Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Thu, Jul 20 1995

A chair and pizza. That's what I was thinking about as I tried to take my mind off this punishing south Georgia outdoor sauna I was plodding through this early pre-dawn morning. Sounds like a weird combination, doesn't it? Don't blame me. I didn't put the two together. One of my non-traditional students, Lilli, did it in her journal. And strange as it may seem, when she did in a one page entry it was a sobering reminder how teaching is a moral act: how teachers can be far more powerful in drawing out the best from human nature and achieve moral changes than we think we can; how we can awaken a sense of rightness for life, alter paths, deepen relationships, nurture, heal wounds, open inner doors; how we can awaken and excite students to an inner reality; how we can encourage them to act in ways that serve a sense of fairness and respect in themselves and others; how we can affect moral, ethical, social, personal, and spiritual consequences that soar far above the intellectual-bound curriculum limitations of reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic; how we can plant seeds in beds we cannot afford to let lay fallow which may well take root and change how the generations to come see and shape the world; and how, to paraphrase scripture, all this can happen in the strangest places and in the strangest ways far outside the boxing confines of the classroom.

Does all this sound too dramatic? At face value, it would to me. But now I'm not sure it is, not after I read Lilli's journal yesterday. Maybe you won't either after you've read about what Lilli wrote in her journal.

But first things first. I'm sure you're curious how the chair and pizza come into this picture. The chair first. As part of my attempt to break down those separating and isolating walls that exist among students, and to replace a sense of competition with respectful cooperation, I use an exercise in all my classes at the beginning of each term which has come to be known throughout the campus as "THE CHAIR!" Lilli is a student in our first year history class. I divide the class of 60 into twelve groups of five, each of which selects a representative. We push the desks to the wall. In the middle of the room rests a lonely chair. The instructions for this exercise are deceptively simple. "All you have to do," I tell them with a straight face, "is to sit on the chair." There are always the chuckles, snickering, and the looks: "You got to be kidding." "This is a snap." "Boy, what a an easy way to win a Tootsie Pop." Then, after a deliberately extended pause, as an impish smirk grows on my face as I continue, "BUT, you can't sit on the chair the same way someone else has sat on it." They stop snickerings and a puzzled look comes over their once smug faces. "And, after each group has taken its turn, its must select a new representative. Let the games begin!" Then, I sit back and watch them. First, they sit normally: upright and straight legged. Then they cross their legs, lift their legs, sit slouching, lean, lean back on two or one leg, sit reversed, sit upside down, use books and sweaters and purses, move the chair and sit on each of the sides and bottom and back in a variety of ways, and so on. As the game progresses, the students in each group begin to study, converse, devise, advise, listen, suggest, support, encourage, cooperate, build on each other as the number of different ways of sitting on that single chair climbs into the 30s, 50s, 60s, 90s and the demand on their creativity, imagination, innovation, and cooperation increases. A crescendo of laughter, excitement, applause, cheers, oohs and aahs grows. After all there is a lot at stake: Tootsie Pop for winners. When I finally halt the game with about fifteen minutes left in the period--usually around the 140--150 mark and throw Tootsie pops out to the entire class as I declare everyone a winner, we debrief and reflect on what had occurred. "There was a serious reason behind the fun we were having." "There are many ways to do and look at something." "Things can be different without being right or wrong." "No one way was better or worse than the other." "We needed each other." "We respected each other." "There's more to something than the common and obvious." "You can come at something from different angles." "There was team work." "We had to see beyond the obvious." "We had to be creative and imaginative." "We were impressed with each other." "Never dreamed there were so many ways to sit on a chair." Then, I leave them with a question, "Now, what's the difference between the looking at the chair, the material in this class, each other, and life out there all in the same way?"

Normally, I see this exercise as a way of helping to develop a close-knit, supportive classroom learning community of people who care deeply about each other and assume the responsibility for each other's success. This time, as Lilli showed me, there was more to it. This time this exercise had an unexpected, unforeseen and powerful impact beyond the classroom, beyond the campus, into Lilli's home, on the lives of her two pre-school children, at the kitchen dinner table, while they were eating a piece of pizza. In was indeed in the strangest place in the strangest way for a teacher to have an impact.

In her journal, Lilli described how one night last week she had ordered in pizza for her and her two children. The older one eats her pizza by first picking off the pepperoni with her fingers, eating the cheese and crust, and then eating the pepperoni heaped on the side of the plate. As usual, she admonished her younger brother who preferred to eat his pizza with all of its toppings all at once, by saying, "No, silly. You're eating it the wrong way. Don't do that. You have to...." Then, she would grab her brother's pizza, and to his dismay, pick off the pepperoni slices. Lilli wrote: "Normally, I would let this pass as I always have, thinking nothing of it, but this time all of a sudden out of the blue I thought of 'THE CHAIR.'" This is what she went on to write:

I asked my daughter why was her way of eating pizza the only right way. 'Because that's the way I do it and it tastes good to me that way.' We talked about why we ordered the pizza and my daughter said, 'Because it tastes good, and if I eat it I'll grow big and strong.' I asked her if there were different ways to eat the pizza and still have it taste good. 'I don't know," she answered. 'Let's see,' I said. We experimented. We ate a piece her way and agreed it tasted good. We ate it my son's way and she agreed it tasted good. Then, my son said we should take off the pepperoni and cheese, eat the dough and then first the cheese and finally the pepperoni. We all still liked the taste. My daughter said, 'Let's eat the crust first this time.' And, we liked it this way. I thought it would never stop. There are as many ways to eat a piece of pizza as there are to sit on a chair! Finally, I asked my daughter, 'Well what do you think? Which way tastes better.' 'Let's change the rules. He can eat his pizza any way he likes. Next time I'm going to eat my pizza in lots of different ways. It's fun.' Who would have thought of using what I do in my history class at the table to start teaching my kids about fairness, humility and respect for others. I'm not going to let this go.

Nor should she.

How wonderful and exciting! What poetry! What magic! What drama! What a crucible for hope! In a kitchen! Over a pizza! Earthshaking? Some cynics would sneer at making such a big deal over such a little event. Not me, because I don't think for a teacher to have an earthshaking effect the earth has to shake. We teachers don't have to change the entire world all at once, but if we treat our classes as a moral laboratory and social experiment, and not just as an information bank, we may find that we are able to nudge the world here and there to take, however slightly, a different direction. And though whatever awakening impact the teacher may have may not be obviously dramatic and significant, that does not mean it is any less dramatic and significant.

Have a good one.


Louis Schmier  (912-333-5947)
Department of History                      /~\    /\ /\
Valdosta State University          /^\    /   \  /  /~ \     /~\__/\
Valdosta, Georgia 31698           /   \__/     \/  /     /\ /~      \
                            /\/\-/ /^\___\______\_______/__/_______/^\
                          -_~     /  "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\
                             _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -\____

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