A Buddhist in the Classroom is written for classroom teachers. Author Sid Brown draws skillfully on current research on effective learning and best teaching practices, but her unique contribution to the field of education is her focus on "how Buddhist practices and stories influence my teaching" (p. ix). Buddhism's influence begins with her rock-bottom goal as a teacher—for her students to learn not only specific knowledge but also how to reduce suffering—and extends to involving students in meditation practices, despite the difficulties involved. She states simply, "Bringing these sorts of experiments and practices into the classroom is going to bring you trouble. . . . I try to remember that attempting to avoid all complications and difficulties won't make me a better teacher" (p. 69). While I would not use some of her experiments in some teaching contexts, I finished the book convinced that braving such difficulties has indeed made her a better teacher and that she has drawn on the pedagogical wisdom of her Buddhist tradition in ways that empower her students to draw beneficially on their own traditions of "making meaning" (p. 2), which is Brown's shortest description of religion.
Brown teaches religion and environmental studies to undergraduates in the liberal arts college at Sewanee: The University of the South. It's a gem of a small, rural university still owned by the southeastern dioceses of the Episcopal Church. Like many colleges with Christian affiliations, Sewanee has a religiously diverse faculty and works hard to recruit a religiously diverse student body. Most students, however, arrive with backgrounds that are "Christian or Christian-influenced," as Brown puts it. Her specialization is Asian religions, and she has been a practicing Buddhist since 1983.
This book grew out of her reflections on the first time she taught "Buddhism and the Environment," but it draws on her experiences teaching a variety of other undergraduate religion courses, too. Although the book is grounded in Brown's own pedagogical context and contains much wisdom about the particular gifts and frailties of undergraduates, both her overall reflections on the vocation of teaching and [End Page 321] her specific teaching tips have much to offer those who teach different age groups or in different fields. Having taught undergraduates in the past, I now teach graduate students the history and practice of Christian education and spirituality. I found A Buddhist in the Classroom to be a breath of fresh air, with many sections pertinent to my own Christian-focused teaching. Many times I grabbed a sticky note and wrote "Try this in . . ."
Brown's preface and introduction frame the book in terms of popular worries about "bringing religion into the classroom." She explores the worrisome aspects of having used Buddhist-inspired "personal experiments" in her initial venture in combining into one course her passion for Buddhism and her passion for the environment. Then, in each of her nine chapters, she addresses particular issues that arose during this and other courses. She paints vivid vignettes of her own thoughts and responses during specific classroom episodes to illustrate how she draws on Buddhist philosophy, meditation practices, and particularly the accounts of the Buddha's teaching practices in the Pāli canon. The nine issues she addresses are, in order, attention in the classroom, community in the classroom, anger, wonder and imaginative engagement, envy and wrong perceptions, learning from students, student-teacher reciprocity, assessment, and maintaining joy and focus as a teacher. These nine chapters are followed by two appendixes that contain almost thirty-five pages of "nifty assignments" and handouts. These give ample evidence of her risk-taking in asking students to engage in complicated, multistep experiences that involve, if they choose, self-revelation about how they themselves "make meaning." These experiences are often followed by multistep reflection processes. The fact that Brown has garnered not only student buy-in, but apparently faculty support as well, for these complex "practical experiments" seem to be a testimony to her skill in creating a safe community for learning within her classroom. They are...