Dr. Steven Moore
Originally From: Prince William, Virginia
I teach because I equate students with family. I do not see the individuals coming into my class each day as students. Instead, I view them as brothers and sisters; early in the semester, I try to create a passionate family of learners. They are puzzled when they do not see me standing behind the podium waiting to take attendance on the first day of class. Instead, I walk around the classroom shaking hands and greeting each student. I try to make each one feel important. The nervousness in the room begins to melt away as some laugh and some settle comfortably into their chairs; their body language informs me that they are poised and ready for something exciting to begin. Then I pass out birthday candles. “Today, I would like for you to share your wish with us; what is your wish for this class or for your life right now?” Some share funny and creative wishes. Some share wishes of becoming a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, or an architect. Some share wishes of becoming a missionary; some share wishes of becoming a father or a mother. Some wishes are extremely thoughtful, and some are extremely moving. Once all have shared, I then recite the following lines with them from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden:
. . . To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face? We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep . . . I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life . . .
I then share my wish with them: “I wish for us to become a passionate community of learners, a close-knit family of brothers and sisters,” and then I ask, “Are you truly willing for this wish to become true?”
I am determined that my students will feel valued and will be able to comfortably share their thoughts, opinions, and insights. Unfortunately, years ago I discovered what happens when people lack a community such as this. I will never forget the time when my whole neighborhood stood silently one evening. My friend Mark, who lived around the corner, was found hanging on the bars of his swing set. Weeks before his death, some of us complained to teachers and administrators about the senseless bullying in our classrooms and on our playground; however, our complaints fell on deaf ears. Mark’s image has haunted me through the years, and whenever I walk into a brand new classroom, I remember the shadowy figure of my friend who ended his life because he felt invisible at our school. I share the story about Mark with my students, making them realize that I want to have a class where everyone is valued and appreciated; every soul around our table is welcomed. I look into their eyes and repeat several times: “. . . in this class, you have a voice!” Then throughout the opening weeks of the semester, I share with them my ultimate goal: we will read, we will savor, we will share, we will create, and we will challenge ideas in this scholarly universe. I want them to appreciate differences and to value diverse worldviews. I remind them not to worry if disagreements arise during our scholarly explorations or if there are various interpretations of a text because our classroom is a safe place. We are a family. Understanding the concept of family will enable them—as future teachers, lawyers, doctors, politicians, business leaders, artists, etc.— to tirelessly fight outside the classroom for those like my friend Mark. They will be able to transform a sometimes cold and distant world into a loving family.
“What is your teaching philosophy?” This is a question that is often posed during a job interview or at a teacher’s conference. I often reply, “It can be best described through that teacher from the movie Dead Poets Society.” However, many people scoff at my response, believing that the movie is too shallow to effectively embrace the ideal art of effective teaching.
I simply disagree.
In some instances, art beautifully and powerfully captures real life. The movie is actually based upon the teaching life of Sam Pickering, a professor who teaches English at the University of Connecticut; he is an inspirational teacher who carries his passion and his love for literature into a classroom of unmotivated students, and Tom Schulman, the screenplay writer of Dead Poets Society, captures this teacher’s uncanny ability. The English professor is a modern-day transcendentalist, and it is only fitting for him to quote Henry David Thoreau. When one considers the pandemonium of the world today, especially the insane amount of whimsical distractions on this merry-go-round called life, it is imperative that professors find ways of attracting this generation of students into our arena of higher learning.
I strongly believe that my teaching philosophy is one that effectively reaches this generation of students; basically, my teaching philosophy is trifold. First of all, similar to Mr. Keating’s teaching philosophy in Dead Poets Society, I strive to create a passionate community of learners, a vibrant environment where each member is valued and treated like family as we eagerly savor life and literature around the table of life. Secondly, I strive to create opportunities where diverse ideas are welcomed and challenged, preparing them to utilize critical thinking skills in their current lives and in their future careers; when they learn how to analyze complex ideas, they become problem solvers, visionaries, and dreamers for our challenging world. Finally and most importantly, I strive for us to enthusiastically embrace the example of Christ, to use our words, our deeds, and our lives to fervently fight for those who are being oppressed in the midst of this culture that loves worshipping self-promotion, greed, and wealth. I love the ending of the movie Dead Poets Society because it beautifully captures what the students have ultimately learned after studying at the feet of Mr. Keating. During the final scene, some of the students are standing upon their desks in an act of defiance against injustice.
