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Finding Faith on a Cartesian Plane

I want to revisit via a circuitous route my last post about Faith serving as a person’s bedrock - nuancing slightly my previous analogy.

Last week I finished co-teaching with my associate Nick Dressler my very first class - a course called Playing With Legos which serves as an introduction to computer programming through the placement of virtual Lego bricks on a 3-dimensional Cartesian coordinate system. I enjoyed the experience immensely though there were moments that left me feeling more than a bit humbled. There will be plenty of lessons I learned that will be incorporated into future versions of the course. Still, there was substantial evidence of student learning which is the ultimate signal of success.

A few days later on Christmas morning, my wife and I attended Mass at our parish church. Upon entering our assigned pew and taking my seat, I felt a most curious sensation, an overwhelming peace - contentment combined with purpose. At that moment, I was exactly where I was supposed to be. It has been awhile since I have felt that way. In spite of a great effort by many, the Christmas service itself was underwhelming, filled with all of the expected COVID-related inadequacies. Still, I left filled with gratitude for my solitary grace-filled moment.

The next morning, my wife and I were back at our church for the funeral services of a dear friend’s mother. Though the sensation of peace was replaced by grief, once again, I knew I was where I was supposed to be.

Later that day while reflecting on these two experiences, I was reminded of a scene from the Big Bang Theory where Sheldon Cooper talks about his spot on the couch, “In an ever-changing world, it is a single point of consistency. If my life was expressed as a function on a 4-dimensional Cartesian coordinate system, that spot at the moment I first sat on it would be zero, zero, zero, zero.” Perhaps it’s because I had been working with students on Cartesian planes all semester, but what occurred to me was that on Christmas morning and again at the funeral service the next day, I was at a point of origin - zero, zero, zero, zero. Exactly where I belonged.

To refresh people’s memories, the Cartesian coordinate system was invented by 17th Century mathematician and philosopher Rene Descarte as a means of applying algebraic expressions to geometric shapes. The traditional 3-dimensional Cartesian coordinate system consists of planes on three axes (x,y,z), and positional values mark locations in relation to the point of origin (0,0,0).

The 4th dimension introduces the element of time and it marks values in relation to a singular event. Think about taking a trip with your home serving as the starting point, (0,0,0,0). Using a 4-dimensional coordinate system, every moment of travel can be marked and described in relation to that starting point.

In setting up my Playing With Legos course, I attempted to construct a well conceived travel map to guide students along their learning journey. Each week an ordered set of experiences and activities were introduced (Step 1, Step 2…) which served as destination points along the way. Each of these steps also served as an opportunity to assess student progress in relation to our starting and end points. This process likely sounds familiar to most teachers, and, based on my VERY limited experience, it is the easy part. Like a trip on a tour bus, things go wonderfully so long as everyone shows up for breakfast each morning and no one gets lost.

While important, the Playing With Legos course I created proved to be nothing more than a theoretical construct with one of the key assumptions being that everyone is entering the course at a particular point of origin (0,0,0,0). The construct also necessarily assumes no knowledge of additional Cartesian planes - other courses, family dynamics, friend groups, extra-curriculars - occupying space within the worlds of individual students.

Though counterintuitive in many ways, quality online teaching is about being present to the individual journeys of students: looking for timely clues in the data that indicates progress, confusion, or even resistance toward learning goals. This allows the teacher to enter into a relationship with a student to provide feedback, praise, correction, support, and perhaps most importantly, simple accompaniment. This is the hard work of teaching, but also the most rewarding.

Presence is the gift a teacher provides a student. Almost everyone has a story about a teacher whose presence produced a “zero-zero-zero-zero” moment which proves to be influential for a lifetime. The vast majority of these experiences are positive and go unnoticed by the teacher, though occasionally it’s a negative experience holding sway. This is why good teachers matter.

The call of a Catholic school teacher takes this one step further. Through a mission-oriented grounding of our presence, God is revealed.

Does this really matter in today’s world? My gut tells me yes - not just because I want it to be so, but because of the evidence. During moments of great crisis and/or need, many people turn to prayer and places of worship as their point of origin (0,0,0,0) to provide a foundation, certainty, and a sense of purpose. Consider the response to the events of 9/11 when people across the world were drawn to churches, temples, and mosques. This is the bedrock I was referring to in my last post.

Indeed, faith does serve as a person’s bedrock. While this is important to living our everyday lives, it provides an evermore solid footing during those most influential “zero-zero-zero-zero” moments when we are exactly where we are supposed to be.


CONTRIBUTOR: Jeff Hausman is the Founder & President of Arrupe Virtual

vol 3 issue 6


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