What Is a Calling?

From What’s Your Calling? collection, lesson plan 1 of 3

Audience: Grades 7-12, College, Youth Development Organizations

Time: 90 minutes or two 50 minutes class periods, plus assignments

Subject Areas: Women’s Studies, Social Studies, Global Studies, Media Studies, English Language Arts, Education Studies

Purpose of the Lesson: How does someone determine what he or she is "meant" to do? This lesson examines the factors that motivate individuals as they make choices that will affect their lives, careers, and relationships. Discussion of the film modules from the documentary The Calling and the What’s Your Calling? website will act as a springboard for students to explore their own values and decision-making processes. This lesson will:

  • Define the word calling — starting with its roots, or etymology
  • Introduce students to the notion of recognizing and pursuing a calling
  • Provide examples of successful role models who are pursuing diverse types of callings
  • Encourage students to visualize their own calling and what it will take to pursue it


Depending on the activities and assignments you choose, you may need any of the following materials:

  • The Calling educational DVD and an LCD projector or DVD player
  • Computers, laptops, or tablets with internet access
  • L1 Handout: Religions in The Calling
  • L1 Worksheet: Describe Your Future
  • Pens and writing paper
  • Audio or video recording devices

Principal Writer: Gail Evenari started teaching in Oakland, California, in 1975 and has worked in the field of education ever since. Spurred by her work developing Social Studies curriculum materials for textbook publishers, Evenari began her own business as a writer and documentary filmmaker. She has produced and collaborated on multiple educational film projects, including Spirit of the Land, Wayfinders: A Pacific Odyssey, The New Americans, A Doula Story, Hold Your Breath, and The Calling. Evenari is working on a groundbreaking multimedia project that teaches children about global cultures and environments and encourages them to become compassionate, informed, and engaged citizens of the world.


Defining a Calling

Explain to students that they are going to watch film clips from the PBS documentary The Calling and/or the What’s Your Calling? website. Discuss the following questions with students:

  • What is a calling? Have a student write the different definitions on the board and have the class come up with an agreed-upon definition for the word calling. For example: a life purpose, something one is driven to do, or a passion (see the "Introduction" section for Merriam-Webster definitions).
  • Do you believe that everyone has a calling?
  • Do you think it’s important that a calling involves service?
  • Describe someone you know who has found and is pursuing his or her calling.


Examples of a Calling

review the film modules to the left and below from within all three lesson plans before your class and choose three that best fit your student audience and learning objectives. Ask students to take notes while watching the videos and pay particular attention to what motivates each of the subjects toward their calling.

Steven Gamez Film Module

Steven Gamez is a good-humored Tejano (Texan-Mexican). Born and raised on San Antonio’s rough West Side, Gamez dreams of returning to his neighborhood and serving the poor. He attends Assumption Seminary in San Antonio, where he studies to become a Catholic priest.

Discussion Questions:

  • Gamez says that in his faith: "Each of us will have a cross to bear in our lives, no matter what it is. And some of us will have more than others."
    What does this statement mean and how do you think this understanding helps him to accept his calling? How does it reconcile his feelings about his father’s death, guide him in counseling the parents about their young son’s death, and give him strength to maintain his commitment to his calling?
  • After meeting with a family in crisis, Gamez says, "We’re not just called to administer sacraments. We’re called to be a part of people’s lives."
    How does this philosophy manifest itself in the way Gamez does his job?

Bilal Ansari Film Module

Bilal Ansari is an African American father of three and a student in the Islamic Chaplaincy Program at Hartford Seminary. He works tirelessly in the Connecticut prison system, where inmates often convert to Islam, but where he is also the victim of a hate crime perpetrated by some of his co-workers.

Discussion Questions:

  • Why is Ansari focusing his calling on raising awareness of Islam in America? To what extent should Ansari change the way he practices because of the new pressures and stereotypes created after 9/11? Should he be expected to make any changes?
  • How does Ansari’s identification with his historic namesake affect his transformation — and how does it strengthen his commitment to his calling? Do you have a namesake or a person who helps keep you on track with your ideals?

For additional context and glossary terms regarding the religions represented in the film clips, distribute L1 Handout: Religions in The Calling in the downloadable lesson materials.

What’s Your Calling? Website Video Clips:

An overview of the What's Your Calling? website.