On the first day of class, I immediately try to create a passionate community of learners; hence, I am incorporating my teaching philosophy. The students are puzzled when they do not see me standing behind the podium waiting to take attendance for the first time. Instead, I walk around the classroom shaking hands and greeting each student. I try to make each one feel important. The nervousness of the room begins to melt away as some laugh and some settle more into their chairs; their body language informs me that they are poised and ready for something exciting to begin. Then I will pass out birthday candles. “Today, I would like for you to share your wish to us; what is your wish for this class or for your life right now?” Some share funny and creative wishes with me. Some will share wishes of becoming a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, or an architect. Some will share wishes of becoming a missionary; some share wishes of becoming a father or a mother. Some wishes are extremely thoughtful, and some are extremely moving. Once all have shared, I share my wish with them. My wish is for my students and I to become a passionate community of learners, a close-knit family of brothers and sisters. And then from memory, I recite to them my favorite scene from Dead Poets Society:
We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering . . . . These are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life, but poetry, beauty, romance, love. These are what we stay alive for.
To quote from Whitman:
O ME, O LIFE
OF THE QUESTIONS OF THESE RECURRING
OF THE ENDLESS TRAINS OF THE FAITHLESS
OF CITIES FILLED WITH THE FOOLISH
WHAT GOOD AMID THESE
O ME, O LIFE?
The answer—That you are here . . . that life exists, an identity. That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?
After reciting this scene to them, many of them are applauding. I stress to them the importance of sharing their verses on this stage called life; I remind them that God created each one of us for a spiritual purpose. I tell them that in my class they have a verse to share with each other, that they have a voice in this family; we are brothers and sisters on this grand journey, learning and growing together. I want them to come into my class with great passion and with great wonderment. I conclude our time together in prayer and with a blessing, reminding them that I am wishing and praying for God to bless us with a passionate community of learners.
In her book Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks discusses how there are so many professors who are passionless about the classes they teach. Many of them have forgotten why they fell in love with teaching and with their field of study: “It surprised and shocked me to sit in classes where professors were not excited about teaching . . . the classroom became a place I hated . . . . The University and the classroom began to feel more like a prison, a place of punishment and confinement rather than a place of promise and possibility” (4). Each day that I teach, I fight to make sure that my students are not seeing my class as a “prison” or as “a place of punishment and confinement.” Many students, especially undergraduates, view freshman composition or sophomore literature as a “prison sentence.” Through the years, I have heard them ask: “Why do I have to take this English class?”; “Why is this course required?”; “What does this class have to do with my major?” They are passionless about many of the general education classes we teach.
But it does not have to be this way.
When I was in college, I, too, experienced professors who were passionless about teaching, and I think many of them became that way because their students walked into their classes with passionless for the discipline being taught. So I fight. I fight passionately for them to demolish the gross misconceptions that they have about English, writing, literature, or about university life, and I fight to inspire them to embrace a beautiful, a nobler meaning for my class and for education. I read to them from the syllabus, several times through, my goal for them to have a sincere passion in my classroom: “Active participation is required in this class. Each student must have active participation. Allow your mind to truly soar in this class—answer questions, ask questions, talk about your discoveries, and share your insights about the literature; become passionate and filled with sincere joy for the literature while you are in this class. Your participation is a crucial component to the learning process; we learn and grow when all members are contributing around the table of life.”
