The 7 Gateways:  The Search for Meaning and Purpose

The 7 Gateways: The Search for Meaning and Purpose

At many schools, the last day of the school year tends to be kind of a wasted day – a day spent packing up boxes, watching a video, or talking about summer plans.  Attendance is often sparse as many students chose to begin their summer vacation a day early.

In Gamble’s middle school classrooms, however, the last day of school serves as both our fourth quarter cycle wrap-ups and our wrap-up for the year as a whole.  Rarely are students absent.

Last year, on the last day of school, my students wrapped up our “Change” cycle with a school-wide carnival fundraiser.  You can read about it here.  While the carnival was truly an amazing experience, holding it on the last day of school made me a bit worried.

Would we be able to clean up everything in time to hold our traditional end of the year ceremony?  Would we be able to capture students’ attention after such a high-energy experience?  Would we, as teachers, be able to shift the tone and focus of the day after the exhaustion of managing a carnival for several hours?  After all the fun and excitement, would students even be interested in sitting down for a closing circle?

As usual, I shouldn’t have worried.

Many students approached me throughout the day and asked questions like, “Are we going to have time for a closing?” “We are going to end in circle, right?” and “We’re not just going to dismiss from the carnival, are we?”

So after a high-energy morning, followed by an hour of cleaning up, we had our ceremonial closing.  Somehow, just a few minutes after ascending the stairs, all fifty of us were circled on the carpet, silently examining a linked circle of carabiners.  Students waited with nostalgic anticipation as the final moments of our year together moved toward the carefree joy of summer vacation.

First, we reflected on the power of our Change project, announcing and celebrating the nearly $1,000 raised from the carnival to send girls to school in underprivileged countries.  We, then, reviewed each of our cycle themes from the course of the year – Sense of Belonging, Weathering the Storm, Enlightenment, and the culmination of all three during our Change cycle, and shared our favorite memories.

As each student shared, I unlinked one carabiner from the circle and handed it to him or her as a token remembrance, symbolizing both our final field experience for the year, held at an indoor climbing center, and the contribution of the individual to the whole of the community.

After the last student had taken his turn, a few carabiners remained to represent those students who had begun the year with us, but who had left us mid-year due to a move or a change in schools.  I opened the floor to the students to say the names of these people who remained a part of us, but who were no longer among us.  I had brought a list with me to ensure that no one was left out, but I shouldn’t have bothered.  My students remembered all the names on my list, plus three that I had forgotten. They were careful to leave no one out, to make sure that everyone belonged.

When the dismissal bell rang, many students stayed in the classroom looking for hugs and final words before heading out into their summer vacation.  I’ve previously written about those tender moments here.

When the room was finally empty, and I headed downstairs to my after-school meeting, it was like I entered a different world.

To celebrate the end of the school year, our 9th and 10th graders had snuck water guns and water balloons into the building.  At the dismissal bell, a hallway water fight had erupted leading to good-spirited shrieking and laughing but also causing unsuspecting students to slip and fall in the puddles left on the floor, and resulting in a window being broken in the chaos.

While I am certain that the students saw this as being “all in good fun,” it seemed at cross-purposes with the atmosphere we had tried to create for our 7th and 8th graders.

That evening, when I shared my confusion about this with my husband, who is also a teacher, he said, “Well, it’s pretty much the same thing, you know.”

“What do you mean?!” I responded incredulously.

“What you did for your students and the water fight.  It’s basically the same thing.”

I very nearly came out of my chair as I responded, “It is NOT the same thing at all!  We had an important ceremony acknowledging each other and the work of the year!  And they had a water fight!  That is NOT the same thing.”

“Yes it is,” he responded, “It’s exactly the same thing.  Those students who planned the water fight were looking for meaning and closure.  You and your team provided it for your students, but it’s what all students want – to make meaning of important events.  The water balloon fight was simply their way of constructing meaning for the end of the school year.  Sure, it was immature.  Sure, it doesn’t compare to what happened in your classroom, but it’s the exact same thing.  If we don’t provide meaning for our students, they will find a way to do it for themselves.”

He was, of course, right. Those students were looking for a way to mark the moment, to make meaning of the last day of the school year.

In her book, The Soul of Education, Rachel Kessler identifies the search for meaning and purpose as one of the Seven Gateways to the soul of the adolescent.

“The search for meaning and purpose concerns the exploration of big questions, such as ‘Why am I here?’ ‘Does my life have a purpose?’ ‘How do I find out what it is?’ ‘What is life for?’ ‘What is my destiny?’ ‘What does my future hold?’ and ‘Is there a God?’”

 While Kessler identifies the seeking of meaning and purpose as essential for the adolescent, it is a critical component for all of us – teachers, parents … humans.

Google recently released their research results on the five strategies for effective teaming.  Numbers four and five on their list nearly mirror Kessler’s words.

  1. Meaning of work:Is the team working toward a goal that is personally important for each member? Does work give team members a sense of personal and professional fulfillment?
  2. Impact of work:Does the team fundamentally believe that the work they’re doing matters? Do they feel their work matters for a higher-order goal?[1]

Meaning and Purpose:  It’s important for all of us, and we will seek to construct it for ourselves in its absence.  As adults, if our work, or our presence, doesn’t matter, if it doesn’t have a valuable impact that we inherently believe in, then how will we be motivated to engage deeply in it? This concern underlies the research that Google conducted on the characteristics of successful teams.  As is true in so many things, their study reveals that what is important for adults, is crucial for developing adolescents.

