A Lesson In Wonder

On a Tuesday afternoon three weeks ago, I walked into a classroom full of rowdy sixth graders. ‘I’m Mr. Tomassi, and we’re going to be studying Life Science,’ I told them. For the fourth time that day, I nearly introduced myself as ‘Patrick.’ It was my first day on that side of the classroom. I studied engineering in college, and never student-taught, and I was hired only a week before classes started. I spent that week scrambling to prepare lessons, pick the brains of former professors, read about teaching, and go over the curriculum. Sunday morning I sat in a coffee shop and read the faculty manual.

I am a very new teacher, so I will do my best not to embarrass myself by waxing eloquent on the joys and challenges of teaching. Instead, I want to share how teaching has affected me.

After covering procedures, classroom deportment, homework, and the other really fun first-day-of-school topics, I told them about an experience I had over the summer.

I spent most of July and August in Spain, walking the Camino de Santiago. My friend Wil and I began our trip in Barcelona, where some family friends live. While we were there, we had the chance to visit the Sagrada Familia, a basilica that has been under construction for the better part of a hundred and fifty years. The Sagrada was designed by the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, a man deeply in love with God and nature. These loves informed each other. In the beauty of trees and mountains, Gaudí saw buildings designed by God. He strove to learn from the Great Architect, and this pursuit is nowhere more evident than in his masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia. Gaudí’s deep knowledge of the Gothic tradition of church building, his love for God and nature, and his rich personal style, are all summed up in this building. Wil and I spent our last day in the city touring the unfinished masterpiece.

After coffee and toast with the Esteban and Cecilia, we took the metro across the city. I looked around to see if I could glimpse the towers as we walked out of the underground station. It took a second to realize that everyone around me was facing the other direction. When I turned, I caught my breath — directly across the street, the towers of the Sagrada loomed over us. They spiraled upwards, the giant ‘Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus’ standing out in stone. I cannot begin to describe the view, and photos fail to do it justice. This is something you truly have to see for yourself.

The guided audio-tour of the basilica provides a great deal of helpful information with which to appreciate the Sagrada. I want to focus on one aspect: the columns. Gaudí’s love of nature allowed him to re-imagine the way that columns would hold up a building. He wanted to create a space that drew the faithful towards God, while reminding them of the ‘temple’ of nature: the forest. The result is incredible. The columns are shaped like trees, splitting into branches, some to hold up the choir loft, others the ceiling. I cannot imagine seeing this without being deeply struck by its beauty and elegance. I spent five years in engineering school, but nothing I learned caused me to wonder more deeply about math, physics, nature, engineering, and architecture than seeing this stone forest.

Translating this experience for sixth graders was a challenge. I had them draw goofy pictures of Gaudí in their notebooks. I asked them to think of ways that a love for nature could affect architecture. Then, I showed them a sketch I had made, and asked them to tell me what they saw. “Trees! A forest!” I added to the drawing on the whiteboard for those that did not get it yet. This slide faded into the next, an architectural drawing of the Sagrada Familia. The trees I had drawn were still visible in the columns.

There was a gasp from the second row. “Mr. Tomassi — show that again!” It worked! Once they got the idea, we went through some photos of the columns, which seemed to help the abstract concept become concrete in their minds.

I asked them to close their eyes and imagine what they would see if they were standing in a forest, and looked straight up. I showed them what I imagined, and they all agreed. Then I showed a photo of what you see when you look straight up in the Sagrada.

We spent the rest of class brainstorming things in the natural world that caused us to wonder. Trees, rivers, cacti, DNA, water molecules, weather patterns… on and on. There are only ten students, but we filled the entire whiteboard with ideas.

These kids may not know science yet, and they might have a hard time sitting still, but they’ve got this wonder thing down.

I began by saying that this was about how teaching has affected me. The answer is simple; I want to be more like my students. When I first heard about this teaching position, I was shocked. The job description is basically “to cultivate a sense of wonder in the students.” These words show up over and over in the school’s literature. What I did not realize then is that, in striving to nurture this curiosity in my students, my own sense of wonder has grown as well.

The other day I went for a walk in Forest Park, near where I live in Portland. At one point, I looked up at the trees, and I heard that squeaky “oh my gosh!” from the front row of life science class. Teaching is teaching me to wonder like a kid again.