I make a contract with them. I tell them that if they are passionate about my course in every way, I, too, will do the same. I express to them that this passion—this desire, this hunger, this thirst for literature and writing is possible. I promise them that with all of us passionately working together, we will experience a class beyond measure. We will truly become a community, a family that experiences true excitement for learning. bell hooks affirms this same desire as she writes:
As a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence. Since the vast majority of students learn through conservative, traditional educational practices and concern themselves only with the presence of the professor, any radical pedagogy must insist that everyone’s presence is acknowledged. That insistence cannot be simply stated. It has to be demonstrated through pedagogical practices. To begin, the professor must genuinely value everyone’s presence. There must be an ongoing recognition that everyone influences the classroom dynamic, that everyone contributes. These contributions are resources. Used constructively they enhance the capacity of any class to create an open learning community. . . . It is rare that any professor, no matter how eloquent a lecturer, can generate through his or her actions enough excitement to create an exciting classroom. Excitement is generated through collective effort. (8)
I will never forget the time when my whole neighborhood stood silently one evening. We all stood around without a saying word; we just watched. My friend from around the corner, Mark, was found hanging on the bars of his swing set. Weeks before his death, some of us kept complaining to teachers and administrators about the senseless bullying in our classrooms and on our playground; our complaints fell upon deaf ears. This image has stayed with me through the years. Whenever I walk into a brand new classroom, I remember the shadowy figure of my friend who ended his life because he felt invisible at our school. I share the story about Mark with my students, making them realize that I want a class where everyone is valued and appreciated; every soul around our table is welcomed. I look into their eyes and repeat several times: “. . . in this class, you have a voice!” Then throughout the opening weeks of the semester, I share with them the ultimate purpose of the university life: we read, we savor, we share, we create, and we challenge ideas in this scholarly universe. I get them to appreciate differences and to value diverse worldviews. I remind them not to worry if disagreements arise during our scholarly explorations or if they do not interpret a work of literature the way I see it. We do not avoid conflict in my class; in fact, I will even play the “devil’s advocate” so that they will consider different sides of an issue. When I do this, I think we learn how to graciously critique each other, how to graciously offer the solid evidence when disagreements arise, and how to graciously leave our hearts and minds open for change.
Overall, I stress that domination or oppression is not acceptable in my classroom. Once again, I would like to invite bell hooks into this discussion; she illuminates in her writings how universities tragically teach students to perpetuate countless acts of domination inside and outside of the classroom; in many academic settings, I have witnessed how one worldview or perspective dominates and oppresses others. I believe that it is imperative for each student to have equality in my class. No one rules over the other. I try to create a place where love and diversity is the order of the day so that every student, even those who may be like my friend Mark, feel warmly welcomed instead of ignored, and I encourage students that what is practiced in my classroom should be practiced outside of the classroom. We must continue to fight for all people who are being oppressed and mistreated:
We cannot be easily discouraged. We cannot despair when there is conflict. Our solidarity must be affirmed by shared belief in a spirit of intellectual openness that celebrates diversity, welcomes dissent, and rejoices in collective dedication to truth. . . . All of us in the academy and in the culture as a whole are called to renew our minds if we are to transform educational institutions—and society—so that the way we live, teach, and work can reflect our joy in cultural diversity, our passion for justice, and our love of freedom. (33-34)
Michael hiked into our classroom with a heavy heart upon his aching shoulders. He sat in the back of the classroom, quietly staring out the window. His disposition revealed that something was wrong. When I asked for prayers that day in class, he raised his hand and explained, with a few tears streaking down his face, that his sister died while fighting in Iraq the previous week. We all knew that he was always thinking of her because he would always ask for prayers on her behalf during prayer time in class. He further explained that his family was going through extreme financial difficulties. His family always had problems paying the bills and providing food since there were many of them; he was one of eleven children. Members in our class got up, one by one, and surrounded him after he announced his request to us. We laid hands on him. Someone volunteered to lead a prayer for Michael and his family.
Before I could announce the next homework assignment, I witnessed something truly miraculous. A student pulled out his hat and passed it around. Many of them began placing money into the cap. Bills were overflowing in our makeshift collection plate. Throughout the semester, we kept exploring literature from those outside the margins of society, those who were poor, those who were mistreated, and those who were ignored. I think they remembered our discussions of Christ calling us to a radical ministry. That day in class I walked away convicted. I walked away thinking and believing that my class learned the most important lesson that day. They were putting their learning into action.
