent about older white men that make them the best interpreters of God’s will?

Are these things true?

I don’t think so.

***

Dear reader, 

I would like to ask you to help.

What other non-verbal teaching of organized religion do you find spurious? 

Best answers will be rewarded with stickers.

Rabbi Brian Zachary Mayer resides in Portland, Oregon. He is the founder and head of Religion-Outside-The-Box oldrotb.wpengine.com, an internet-based, global group of 3.3K+ digital-age seekers. ROTB produces excellent spiritual content.

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