Kessler’s search for meaning and purpose is a fundamental component of the adolescent journey.  Our children are actively seeking their role in the world as they navigate the passage from childhood to adulthood. This is at least as much, if not more so, a part of their work as is learning to construct a thesis statement or being able to deconstruct the Pythagorean theorem.

It is our role as parents and teachers, as adult guides, to help our children and our students discover meaning and purpose in their world – both the world of the classroom and the world that exists beyond those walls.

One way we do this at Gamble, and in other secondary Montessori programs, is through the use of cycle themes.  Each quarter focuses on a big-picture idea, essential to the adolescent, to which cross-curricular content is connected and through which students engage in social-emotional development.

The cycle is begun through a kick-off activity and the presentation of a “cover sheet” which gives an overview of what is to come in the cycle and how it fits together.  Throughout the cycle, connections are made both explicitly and implicitly to the cycle theme through academic content, seminar discussions, group initiatives, and field experiences.

The cycle concludes with some type of wrap-up activity.  Cycle themes help students construct meaning and purpose in what they are learning – both in terms of curricular content and in terms of the so-called “soft skills.”  Through cycle themes, students discover connections between what they are learning and the bigger issues that are a fundamental component of being a member of society.

It is challenging to tease apart Kessler’s Gateways as they often overlap and interweave with one another.  The search for meaning and purpose seems inextricably connected with two of Kessler’s other identified gateways:   the yearning for deep connection and the need for initiation.

Montessorians call this work taken together “cosmic education,” but this idea of curricular content tied to large, thematic ideas is expanding beyond the world of Montessori.  In recent years, Cincinnati Public Schools has identified what they have dubbed Essential Questions.  These questions are very similar to the Guiding Questions that overarch Montessori cycle themes.  Some examples of CPS’ Essential Questions are:

What causes some individuals to become successful while others fail when faced with adversity?

What is the relationship between personal independence and social responsibility?

How does one’s perception impact their vision of reality?

Cincinnati Public Schools is no stranger to being on the cutting edge of shifts in traditional education. They have already received national attention for their community learning center model, and they are looking to further influence the national K-12 education discussion through the comprehensive MyTomorrow Initiative designed to prepare students for college and career.

The thematic connection component is just one piece, borrowed from the Montessori model, in a much larger program designed to increase rigor and relevance in the curriculum.

There are many ways to create meaning and purpose in a classroom.

  • Connect content to real-world application
  • Get students out into the real-world as often as possible, so they can see their work “in action.”
  • Let students lead – allow them to choose areas of interest or work products whenever possible
  • Empower students to take action on important topics
    • Expose students to complex issues
    • Allow students to dialogue about them
    • Guide students to consider how they can create change
    • Help them to implement their ideas
  • Ask big picture questions – Montessorians call them Guiding Questions, CPS calls them Culminating Questions – and tie them to bigger themes/motifs
    • Display these questions
    • Embed them in discussions
    • Connect to them through novel themes or current events
    • Relate them to social-emotional learning
  • Develop activities or rituals, such as openings and closings, to provide depth and importance to these ideas

There are infinite ways to help students find meaning and purpose in their lives.  Last year’s fourth quarter middle school cycle theme was “Change” for all four of our communities, and yet each group wrapped up the cycle in different, powerful ways.

As noted, my community held a fund-raiser carnival and closed with a sharing of memories of the year.

In the Luminous Achievers community, students each wrote an acrostic poem for one of their peers.  These poems were compiled into a book that each student received a copy of on the last day.  Students then signed each other’s books including memories and well-wishes for one another.


Students in the ZenCOH community, held a community meeting where together the group came up with three positive adjectives to describe each student.  These were recorded on the white board to demonstrate the way that each individual contributes to the whole.



The Community of Original Learners (CoOL) held a moving-on ceremony where they viewed a video of images collected over the course of the school year and signed the ever-expanding mural on the classroom wall. The eighth graders were given back the rock that they initially received during the initiation ceremony at their first fall camp.  Each of these ceremonies serving as a bookend on their middle school experience.

In all of these classrooms, the teachers worked to construct meaning and purpose.  Students reflected on their value as individuals and on their importance to the group as a whole.  In each of them, the school-year was brought to an intentional, purposeful, and ceremonial close such that students need for meaning and purpose was fulfilled.

Avoid the water balloon fight.

While it may indeed be “the same thing,” and it may serve the same function, it does not do so effectively.  As Kessler says, our adolescents actively seek meaning and purpose. We must provide structured opportunities to help them discover it.  If we do not guide students to find meaning and purpose, they will construct it for themselves.



[1] Rozovsky, Julia. “The Five Keys to a Successful Google Team.” Re:Work. November 17, 2015. Accessed October 02, 2017.


2 thoughts on “The 7 Gateways: The Search for Meaning and Purpose

  1. Krista–This hit me at a moment when I could perceive that this was what I had been searching for these past weeks–a crisis in my worth/value. In all the TV trash talk, world terrorism, and life”s normal ups and downs I had forgotten what “I” can do. Now I can concentrate not on figuring out my problem, but concentrating on my answer for this new stage of life. Just wanted you to know that your postings do not apply just to teenage students, but to others at changing stages of life. Thanks!

    • I am so glad I was able to provide the right thing at the right time. We all, really, need the same things — no matter how old we are. It’s just that our adolescents have a way of telling us what they need a little more loudly.
      I hope you are fulfilled by the answer you will surely find for your current life stage. Once it emerges, please share what you discover it is that you can do, and the impact that you will have. I can’t wait to hear all about it.

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