What I enjoy most about teaching at Abilene Christian University is the phenomenal and incredible opportunity of integrating faith and learning in our classrooms; this is what truly makes us a distinctive and an unparalleled university. This is a major reason why I came to work here. I love challenging my students to think critically on a multitude of levels. I love walking into the classroom asking them to critique a poem through the eyes of a Marxist critic. I love challenging them to reconsider the interpretation of a short story through a feminist perspective. I love challenging my students to flip the novel upside down or to spin it around in another direction, revealing a new way of viewing the literary work. While utilizing these critical perspectives and many more, we become scholars who are passionate about asking questions and investigating issues. We are people who love education.
And then I love walking into room with another task for them, inviting them to consider a spiritual reading of a text. I enjoy asking these questions and many more in order to get them to dissect the literature with a different set of tools in our literary lab: “How would a Christian scholar interpret this text? What would a Christian scholar take into consideration? How should a Christian scholar approach some of these social issues lurking along the margins of the text?” We have exciting and deep conversations whenever we travel into the spiritual arena in my class.
In order to bring all of our spiritual interludes throughout the semester into full fruition, I have students participate in a special “Secret Brother and Sister Day.” Near the end of the semester, I pass around a bowl with names on slips of paper. Each student is instructed to draw a name. Once the last student draws, I explain that they must purchase an inexpensive yet meaningful gift for their secret brother or sister. Then they have to purchase a card and write an encouraging note and a blessing. On the day of our special event, students come to class with wrapped gifts; it is almost like Christmas time, and there is wonderful excitement in the air. Like eager children, they are opening the gifts and exchanging hugs; the air is filled with laughter, and dozens of “thank you” messages are ringing throughout the classroom.
Then I share with them the core message of our university. I share with them the charge for all us to live as radical Christians in this world, giving surprise gifts and blessings to people they do not know or to people who are hurting. “Imagine working for a company where you have the opportunity of giving gifts to those who have no hope for a better tomorrow,” I say. “Imagine giving gifts to the poor and the sick. Imagine living your life as a radical gift for Jesus.”
What I love about teaching at ACU is that I find colleagues and professors who truly love their students. We love our students so much that we are not only trying to bring a passionate love for them into our classrooms but we are meeting them in their residence halls and in coffee houses, we are inviting them into our homes, and we are sharing meals with them at a restaurant; it is a type of love that tells them that we will never stop loving them even after they walk across that stage to receive their diplomas. I am still in contact with many of my students who are public school teachers, college professors, lawyers, doctors, missionaries, business leaders, and many other professionals. They call or meet with me to talk about challenges or problems in their personal lives and careers; they call or meet in person to pray. I do not see them as “students” but as my brothers and sisters who are trying to deeply love in this world.
When we merge faith and learning in our classrooms, we have a love that challenges our students to radically love just like Christ; it is a radical love that moves us to passionately seek justice for those near and far in bondage; it is a radical love that motives us to demolish walls and barriers that prevent us from being in rich community with all people. bell hooks beautifully captures what I strive to do each day in and outside of the classroom:
While I approach every teaching experience with a great spirit of love, a relationship of love often flourishes between a particular student and myself, and that abides through time. Students I love most intimately never seem to leave my life. As they grow and become teachers or enter professions, they still call on me to teach, guide, and direct them. That our teaching relationship formed and shaped by love extends beyond our time in the classroom is an affirmation of love’s power. When I asked one of my students, now a law professor, if my love of her created a climate of favoritism in the classroom, she laughed stating: “Are you kidding? The more you loved us, the harder we had to work.” There can be no love without justice. Love in the classroom prepares teachers and students to open our minds and hearts. It is the foundation on which every learning community can be created. Teachers need not fear that practicing love in the classroom will lead to favoritism. Love will always move us away from domination in all its forms. Love will always challenge and change us. That is the heart of the matter. (136-137)