What Can We Learn from the Shakers?

After booking a field trip many months ago when snow still blanketed our campus, I had forgotten all about it until I started planning the month of May in late April.  As the time drew nearer, I realized that I need to start preparing my students for this field experience.  Then it dawned on me, I don’t know much about the Shakers as a people.  Who are they?  What do they stand for?  What are their beliefs?  Why are they no longer a sustainable religion or way of life?  All I knew is that there is an old Shaker Village in Enfield, NH.  Other than that, my Shaker knowledge was quite shaky.  So, like any good student, I went on a quest.

Who are the Shakers?  Is there a good video introduction on Youtube that I could watch and then show my students in preparation for our field trip to the Shaker Museum in Enfield?  I looked and looked until I found just the right one.  Ken Burns created an episode of the America series all about the Shakers.  Perfect, I thought.  Oh no, it’s only available for purchase.  Not perfect.  But, I’m a fighter and so I persevered and kept looking.  iTunes to the rescue.  I purchased the episode on iTunes and then previewed it.  Will it work for my class?  Will my students gain a basic understanding of the Shaker people through watching this?  It was at that point that I had my Shaker revelation.

As I pondered my guiding questions while watching the documentary all about the Shakers, I started to realize that the Shakers had a lot of brilliant ideas: Equality, Material Freedom, Love, Kindness, Compassion, and Amazing Furniture.  They loved everyone equally regardless of sex, age, race, or creed.  Everyone deserves a home and care, they preached.  They lived simply.  They weren’t bound by technology or the media.  They worked, hard, prayed, and danced.  While I’m not the actively religious type, I love to dance and work hard.  However, I’m no furniture making man, but I’m open to trying and learning.  They had it all figured out.  Shakers rock, I thought.  But, they sort of shot themselves in the figurative foot with the whole celibacy thing.  Because of that, they literally died out.  Other than that minor detail, the Shakers were pretty awesome people.

Today in Humanities class, we watched that documentary to prepare the students for Friday’s field trip to the Shaker Museum in Enfield.  I want them to have a solid background on the Shakers so that they can learn even more about this phenomenal group of people.  As we watched the video in class today, I started to think about how the Shaker beliefs apply to us in the classroom.  We need to work hard and diligently to succeed academically.  We also need to refrain from bad choices that will distract us from our goal.  No computer games or technology while working.  As a boys school, we are already segregated by sex.  Problem solved there.  Not only did the Shakers invent the clothespin, but they also helped people see the good in the world.  No need to decorate clothes or buildings, just being is enough.  Make everything simple yet elegant and perfect.  While we do tend to promote failure and learning from mistakes, the goal is always growth towards perfection.  This is sort of like the Shakers.  Anyway, my very long winded point is that I realized that the Shakers aren’t just a crazy religious sect that died out years ago, they represent a belief system and way of life.  Live simply, do everything well, and be compassionate.  Don’t ask, do.  Be the best version of yourself possible.  As a teacher, I try to promote this way of life in and out of the classroom.  So, while I didn’t realize this epiphany until today, this field trip may serve as more than just an educational opportunity.  Perhaps, we as the sixth grade family, can spread these ideas of compassion and hard work to the rest of our school community.  We can be the revolutionaries and crazy ones.  Wait a minute, everyone already thinks the sixth grade team is crazy.  Point for us then.  While the Shakers are no longer the active group they once were, their legacy lives on and inspires many to put forth great effort and live life with a selfless purpose.  So, let’s get our dance on and Shaker up our lives a little bit.