Humanist Teacher Spotlight: Helen Bennett

By Bob Bhaerman

The Humanist Teacher Spotlight is a new feature of Humanist Network News recognizing the accomplishments of leaders and activists in humanist education.

Helen Bennett is a writer for curious kids and author of Humanism, What’s That? A Book for Curious Kids (2005, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY). Helen, who is president of the Humanists of Brevard, AHA’s chapter in Rockledge, Florida, is a former high school and university English teacher, children’s librarian, and editor.

The book is in the form of a conversation between Mrs. Green, a science teacher (grade level not specified) and her students. When a fellow student is injured on her way to school, the students wondered why they aren’t allowed to pray for her in class. So starting with the concept of the separation of church and state, the dialogue leads to many philosophic and cultural issues and questions. Why do some people believe in God while others do not? What gives life meaning? 

In classroom and after-school discussions (with parental approval), Mrs. Green offers a humanist perspective and emphasizes scientific explanations of life and freedom of thought. Other topics as well as the separation of church and state are discussed such as the origins of religious belief in God and the meaning of metaphor, myth, and symbols. 

The book also explores such subjects as abortion and the death penalty where young readers can begin to understand the nuances of these controversial issues. It also focuses on the affirmations of humanism by emphasizing the essential worth and dignity of all people and some of the important humanist philosophers who have helped advance the causes of reason, compassion, and skepticism. There also is a brief explanation of the differences between humanistic values and religious values and this key idea: “Only by knowing the difference between good and evil can we make intelligent choices.” The narrative section ends with this thought-provoking question which is appropriate for students of all ages: “Are you a humanist?”

A number of poems also are included (“Thank You, Life” and “What Humanism Means to Me”) as well as instructional activities and discussion questions (“Humanism is a positive philosophy that asserts the potential for goodness in every human being. How does this contrast with the religious doctrine of ‘original sin’?”) She provides ten activities which students can pursue, many of which deal with writing stories about humanist heroes and heroines, poems, songs, essays, letters to newspapers and elected officials at all levels of the government, and letters to pen pals. She also suggests drawing a picture of a “Happy Humanist” and explaining why he or she is happy.

Parents and their children should read the book together or a parent might read Mrs. Green’s part and the children read the student’s part as in a play. The most important suggestion is to conduct as many of the activities as you wish and consider all of the important discussion questions.

I certainly wish we had a Mrs. Green in every public school classroom.  I’d even settle for a copy of Helen Bennett’s book in each classroom and school library. Incidentally, some time ago Helen received an e-mail that her book has been read and enjoyed by students in Uganda.

In the May 25, 2005 Humanist Network News, Helen noted that she wrote the book “because I wanted to help humanist children understand and be able to defend their worldview and to show children who have been raised in traditional religions that there is another way of thinking, another means to derive ethics, spiritual enrichment, and a guide to life.”

Helen, we should add, is not only a gifted writer for children—she is a most thoughtful humanist educator. For example, in an essay on “In Debt to Doubt” she wrote: “Children can be comforted the same way adults can in times of stress or sorrow. Other people (anyone who shows compassion and an interest in us) are our greatest resource, and their support is the best hope we can find for love and compassion. Teaching children to offer compassion to all living species is the first step to assuring a better world.”

Thanks, Helen, for all your great work!

Bob Bhaerman, Ed.D., is the director of the Kochhar Humanist Education Center of the American Humanist Association.