Sunday, March 4, 2012

Team Dalai Lama

How do you teach 6th graders tenacity?

In Room 309 my students learn about tenacity by reading how the 14th Dalai Lama has spent the last fifty years fighting non-violently for the freedom of his country, Tibet. They read and discuss the Five-Point Peace Plan the Dalai Lama presented to the US Congress. And then, after the discussion, I redirect their focus closer to home. I set my students in groups to devise their own peace plans – personal strategies to combat middle school bullying.

During the majority of the school day my students study a wide range of subjects. They study multiplication, they study the Roman Empire, they study the digestive system. Rarely in the state-mandated curriculum is there time to directly teach students values. Teamwork, respect, courage, pride, tenacity, leadership – values essential for success are often relegated to secondary and tertiary objectives.

But, in many ways, it is these values that my students need most to learn.

As a Citizen Schools teacher, one of my explicit obligations is to build my students’ character, not just their multiplication and division fluency. We do this by publicly recognizing and rewarding students who demonstrate our school's values. We do this by constructing lessons centered on understanding and recognizing these values in ourselves and our peers. And, we do this by choosing a famous man or woman – we call them a trailblazer – to act as a guide for what we ourselves can strive to become.

At our school there is Team Galileo, Team Bruce Lee, Team Juno Diaz, Team Eleanor Roosevelt, Team Sotomayor. In Room 309, we are known as Team Dalai Lama.

My students from East Boston might never travel halfway around the world and visit Tibet, or China, or Northern India (where the Tibetan Government in exile resides). But over the last six months I have watched how my students have come to embrace and in some cases emulate the Dalai Lama.

To teach teamwork we discussed how the Dalai Lama is himself a team player – how, he says, he has postponed reaching Nirvana himself so he can help others reach enlightenment as well. I challenge my students to do the same. “Maybe in math,” suggests one boy. “We can help each other with our flashcards even if we are already good at math.”

I divide my students into teams and set them to practicing a respectful formal debating style used by Tibetan monks. Facing each other in pairs, my students alternate arguments for and against a controversial topic (a school dress code or mandatory classes on Saturday); they listen, respond and punctuate each point with a dramatic ritual clap.

But perhaps most exciting is the initiative my students have shown in seeking out information about our trailblazer.

It can be hard for a 6th grade teacher to inspire students to pursue education outside the classroom. Apart from the general challenge of engaging eleven and twelve year olds, there are specific hurdles. Many of my students lack internet access at home. Many of my students wake up at six am to prepare for the day and with our extended learning time model of instruction; they don’t arrive home again until after 5:30 pm, at which point they still have their homework to complete.

Despite these obstacles, my students surprise me with the extent to which they have embraced our trailblazer. In our class we have constructed a 45-piece puzzle map of Tibet entitled “The Roof of the World.” For each fact a student shares with our team we get to fill in another puzzle piece. When the puzzle is complete I have promised to make Tibetan dumplings for the class.

Recently during class, one of my girls beckoned me over to her desk. “Ms. Lander, I wanted to tell you. I started following the Dalai Lama on Twitter!”

Do my students suddenly work wonderfully as a team? Or consistently respect each other? Not quite. They are only eleven and twelve.

But I like to think that the Dalai Lama has become a role model for some of my students. In the cafeteria one afternoon, a student called me over. Over the weekend she had written a poem and wanted to share it with me.

He’s thoughtful and kind with a peaceful mind.
He is My leader, a trailblazer.
He is the one, the only, Dalai Lama
He got invaded by China, but he still is a wonderful man.
Over 600 years old. I would love to meet him.
I hope I do.
Also, that he reaches Nirvana when it’s his time.
From a girl in Boston that is very kind.
I write this poem to an awesome guy.
I love his tenacity and respect;
How he chose to stay and help us reach enlightenment
And to become who we are.
Nobody else, because we are who we are


  1. It sounds like you are changing their lives and they are changing yours. I love your stories, and your writing is wonderful. Wishing you continued energy and engagement, which you have in spades. Lucky students! Best to you, Teny,

    Barbara (Mia's mom)

  2. nice idea.. thanks for sharing.