By Linda Vasu, Assistant Head of School
This article originally appeared in the Greenwich Sentinel.
Walking through the hallways of an all-girls school, you might expect to hear students chatting about homework, a favorite playlist, or Halloween costumes. Recently, though, I overheard a number of elementary aged girls sharing with a teacher how faith guides them to be kind to others, to show love for classmates, family, creatures great and small, and the earth. How do young students learn this empathy? Through participating in chapel services and liturgies, service projects, and exercises in mindfulness and creative prayer. All of this takes place during school hours, in addition to their reading and writing, math and science courses. At this youngest level, teaching girls to have faith in themselves enables them to take risks and build a strong sense of community.
As they mature, students are asked to examine the intersection of faith, theology, service, public speaking, art, language, and STEM in cross-disciplinary projects. These multiple lenses and experiences instill a sense of social responsibility that extends beyond themselves.
A faith-based education is more than attending formal worship services, although this is an important aspect. Students as young as fourteen years old take philosophy courses typically taught at the college level. In their lively Harkness classes, they learn to be ethical thinkers and scholars. They practice abstract reasoning about difficult topics: The Meaning of Theology; Free Will and Morality; Faith, Knowledge and Mystery; Truth and Belief; The Problem of Evil; Wisdom and World Religions. They ask big questions. They learn that moral inquiry is not about finding answers, but about formulating questions. How do we know what is right or wrong? What is a conscience? How do we make healthy choices?
In posing and thinking about theological questions, girls become nimble thinkers, comfortable with complexity, ambiguity, and paradox. They feel wonder, curiosity, and reverence for the great mysteries of life. And they learn and practice techniques of ethics and morality, logical argument, debate, dialogue, and the skills of resilience and perseverance to power through tough problems — just like the ones they will face as women leaders in an interconnected world.
At Sacred Heart Greenwich, all students take a culminating Senior Seminar in Literature and Thought, where their studies include epistemology, issues of gender and identity, direct action and civil disobedience, and global stewardship. They wrestle with abstract theories of knowledge, knowing and being, and apply what they have learned to an extended research and service project on a global issue of concern: food waste, immigration, systemic racism, famine and drought, and experiment with solving new and novel problems that do not have rule-based solutions. Through a systematic process of deconstructing, finding key steps, recognizing patterns, and applying findings, girls learn to find solutions to open-ended problems. They learn to color outside the lines, to disrupt old ways of thinking.
A recent visit by Dr. Lisa Miller, Columbia University Professor of Psychology and Education, and author of The Spiritual Child; The New Science of Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving, affirms the value of a faith-based education, grounded in spirituality. She noted that this dimension is particularly important in an all-girls school, where the environment is relational, and builds a supportive community of sisterhood. She writes that, “Science now tells us that this spiritual faculty is inborn, fundamental to the human constitution, central in our physiology and psychology. Spirituality links brain, mind, and body. Spirituality is the transcendent experience of nourishing connection.” Dr. Miller cites statistics that reveal that spiritual practice reduces anxiety and stressors in children and adolescents.
My senior English course, Passage to Elsewhere: Home and Away, uses literary texts as the vehicle to examine the current global refugee crisis and ponder entrepreneurial solutions: refugee camp design, tiny houses, schools and hospitals for the homeless, immigration policy reform, human rights legislation. Teaching seniors, often for the second time, allows me to witness their spectacular development into women with distinct passions, authentic scholarship, expertise, and empathy.
Preparing students for an ever-changing world is a difficult task. It’s challenging for educators to know exactly which skills our students will need after they graduate from college and enter the workforce. The power of a faith-based education is the focus on the key competencies required for self-reflection, intentional decision-making, compassion-in-action, and wise freedom. This mission cultivates leadership; women who are strong and courageous; women with vision, intellect, and spirit; women who are fun to be with. Women who roll up their sleeves to build a more just and good society and, ultimately, a better world.