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The joy in learning


“So what makes me think I could start clean slated / The hardest to learn was the least complicated.” Those lyrics from Indigo Girls’ song “Least Complicated” served as an anthem for my 17-year old reality. It was 1996 and I was a high school senior studying William Shakespeare’s tragic play Hamlet in Mrs. Riley’s English class. In short, I was a teenager grappling with the frequent shifts in relationships, friendships and life.

In class, we went through the play line-by-line, deciphering the hidden meanings of each character’s intent. Mrs. Riley helped us understand the role of Ophelia, particularly how she has become a symbol of angst in many popular and cultural references throughout time. As a class we studied Ophelia’s passive demise and how she essentially neglects to save herself from sinking. Mrs. Riley also paired quotes depicting Ophelia’s plight with famous paintings and music, even the Indigo Girls. Swamp Ophelia (1994) is the fifth studio album by the band.

How did Mrs. Riley know what I was listening to or what I was experiencing at that time? “Perhaps she too listened to the Indigo Girls and enjoyed studying Ophelia,” one of my co-workers recently offered.


As an adult working for Tanenbaum, an organization that promotes respect for difference and helps educators foster inclusive learning environments, the memory of Mrs. Riley’s English class continues to provide relevance.  Tanenbaum’s intensive educator course, Cultivating Global Citizenship, is designed to help educators prepare students to live in the 21st century and become global citizens. Educators are given tools to examine theories of multicultural education, practice differentiated instruction, integrate skills-based curricula and develop creative ways to establish inclusive learning environments.

As part of the Cultivating Global Citizenship final project, teachers create lessons that translate theoretical questions into practical measures that they will implement in their classrooms.  On Saturday December 7th, the Fall 2012 Cultivating Global Citizenship participants presented their final lessons. From a character development lesson examining the role of one’s own religion through the lens of The Crucible, to a global exploration of water usage, each teacher displayed great creativity and insight when considering how to bring the learning back to their schools.

During this final session of Cultivating Global Citizenship, we reviewed Paulo Freire’s “Letter to North-American Teachers,” which discusses the complex nature of the responsibility in teaching. In his letter, Freire states, “The act of studying, learning, knowing is difficult and above all demanding. But, it is necessary for learners to discover and feel the inherent joy that is always ready to take hold of those who give themselves to the process of learning.” This “joy” that Freire mentions is possible for both the teacher and student.

In a time where schools are pressured by test scores, standards and numerous other demands, finding the “joy” in learning could seem daunting. Yes, educators have to teach students to pass their exams and yes, teachers do have to be responsible for nurturing the “joy” of knowledge.  The Cultivating Global Citizenship course provides a roadmap for nurturing this “joy.”  Through a study of Tanenbaum’s Seven Principles for Inclusive Education, educators learn to foster individual relevancy for their students.

The character of Ophelia, her fragile self-image and lack of confidence spoke to my 17-year old self and the music I was listening to at that time.  Today, she still serves as a reminder to remain strong and aware of one’s choices in life’s most challenging circumstances. But, I think that even more so, the character of Ophelia spoke to Mrs. Riley. When I thought about what my co-worker said – “Perhaps she too listened to the Indigo Girls and enjoyed studying Ophelia” – I recalled that Mrs. Riley had inscribed in her wedding band “The Power of Two,” another song from Swamp Ophelia. Looking back I realize that both Mrs. Riley and I were equally engaged in studying the character of Ophelia. We both found joy in the process of learning.

Marcie Denberg-Serra, Associate
Education Program

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