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Exploring Meaningful Living in the Classroom

Perhaps one of the most wonderful and humbling aspects of sharing A Small Good Thing with the world is the opportunity to connect with different people and to hear their individual thoughts and stories about searching for a meaningful life.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Robby McGuire, a high school English teacher at Monticello High School in Minnesota, who plans to screen A Small Good Thing for his class this March. Robby is one of those extraordinary teachers whose passion for teaching and love for his students has led him to transform what was once considered a “blow off” Media Communications class into an inspired exploration of literature and media that asks: What does it mean to live a meaningful life?


Robby kindly shared a bit about his inspiration for developing the course as well as some meaningful resources that he and his students enjoy in class. We hope his inspired words and curriculum touch others—young and old—as they embark on their own, personal journeys to live happier and more fulfilled lives.


A Reflection on Living with Meaning

By Robby McGuire

waldo.pngIn “Self Reliance,” Emerson writes this powerful sentiment that after we identify, accept, and trust ourselves, we can “advance on chaos and dark.” Reflecting on my own life, the lives of those I know, and what I observe from my students, an unfortunate chunk of our time is spent wandering around aimlessly in the midst of chaos and dark.

It’s an incredibly empowering feeling to know, firmly and confidently, what we want out of life. Research (and experience) tells us that living well is not a matter of finding fortunes. Rather, the good life is within our grasp as soon as we can recognize the elements that bring us contentment and give us purpose. Understandably, many of us don’t figure this out until well into our lives. As such, I don’t require that my students have unequivocal answers by the time they leave my classroom. Rather, my goal is that they understand the importance of exploring the question and, hopefully, they leave with a few ideas to work with. At the very least, they may be wandering around chaos and dark with a glimmer of purpose. A glimmer is enough for now, I think. Our first half of the semester-long class is spent with that goal in mind, answering the question: What does it mean for me to live well?

humanizing_technology_copy.pngThe second half of the semester explores how technology is changing our search for meaning in life. While we wander around aimlessly in this chaos and dark, it’s easy to be distracted by the shiny and glowing technologies of our time. Our smartphones are prime culprits. I think any of us who have a Netflix account can also attest to how easily we can drain away large chunks of our lives with no clear purpose. We examine these dangers alongside the wonderful benefits that technology is offering us and the ways that it is shaping life in the 21st century. My fear is that we may reach a time in which we cease to ponder the great questions of life. In that lack of reflection, we may lose ourselves.

In developing this curriculum, I wish I could say that I have a magic fountain of resources somewhere. The truth is that as I live my daily life I occasionally stumble across a text or film and the light bulb goes off. Here are some of the meaningful resources I currently use in the curriculum:


On the "living life well" side of the semester...

  • Robby_pic_3.pngWe explore some unconventional lives (Chris McCandless from Into the Wild and Poppa Neutrino from The Happiest Man in the World) and talk about the philosophy of a good life.
  • We analyze the poetry of Walt Whitman (“Song at Sunset”) and of Alfred Tennyson (“Ulysses”). The two poets offer contrasting approaches to the realization that they are dying. From that, we can examine whether life is more valuable through great adventure and accomplishment, or whether simple appreciation is enough. We also watch a Canadian independent film called One Week and the students write about what they would do if they had one year left to live.

  • A favorite resource for many students is Good Will Hunting. We read the film script in class and explore the choices that the main character makes.

  • Our end point for this half of the semester is for students to create a “personal manifesto” which outlines a personal philosophy and life direction.

To explore technology…

  • Robby_pic_1.png

    We read the novel Feed. It’s a wild read that takes place in a dystopian America in which Americans have the internet infused into their minds. Chaos and consumerism ensue. As we read, a variety of resources are used alongside. Most meaningful might be the work of Sherry Turkle, who cautions us of the social and personal cost of technology addiction.

  • The students get a kick out of watching the film Catfish, which is a good conversation starter for social media use.

  • Another unit that I tried out this fall was to examine how media affects our perception of ourselves. We look at advertisements and the classic “Disney and gender stereotypes” connection. We end by watching Tangled and examining how the film portrays men and women.

Our team at A Small Good Thing has begun to compile a list of resources for teachers who might want to incorporate a unit on meaningful living into their curriculum. Check out our page dedicated to Resources for Educators, or feel free to email us about the resources you use in your own classroom!



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