Teacher Shares Work of Woodward Students with the Dalai Lama

Faculty member Jennifer Knox presented her work with students at Woodward Academy to the Dalai Lama. A core member of the Social, Emotional, and Ethical (SEE) Learning team at Emory University’s Center for Contemplative Science and Compassion-Based Ethics, Jennifer teaches a SEE Learning elective in the Upper School and leads academy-wide efforts to implement the framework.

Jennifer shared her experience and more details about SEE Learning at Woodward with Beyond the Gate:

Beyond the Gate: First, tell us about the setting for your meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Jennifer: I was part of the Mind and Life Institute’s 2018 Dialogue, held at the private residence of the 14th Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, March 12-16, 2018. The dialogue, called “Reimagining Human Flourishing,” focused on the thoughtful exploration of secular ethics and innovation in the education of the hearts of youth in K-12 settings. For five days, the Dalai Lama engaged in dialogue with the 17 members of our group, which includes scientists, education researchers, and education practitioners. The dialogue provided an opportunity for these interconnected fields to consider how compassion-based ethics can be more fully integrated into existing Social Emotional Learning frameworks to better optimize human flourishing. Of the programs presented, Emory University’s Social, Emotional and Ethical Learning (SEE Learning) Framework, which was developed at Emory University’s Center for Contemplative Science and Compassion Based Ethics, is uniquely aligned with the Dalai Lama’s writings on secular ethics from its origin.

BG: This opportunity must have been very exciting for you on many levels. Describe the experience for us.

Jennifer: Stepping into the main temple adjacent to the Dalai Lama’s residence for the first time in 19 years, not as a traveller but as a faculty member for the Mind & Life Dialogue, alongside individuals I admire deeply, was both humbling and overwhelming. I was honored to serve as a conduit to share the work of countless individuals who contributed to the creation of the SEE Learning Framework and Curricula. As a practitioner, I also was given the responsibility of sharing what the application of this program looks like at the granular level. Until the moment I entered the temple, I felt unsettled. But, even as I felt the weight of responsibility, I simultaneously felt the support of the countless individuals who are devoted to this work of educating the heart. Viewing my conversation with the Dalai Lama as a gift, my nerves disappeared. I had the opportunity to make visible the work of my Woodward Academy students who engaged in making meaning out of ethical concepts that His Holiness promotes for human flourishing. These Woodward Upper School students,,who live across oceans and whom he may never meet, have been engaging topics such as self-compassion, interdependence, and common humanity by reflecting and analyzing their personal experiences using common sense and scientific perspectives. I was able to bring these teenage student voices into the dialogue to share their work, which was catalyzed by His Holiness’s writings in “Ethics for the New Millennium” and “Beyond Religion.”

BG: Tell us more about your work with Woodward students.

Jennifer: I’ve seen positive shifts in the lives of my students when I walk alongside and assist them as they investigate their inner landscapes, self-identities, and biases and cultivate discernment rooted in their personal values. As we navigate the curriculum, we collectively move through three levels of understanding—from received knowledge to critical insight to the embodied level— by scaffolding learning, practicing skills, and reflecting in our journals. The shifts in thinking, attitudes, and habits allow students to be more self-compassionate, content, and less reactionary in a time when anxiety is on the rise in our youth. Their stories indicate meaningful application and authentic transformation. For example, one student commented on how the course helped him become a better, more open person, while another shared that her deep investigation of how emotions are made inspired her to navigate life with resolve. Through engaging with this work, the class members offered up spontaneous acts of kindness and revealed their challenges openly and vulnerably to one another, with trust. Their stories show that explicit investigation of compassion can have very real effects in the lives of students. In sharing their stories with the Dalai Lama during my 30-minute dialogue with him, my hope is that our students’ viewpoints revealed the ability of SEE Learning to bring about decision-making rooted in compassion and to transform one’s life, relationships, and the lives of others.

For an example of Jennifer's ideas at work, here's a brief excert from a write-up by one of her students, Ella Shutze, who helped put together a unique project for our Experience the Arts Day earlier this month:

"In order to open people’s minds (and eyes) to the art of understanding, the pioneer class of Ethical Dilemmas and Decision Making conducted many interactive activities throughout Experience the Arts Day, including an Empathy Walk, an engaging experience which leaves you to ponder why we withhold empathy, a Mind Jar, demonstrating how emotions in the mind work,  and some spontaneous social experiments.

The Empathy Walk, led by Ashani Sharma ’19, Lance Borders ’19, and me, was an activity demonstrating the empathy we have for strangers compared to that for our loved ones. In order for this to work efficiently, the participants were told that they could disengage at any time, that this was a safe place to speak their opinion, and that there was no wrong or right opinion. We then taught participants the difference between empathy (being able to understand another’s feelings as if they were you own) and sympathy (pitying someone). Once the bases were set, the participants were told to imagine themselves standing in the post office line when a flustered stranger comes in and cuts the line. With this in mind, they then physically positioned themselves on a scale of little empathy to a lot of empathy. The majority were on the side of little empathy, saying that they knew nothing about the person and that he or she should wait in the line like everyone else. The group was then told that this person who cut the line could not speak English and had to turn in his or her DACA papers that day or else they would have to leave the country. As expected, most who had little empathy moved closer to that of a lot of empathy. However, some were still hesitant, wondering why this person waited so long to turn their papers in, so they did not move. Then the participants were asked to start clean with a new prompt: a family member or dear friend looking flustered cuts in line at the post-office. With this prompt, some were all the way on the side of a lot of empathy and others were on that of little empathy. Those with a lot of empathy claimed that because they knew the person who cut in line, they were able to have more empathy for them versus a complete stranger. On the other hand, those who claimed little empathy said that because they knew the person, they were harder on them. We then asked participants to ponder why we so often hold back empathy from strangers and so freely give it to our family. If we would want others to feel empathy towards us, then shouldn’t we do the same?

Ethical Dilemmas has broadened my mind in a way that no academic class could ever do. The people in the class are my family and we all encourage each other. There have been many times where my own classmates do not understand why I am taking a class on emotions and compassion and bias, but when they ask I just smile, because they don’t know that this has been the best experience of my freshman year."

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