The Ineffable Project: Exploring Humanity Apart from Academia

At the end of my Senior year in high school, my philosophy teacher, Mr Knox, assigned us our final project. He taught us the word ‘ineffable’, meaning an experience that can’t be described in words. He asked us to craft presentations inspired by an ineffable experience from our lives.

Campfire_PineconeMy buddies and I were avid campers in high school, we went almost every weekend. Around the campfire, we made sense of the world and developed bonds akin to family. The campfire, our safe space, and in the presence of the people we loved — our home. This was the inspiration for my ineffable presentation.

In an attempt to convey this experience to my peers in class, I asked them to sit in the floor in a circle. I placed a glowing orb lit by candles in the center. We went around the circle and everyone shared something in response to a personal prompt. The ineffable presentations were deeply humanizing and connecting. I’m still in touch with some people from that Theory of Knowledge class 15 years ago, and we all fondly remember the ineffable presentations as one of the highlights of our education.

As a teacher of Seniors now, I appreciate Mr Knox’s genius so much more than I did even at 17. Not only did his assignment help a group of 18-year-olds process the weightiness of ending a significant chapter in our lives, it also allayed Senioritis and allowed us to celebrate self. Last Spring, in the spirit of Mr Knox, I collaborated with my talented colleague and we created the Ineffable Project unit for our seniors.

Through this piece, I not only hope to remind everyone inside and outside the field  of education about the creative and connective capacity of the classroom, but I also hope that some teachers will adapt this unit to use with their own students.

40 words

To begin the unit, I wanted to lay the foundation for understanding shared experience — unique, beautiful, and strange. We read “40 Words for Emotions You’ve Felt, but Couldn’t Explain” by Brianna Wiest. While reading, students identified a few words that resonated with them and we wrote and drew experiences on mini posters — one dedicated for each word — that I’d put up all over the back wall. Then, students crafted and performed poems in pairs based on one of the selected words and the words, phrases, and images generated by their peers. It was a silly, fun good time.

After, we read Jonathan Franzen’s stimulating essay “Liking is for Cowards, Go for What Hurts” alongside the poem “Never Again the Same” by James Tate. Students held a Socratic Seminar discussing the importance of each text singularly as well as common themes between them. Finally, they completed a writing task in which they stated a common theme and supported with evidence from both texts.

Throughout the next couple of weeks, I led the students through a series of team building activities for the first 20 minutes of each class. I did this to build a collective playfulness and comfort for the students, which I knew they would need to create, present, and enjoy their presentations. During this time, I also modeled ineffable presentations based on what I found personally inspiring.

© 2010 Scott
© 2010 Scott Rudd

For instance, students practiced mindfulness inspired by sand mandalas and colored giant posters in silence. They shared several moments of one on one eye contact with their peers inspired by Marina Abramović’s performance art piece “The Artist is Present.” To bring the beauty of the body into the space, they choreographed movement to poetry. We made an attempt at using our voices to create vocal harmony in the classroom with a Singing Horses exercise (unfortunately none of my classes were able to handle this very well… may you have better fortune). I also adapted a speed dating activity to use in creating an experience witInner-outer-left-hand-traffic.svgh music inspired by the scene from Garden State —the one where Zach Braff plays Natalie Portman “New Slang” by The Shins when they meet as strangers a doctor’s office. This was my favorite activity. Students brought their favorite song and headphones and we moved in an inner/outer circle while listening to ~30 seconds of each others music and writing words that came to mind when as we listened and rotated. To end the activity, we wrote and shared haikus about music from our musings.   

When it came to present their own ineffable projects, students were overwhelmingly creative and thoughtful despite their initial panic about the lack of direction I gave them… “Tell us what to think!” they all proclaimed. I ignored them.

I allowed 3 days for presentations, gave them 3-5 minutes each, assigned a written reflection, and relied on peer evaluations for assessment.  These days would be final days together and their final days as high school students. To go into great detail about their individual projects would be doing them a disservice — they were ineffable after all. I’ll just say that we played, we roared in laughter, we shed some tears, thanked our taste buds, held hands, got our sweat on… the experiences were vast. The sum of their projects brought them closer together as humans from all walks of life and helped develop their understanding of what unites us. 

This coming Spring, I will create more personal experiences to model for my students because I think their projects would have been more personal had I modeled that vulnerability. Done properly, students would have avoided googling ‘interesting experiences’ and we would have done away with some of the redundant and impersonal presentations (eg. origami, coloring, drawing). I take responsibility for these projects as they were the result of muddied expectations and my own lack of forethought about the teenage impulse to google rather than think and feel. Ah well, live and learn.

A core wisdom for myself as an educator came to me unexpectedly. Mid-unit I was trying to impress upon my more introverted, reserved class the significance of the project, attempting to inspire the internal motivation to develop something personal and thoughtful for their projects. I said something like, “academics are the furthest thing from humanity.”

One of my students with a truly old, wise soul — and an alarming level  of cynicism — turned to his girlfriend and said, “I’ve been waiting 12 years to hear a teacher say that.” It felt like praise. But later that day and over the coming days I returned to this moment, grappling with the degree to which I agreed or disagreed with myself and what it meant for myself as an educator whose role is innately academic in nature.

During my mini existential crisis, I thought about an experience I had two years ago when I went on silent meditation retreat for a weekend. I was not permitted to bring anything with which to busy myself during down time: no journals, no music, no books. I was taught that those are distractions from my pure experience, from the moment. I would start quantifying and qualifying, thinking and over-thinking, and then I would be lost.   

Indeed, this is what traditional academics does. It makes 30+ people sitting in a classroom disengage from one another to engage in a task at hand — never hold space for one another or massage raw experience into our bodies, hearts, and souls. Academics does remove us from our real humanity, not in a way thats detrimental, just one that’s different. But as educators, I believe we need to allow space for both.

There are many moments as a teacher when I reflect back and think about what I would have said in response to a comment or question if given another chance. To that student who had waited 12 years for a teacher to acknowledge that to a large degree academia and humanity are averse to one another, I would have said: “It took me 30 years to realize … Let’s enjoy the teaching together.”

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