The Calling Screening at Auburn Theological Seminary
In December 2010, Auburn Theological Seminary hosted a screening of The Calling in New York City with co-sponsors Active Voice, the Beatitudes Society, the Hartley Film Foundation, and the Kindling Group. Before the screening, the hosts asked audience members: "What do you think of when you hear the word calling?"

Asad Jafri: Director of Arts and Culture, Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN)
Asad Jafri, aka DJ Man-o-Wax, describes his decision to postpone school with just one semester left in order to follow his passion as a multidisciplinary artist.

Jan Tiura: Photographer; Mountaineer, Tugboat Captain
Jan Tiura shares her fascination with sailing and photography and her journey towards becoming the first woman tugboat captain on San Francisco Bay.

Neil Stratton: Co-founder and owner, Carver Skateboards
Neil Stratton ran a successful furniture company for over 10 years. Then, one day, he decided that he'd rather make skateboards with his friend.

Paul D. Miller (DJ Spooky): Composer, Multimedia Artist, Writer, Founder of Vanuatu Pacifica Foundation
Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid, talks about the Starbucks of the mind, finding patterns, and the relationship between music and information. He is a composer, multimedia artist, and writer.

Britt Bravo: Blogger, Have Fun, Do good
Britt Bravo is a blogger, podcaster, and social media coach who believes using social media should be fun. She loves to help people find and express their calling and writes about identifying your calling by finding what you feel compelled to do. Essay only. This entry contains no video content.

Ehon Chan: Blogger, EhonChan.com
Ehon Chan is a researcher, thinker, teacher, and change agent living in the Brisbane area in Australia. He discovered his calling after his friend's death. He writes about how he learned to live when he learned to die and his belief that not everyone has a calling, but everyone has their own personal reasons for living the way they live their life. Essay only. This entry contains no video content.

Discussion Questions:

  • What did the subjects in the film clips feel or experience that led them to believe that they had found their calling?
  • What are some of the commonalities in the stories of the subjects? What are the most striking differences?
  • Can someone have a calling that is not connected to a faith? If yes, give some examples.


Imagining Your Future

This activity encourages students to visualize a future in which they have fulfilling work and provides guidelines for them to map out the practical steps necessary to achieve what they have envisioned.

Creating a Safe Space

Please note that this activity may invite a broad range of responses and it is important that students feel safe sharing what they experienced with the class without fear of judgment or criticism. Before starting with the visualization, you can facilitate the creation of a safe space for students by helping them set up a community contract or agreement that clearly defines rules or expectations for participation. Students can establish their own guidelines as a group or you can present them with the sample contract below. Make sure to have them affirm their agreement with each guideline. As you go through the list, invite students to discuss or amend any parts of the contract before continuing. Here is a sample community contract:

  • Listen with respect. Try to understand what someone is saying before rushing to judgment.
  • Make comments using "I" statements.
  • If you do not feel safe making a comment or asking a question, write the thought down.
  • If someone says an idea or question that helps your own learning, say "Thank you."
  • If someone says something that hurts or offends you, do not attack the person. Acknowledge that the comment — not the person — hurt your feelings and explain why.
  • Put-downs are never okay.
  • If you don’t understand something, ask a question.
  • Think with your head and your heart.
  • Share talking time — provide room for others to speak.
  • Do not interrupt others while they are speaking.
  • Write down thoughts, in a journal or notebook, if you don’t have time to say them during our time together.


Prepare the classroom in advance by drawing blinds or shades as needed to create a restful environment, where bright lights and outdoor activities will not be distracting.

When students arrive, tell them that you are going to do an activity where they will visualize their future. Explain that visualization is forming mental images — and that visualizing a dream can be an empowering step toward realizing it.

Ask students to remove all books and papers from their desks or tables and sit in a comfortable position. Turn out or dim the lights in the classroom. Observe students and continue to the next section when they have followed the instructions and appear relaxed and comfortable. Move slowly through the steps below in order to allow students ample time to process and remember the images and information they are seeing.


