Who am I?
What is my place?
What does it mean to be human?
How, then, shall I live?
NMH’s youngest students ponder age-old questions and search for meaning in a messy, complicated world.
by Emily Harrison Weir
It’s day one of Humanities I, and religious studies and philosophy teacher Lori Veilleux is ready for class. She has arranged the tables in a big square with a blank journal at every place, like plates at a banquet. As her ninth-grade students file in, she greets them and tries to put them at ease. Many take their seats silently; a few high-five or hug one another. Cell phones get parked in a wooden bowl so everyone can concentrate. In three nearby classrooms, Veilleux’s fellow humanities teachers are doing much the same with their new students.
Half English class, half religious studies and philosophy, “Hum I,” as it’s known (pronounced Hume), was developed and introduced at NMH 25 years ago. Today, it’s a required course for ninth graders and is as fundamental to the curriculum as physics and algebra. It asks students to contemplate some of the biggest questions human beings can ponder: “Who am I?” “What is my place?” “What does it mean to be human?” and “How, then, shall I live?” The goal is to launch NMH’s youngest students on a voyage that begins with these essential questions and ends with young adults who’ve internalized the school’s mission to act with humanity and purpose.
That’s a tall order for 14- and 15-year-olds, but in an often inhumane world, teaching the humanities — and fostering humanity — couldn’t be more necessary. The lessons of Hum I can stick with students long after they leave the classroom. Lars Andrews ’19 says his Hum I experience “remains the most valuable of my NMH career.”
“In many ways, the core questions still guide my practice as a teacher, a person of faith, and a human being,” says Lewis Maday-Travis ’07, now a middle-school science and health teacher in Seattle. “Sometimes they pop into my head as I get ready for work, take a walk, or journal the way I learned to do in that class.”
Maday-Travis vividly recalls his first day of Hum I. “All four teachers brought us together in a classroom, turned off the lights, and recited Mary Oliver’s poem ‘The Buddha’s Last Instruction.’ It starts: ‘Make of yourself a light’/said the Buddha/before he died.’ They set the stage for holding the classroom as sacred ground for exploring literature, poetry, religion, and our own stories.”
But on day one, as ninth graders, the students don’t know they’re likely to remember this course for years. When Veilleux predicts, “You’ll make friends you’ll never forget” in her classoom, one student half stifles a smirk.
Yet dozens of NMH senior orations and valedictory speeches reference Hum I’s four essential questions. As religious studies and philosophy teacher Pete Masteller notes, “The framework that Hum I provides for making sense of the world is something people return to when they need to make sense of their world again.”
Hum I does not make
students more humane.
It gives them tools
to calibrate their
moral compass and
shift their outlook.
The Hum I program is built and taught collaboratively by English and religious studies and philosophy faculty. Their cohesive curriculum helps students find connections among academic disciplines, between texts and their own lives, and between their own beliefs and others’. “Exposing students to interdisciplinary concepts from a young age serves them well in critical-thinking development and in being citizens of the world,” says English teacher Rachael Abernethy. “Ninth graders especially need help holding up big ideas and looking at them from different angles.”
Collaboration among students is another concept baked into Hum I, fostered by small-group work, peer editing, and student-centered discussions. English teacher Jane Mellow was explicit about this as she primed the class for a deep dive into Terry Tempest Williams’ essay, “The Architecture of a Soul.” “You’re going to learn from each other,” Mellow said, “and hear about connections that are different from your own.” Students wrote about and discussed what connected Williams’ words to their personal experiences — solitude, hobbies, the “voice of the sea,” a beloved grandmother — a variety of ideas, just as Mellow expected. Veilleux underscores the point, encouraging students to “think of yourself as a text of the course, a text you share with each other.”
“Drawing from their own experience brings students into the conversation,” explains Masteller. “This is the first time many of them have had discussions of this type with one another. Ninth graders come to NMH from different types of schools, but they are all young adults trying to figure out who they are.”
