Not as different as we think we are...

Before Damian Duran arrived at Mayfield Senior School at the beginning of the 2022-23 school year, he already had extensive teaching experience in Catholic schools in the Los Angeles area, including Verbum Dei and St. Francis. For the first section of his first year at Mayfield, he was assigned to teach the History of World Religions to the entirety of the senior class—so students at the end of their Mayfield educational journey were encountering Mr. Duran at the beginning of his. These circumstances ended up providing deeply fruitful encounters and thoughtful exchanges between students and their teacher. And perhaps that dynamic couldn’t be on better display when Mr. Duran tasked his class with a creative assignment: to create board games designed to illustrate the central principles of Hinduism.
Block D of Mr. Duran’s class meets in Room 201. Part of the old convent wing, it has windows on three sides, a panorama of green leaves and branches, and just entering the space gives the general feeling of being situated inside of a comfortable nest. Per Mr. Duran’s assignment, the students have colorful game boards and intricate pieces already laid out on their desks, eager to share their own design. There are many variations on this proposed theme, although almost all game boards are adapted from familiar models. There are multiple iterations of Chutes and Ladders, a few adapted Bingo cards, a repurposed checkers board and at least one nod to CandyLand. The instructions allowed for students to embark on solo creation or become a team of co-creators. Person by person, or group by group, students introduce the concepts of their games—presenting the general rules and ideas behind them. And once this introductory period of the class finishes, the students rush down to the Essex Room where they can fully spread out their creations and commence in game-play in earnest!

Although Mr. Duran would eventually interact with every game in the room, he first sits down to play with “Chutes and Ladders of Moksha” first. He and co-creators, Giuliana DeFilippo ‘23 and Isabella Sanchez ‘23, select their markers, and Isabella flicks their homemade spinner. She lands on number 3. She moves her marker to a yellow space, and Giullana pulls a notecard from one of their many colorful piles. “It’s a question about ‘dharma,’” she says. “Dharma is based on what?” Isabella considers the question and tentatively answers, “Ethics? Giuliana cheers her on, “You are right!” and Giuliana takes her own turn. Once Mr. Duran tries the spinner, the students giddily pull a card for him too. “What’s an embodiment of a deity on Earth sent to provide a divine purpose?” Mr. Duran is hardly stumped. “Avatar,” he says. The girls start to laugh, “Right!” 

Their laughter is not at all unique—the room is bursting with it. Peals of giggles and guffaws echo from all corners of the room, bouncing off the Batchelder tiles. At least five distinct groups are playing each other’s games concurrently. The excitement in this activity is unmistakable. After each group finishes a game, everyone around the table is given a piece of paper to evaluate the game overall. How clear were the rules? How well did it illustrate the subject material? Was it fun to play? Students tend to be generous with their assessments of each other. Abigail Beegle ’23 explains, “It was fun to create the board game with my fellow classmates and friends.” And she adds, “I think the applied aspect of learning has helped me garner a deeper understanding of Hinduism.”
When it comes to classroom work, Mr. Duran says he cultivates “a mixture of formative and non -formative assessments” because he firmly believes that “not everything has to be a test.” Many of his students clearly appreciate his approach, and when they talk about this assignment specifically, they focus on both the informative and playful aspects of the project. Alexandra Garcia, ‘23 shared, “The game(s) helped me understand karma, dharma, castes and moksha.” adding, “I think that seeing everyone’s creative side…was fun.” Lily Salazaar ‘23 takes in a bigger view, “I got to learn about my fellow classmate's interpretations and understandings of this large belief system, and I even got to test my own knowledge of it.”

This course is only a semester long, and in the very first days of classes, Mr. Duran introduced the “seven dimensions of religion” to his students. He made sure to point out the many similarities between large faith traditions. ”I think that it allows us to see the commonalities that we have…we find them in all of the major religions….you just find common ground. You stray away from ‘us versus them’...but how we are on the journey together.”

As a Catholic, independent school, more than 70% of Mayfield’s student body identifies as Catholic, yet courses on World Religions have been part of the curriculum for decades. Mr. Duran’s students seem to have a keen awareness of the value of this kind of study. Marcella Laguna ’23 says, “Learning about different religious traditions and faiths in a classroom setting is important for developing cultural awareness and respect for those different from ourselves,” adding, “it gives us the opportunity to step out of our ‘bubble’ and immerse ourselves into our diverse world.” Sophia Kroe ‘23 says the class provides “an amazing opportunity” and praises its interpersonal value, explaining, “it allows me to learn more about my classmates’ religious backgrounds and see how Catholics can have conversations with people of other religious faiths.” ASB Caroline Squire ‘23 describes courses like this as “extremely important.” She says, “Even though we are a Catholic School and focus on a Catholic Faith, it's important to learn about and honor the other faiths people around the world (and even in our community) practice. This allows us to expand our knowledge of other people's experiences.” 

Any robust classroom experience should be able to offer both windows and mirrors to students. For Peyton Burns ‘23, Mr. Duran’s class was an exposure to entirely new material, and new ways of thinking, saying she “really enjoyed the Hinduism” sections of the class and says she is “looking forward to learning about religious practices’ which she had never explored before. Sade Falese ‘23 found personal resonance in a different part of this course, which touched on spiritual practices in West Africa. “The most interesting aspect of this class for me so far is learning about the Yoruba tribe,” says Sade. “My father originated from Nigeria and is actually part of the Yoruba tribe. Having a deeper understanding of his past beliefs makes me want to learn more.” 

Mr. Duran understands the unique challenges and opportunities that occur in the lives of students in their final year of high school. He acknowledges that “their whole world right now revolves around college apps.” Nevertheless, Mr. Duran is immensely grateful for the time he has spent with this group of students, and says that it has refreshed his sense of purpose as a teacher. “I like being here. I like coming in in the morning. I like being able to say hi to the girls and say good morning to people.” Mr. Duran admitted that years of working in other schools had started to “burn (him) out” to a certain extent, but the generosity of the Mayfield community and the Holy Child approach to education has been nothing short of a blessing. “It gave me new life,” he says.

Next semester, Mr. Duran will go on to work with sophomores and his course material will be related exclusively to the Catholic church. But Mr. Duran strongly believes his World Religions course provides something essential to those who will be attending college next year. “They have a better understanding just of the world around them,” he says. “We encounter all sorts of people and we're not always gonna agree with them, but hopefully the World Religions course teaches us that we're not as different as we think we are.”  

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Established in 1931, Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, CA is a Catholic, independent, college preparatory school for young women grades 9-12. Noted for its rigorous academic program, which includes 28 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, Mayfield’s curriculum is underscored by a philosophy of educating the “whole child,” which also encourages commitment to and excellence in the arts, athletics, community service and spiritual growth. The nurturing environment at Mayfield Senior School allows each student to flourish in an atmosphere of personal attention.