  • Close your eyes.
  • Count 10 long, deep breaths. This will help you relax and clear your mind of other things, so you will be able to focus.
  • Imagine you are waking up in the morning 10 years from now, where you are living the life you want to live.
  • When you first open your eyes, what is the first image you see? What is the first sensation you feel? What is the room like?
  • Get up, and as you start your morning routine, try to notice as many details as possible. What do you do first? Do you have family? Pets? Are you in a house? Apartment? What is it like? What are your surroundings? Urban? Rural? Suburban?
  • Now you are going to work. How do you get there? Bicycle? Car or truck? Public transportation? Imagine the process of getting there and what you see along the way. If you work at home, do you go to a special room in the house?
  • You have arrived at work. What kind of building is it? A school? A garden? A corporation or office? A mosque, church, or synagogue? As you walk inside, greet your co-workers.
  • Start moving through your workday. What do you do? Do you help others? Cook? Create art or music? Sit at a computer? Work in a hospital or clinic? How often do you interact with others — either clients or co-workers or both?
  • As you go through your entire day of work, what does it feel like to be there? How do you feel about the work you are doing?
  • Finish your workday and leave your work environment.
  • Move through your evening until you return home and prepare for sleep. Imagine how you feel at the end of your day.

Returning to Now

  • Have students slowly return back through time to the present.
  • Tell the students to open their eyes when they are ready.
  • Distribute L1 Worksheet: Describe Your Future. Take 10-15 minutes to have students answer the questions and note as many details, images, and feelings as they can remember.


  • Ask students to share what they discovered. Hear from as many people as possible, while the images are fresh in their minds.
  • Ask if anyone saw something unexpected or surprising.


  • Ask students how many found themselves doing things that included serving others.
  • What relationship did they notice between their vision and pursuing a calling?


Select one or more of the following assignments to complete:

Assignment 1. Student Peer Interviews

Break the class into pairs and have students interview each other using the following prompts. If your school or organization has a video camera available, set up interview times and take turns. If not, use whatever tools are available, such as a smartphone, MP3 player, or tablet. If you would like to submit your students’ interviews to the What’s Your Calling? website, email classroom@itvs.org for more information.

Interview Prompts

  • Say your first name and age.
  • What activities make you happiest when you are doing them?
  • Is there one activity that you might consider as a future calling — or career? Explain.
  • What influenced your choice and/or what is it about this activity that draws you to it?
  • How do your teachers, friends, and/or family feel about you doing that with your life?
  • What will you have to do to accomplish it? (School, training, skills, commitment, etc.)
  • Will any of your current behaviors or activities have to change? Explain.
  • Do you know anyone doing this for his or her work? (See the "Interview a Mentor" activity in Lesson Two)
  • Face the camera directly and say aloud: a. My name is and my calling is .
    b. My calling is
    ______. c. What is your calling?

Assignment 2. Nonfiction Reading: Muhammad Ali

Ask students to read an excerpt from or the entirety of Muhammad Ali’s 2004 autobiography The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey. Have them respond to the following questions as a written assignment or as a class discussion.


  • What are the central ideas of the text?
  • What is the author’s point of view?
  • What evidence does the author use to support his point of view?
  • What events or experiences contributed to the author’s reasons for writing the text?
  • Why was Muhammad Ali such a significant historical figure?

Assignment 3. Religious Studies Research Paper

This assignment is best paired with the film modules from The Calling documentary. Ask students to choose two religions represented in the clips and compare and contrast them in a research paper. Some elements they can include are:

  • The history of each religion and the major events in its formation;
  • Geography of the religions and the number of followers in the world;
  • Characteristics, rituals, and beliefs of the religions; institutions and hierarchical structures in the religions;
  • Issues of conflict or cooperation between the two; how the religions influence people today.

Assignment 4. All-Class Community Service Project: Part One

This assignment requires several blocks of time over a period of one month or more. Parts Two and Three of the project are described in Lessons Two and Three, respectively, of this guide.

Assignment Steps

  • Have students form small groups to come up with an idea for something the class can do to improve the school or the community where the school is located. This might be reducing the school’s carbon footprint; offering tutoring services to children in lower grades or other neighborhoods; instituting a recycling or healthy-snack program; collecting blankets or food for a homeless shelter; helping young people in another country with a health, education, or resource issue; etc.
  • Have each team choose a representative to present its idea to the whole class.
  • Have the class vote to select one idea.
  • Film module:
    Steven Gamez

  • Film module:
    Bilal Ansari

Download lesson materials