“We want students to live with humanity and purpose, but that doesn’t happen by accident,” he adds. “It needs to be taught, modeled, and cultivated. To do that, people need to talk about big questions, with big thinkers.” Like Kierkegaard, Zora Neale Hurston, Confucius, Pablo Neruda, Walt Whitman, Jean-Paul Sartre — even Harry Potter.
Some ideas they encounter may be unfamiliar — existentialism, traditional Yoruba beliefs about fate, or the Tao Te Ching, for example — but the idea of Hum I is for students “to be comfortable in the discomfort of not knowing the answers immediately,” says Abernethy.
Whether dissecting an essay or considering differences in religious practices, teachers guide students with questions: “How does this new information connect with what you already know? How does it extend your knowledge? What challenges you or makes you wonder?” In one class session, students read about the teaching style of Zen masters, and Tristan Keyser-Parker ’22 noted that “Zen masters make students come up with the answers on their own.” Exactly.
This approach works, judging from comments by students who have completed Hum I. “The transformation and enhanced maturity in students [after Hum I] is due to the intensity and depth of the course,” says Hadyn Phillips ’21. “The essential questions, daily discussions, and building of relationships among peers and faculty change people for the better. Hum I is not easy, but those who work hard gain a lot in a semester.”
Blue Smith ’21 says, “Instead of just learning what the texts were supposed to mean, we studied what they mean for ourselves, and how we could bring that knowledge to our small part of the world.”
Besides contemplating big ideas,
students are also building transferable skills. How to take effective notes, when to speak in class, and when to make room for another’s comments. How to “download” rough ideas from their minds into a notebook. How to annotate. More broadly, how to think for themselves, discover and have confidence in their own convictions and beliefs, and how to express ideas with power and style.
Poetry is one tool Hum I teachers use to help students develop these skills. Each Friday, every class member recites a poem from memory. “It’s intimidating, but they bond by cheering each other on,” says Meg Donnelly, who’s taught Hum I since the program’s founding.
Students notice that
the world they’ve
inherited from adults
is badly flawed, and we
encourage them to think
about the role they
can play in fixing the
One poem that comes up early in the semester is NMH’s school song, “Jerusalem,” by William Blake. In fact, the poem forms a critical link between the “know thyself” emphasis of Hum I, and the 10th-grade Hum II curriculum, which directs students’ attention outward to the world.
“Students notice that the world they’ve inherited from adults is badly flawed, and we encourage them to think about the role they can play in fixing the brokenness,” says Masteller. “We ask them to find a ‘satanic mill’ — to quote ‘Jerusalem’ — that needs dismantling, and to address the harm, to become aware of and take responsibility for the way they live on a day-to-day, minute-to-minute basis.”
“You teach people how to be humane by asking the right questions,” says Abernethy. “First, figure out what you need to become a better person and to become closer to the person next to you. Do those things; then realize that what you’ve done isn’t enough. It all comes down to being compassionate and curious. If we can teach those things in the classroom, that’s a good first step.”
“Hum I does not make students more humane,” says Lars Andrews ’19. “Rather, it gives students the tools to calibrate their moral compass. With a firm foundation in religious and literary thought, students are then able to shift their outlook. I like to think of Hum I as a vessel to make students kinder, more compassionate, and more globally conscious, but the student must be an active participant.”
In doing so, they can learn to “tolerate ambiguity and recognize that there is often no simple answer” to difficult questions, according to Kevin Wang ’13. “It’s enormously beneficial for members of an increasingly polarized society to consider: ‘Why do I think this way?’ ‘What if the person I disagree with is right?’ and finally, ‘What should we do?’”
These questions “may sound vague and elusive to ninth graders, but by addressing them at a young age, students can start to explore their identity,” says Chris Zhao ’20. Donnelly adds, “Students learn how to pay attention not only to the world around them, but also to their internal lives, and they learn that their internal lives have value.”
Perhaps Maday-Travis explains the soul of the course best: “Hum I brought the human-ness of learning to the forefront, emphasizing and celebrating why we do education at all — to become better people and more ourselves.”
This article was featured in NMH Magazine.