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Sometimes engagement is as simple as an email

March 15, 2011

I can remember the moment I really changed as a teacher and broadened my horizons for what I might be able to help students to accomplish. I’d been teaching 4 or 5 years at a wonderful little boarding school, taking pleasure in watching as my students solved the problems I put before them and worked hard to learn physics. I never really questioned what the larger point of my class was, or how students were using my class to engage the world around them, or learn about who they are and how they will make a difference in the world. But step by step, I had been breaking out of this, taking students to the nearby university to see an interesting physics colloquium, or trekking all the way to Philadelphia to see Brian Greene. Every time we went to these talks off campus, students came away excited, invigorated and full of questions.

Then one day I got an email about how Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth, would be speaking on Penn’s campus. It was the middle of February (a dreadful time in the northeast boarding school world). I had a pile of work. The kids had a pile of work, but somehow, I thought this might be something worth doing. I didn’t really know much about Naomi Wolf, other than she was Al Gore’s chief tie consultant, and she was provocative thinker. At first, I tried to pass it off—I asked a number of my colleagues if they’d be interested in taking kids, but everyone was interested, but too busy. And at some point, something snapped in my, and I thought—”why don’t I just do this?” It was a crazy thought, because I also had to round up some kids interested in going, and most students were way too busy to think about trekking to Philly on a school night, and I bet if I’d polled the student body, less than a handful would have even known who she was.

So I decided to give it a shot. I was pretty afraid of announcements, but I did a bit of reading about the Beauty Myth on Wikipedia, threw together a powerpoint presentation comparing pictures of bikini-clad swimsuit models to muscle bound weightlifters and made an announcement in front of 270 students to ask what beauty is, and introduce the idea that it might actually be a form of currency, used by those with power (often men) to control those without power (often women), and then I said that I was going to the talk, thought it would be really interesting, and certainly worth putting off homework for a night, even if it’s February and we’re all super-busy.

Somehow, it worked. We ended up with TWO vans loaded with kids, that evening 18 students were mesmerized by Naomi Wolf as she redefined their (and my) notions of femininity, masculinity, beauty and feminism. Afterward, my students were pumped, they couldn’t stop talking about it on the hour ride back home, and soon thereafter, they started a club on campus (the Wolf Pack) to start discussions about gender between the sexes. It was a pretty awesome sight to behold.

And that’s when it hit me–in this web 2.0 information at your fingertips world, one of the most important things I could do as a teacher was to help my students to enter and navigate the world of ideas. Because it truly is possible to learn Quantum Mechanics from one of the world’s leading string theorists, or Economics straight from Milton Friedman but all this matters very little if my students don’t know who these people are. And when I was their age, this sort of thing was all but impossible if you didn’t live in a very happening city. Just because technology has made it easier to know about these opportunities, doesn’t mean that students have magically become more interested or capable of finding them for themselves. So that’s my job—expose my kids right to the very forefront of the world of ideas, give them a taste, and then encourage them to use that as motivation and find a way to follow up on the exposure.

All this was a lot easier in a boarding school, and it started a tradition that still lives on today, as recently over 100 students from my old school went to a nearby university to hear Cornel West. Once I moved to Washington DC and started to work in a day school, I found the opportunities far more plentiful (oh, the wonders of Politics and Prose) , but the students a bit less willing. Still, we had some successes, listening to talks by EO Wilson, Thomas Friedman and Malcolm Gladwell.

Now that I’m in Atlanta, a car bound city where most of my students can’t drive, I’m finding this mission just that much harder. I’ve tried to crack the events calendars of the local universities to get a sense of what’s going on, but it’s harder to find the really good stuff, and as a rule, far fewer prominent thinkers/writers make the trek to Atlanta, compared to DC. And more importantly, I still have never figured out a way to mesh my day-to-day curriculum with this broader mission that infects my class only sporadically. But I haven’t given up trying to get kids to step out an enter the world of ideas around them, and just today, a single email gave me tremendous hope.

A colleauge in the art department sent out a note of upcoming lectures at the local art museum. One of them was by a photographer whom I’ve never heard of, but I did know I have one student, P, in my class who is super interested in photography. So I cut and pasted it in an email to P. A few hours later, she wrote back:

Wow that does look interesting and I live conveniently down the street from the High! Thank you!

And so, on days when it feels like the week is filled with drudgery: grading, comment writing and more, one simple email makes a breakthrough, and reminds me of why I love this job in the first place. Now back to that grading.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 16, 2011 1:55 pm

    I cannot think of anything more important that helping our students learn to navigate the world of ideas and to think critically about ideas as played out in our culture. Your “just do it” was, I am certain, transformative to many students’ perspective and engagement as they different new critical eyes with which to understand and create beauty. How great to value our world as a text worthy of our investigation.

    • March 16, 2011 6:08 pm

      There’s something about learning how to learn in an age with opportunities to learn are everywhere. I’m not sure it’s ever really been different—students have taught themselves incredible things in one room schoolhouses, but somehow now, the ubiquity of opportunities (TED, itunes U, campus lectures and more) maybe mean we need to think about how to teach students to access these in deep, reflective ways, rather than simply jumping from cool talk to cool talk (something I find myself needing to work on as well).

  2. Agnesm permalink
    March 16, 2011 5:44 pm

    I think Cartier-Bresson is definitely worth a visit:)

    • March 16, 2011 6:06 pm

      absolutely. Originally, I tried to see if this student could go to the special lecture that we were told about for educators, but it’s teachers only. 😦

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