Monthly Archives: May 2012

Teaching Lessons for Life

Seeing Charlie again, my former history student, who has made it big in the entertainment business, raised interesting pedagogical questions: Should a teacher have goals beyond the conventional content and skills offered by a course, reaching to “lessons for life”? Further, perhaps these are appropriate for a private school, but are they also appropriate in a public school?

It had been 19 years since I taught him U.S. history. So when he was invited back to school to give a lecture to the entire school community, my first question was whether he would he even remember me.

Charlie clearly devoted much time to his talk—funny stories from his days at Portsmouth Abbey, things he has learned thus far in his career, lots of jokes—both planned and improvised. His talk gave way to a hearty and lively Q & A period, and the student body posed many good questions for him. His answers were crisp, honest, and often laced with humor.

I was proud of him for offering a few bits of what I would call wisdom, even though he is still a young man. His central message to the students was: Do not worry about the grades and SAT scores too much. Discover what you love and are good at, work very hard at it, and do not take no for an answer.

Happily Charlie visited the dining hall for lunch. He saw me, immediately approached me, and we had a nice discussion. After some small talk, he made my day. Stunningly he actually remembered a point I made in one of my history lectures. My message which struck a chord in him was that it was OK to question and challenge your traditional religious beliefs. Here was a teacher at a Catholic prep school telling the students to feel free in challenging 2,000 years of church doctrine. This had stuck with him.

As a history teacher I teach lots of content, especially in my AP courses. I teach skills such as evaluating and using historical evidence and crafting good expository essays. But I feel very strongly that I must also teach attitudes and virtues. In all of my syllabi, I identify the main ones, such as:

            . A critical mind: reasoning clearly and recognizing weak logic and poorly developed ideas.

            . An open mind: willing to receive new concepts, ideas, and methods.

            . A motivated mind: desiring understanding and intellectual growth.

            . A confident mind: recognizing the value of his/her own abilities and opinions.

For a student not interested in history, or academics for that matter, a teacher should certainly try to spark interest and motivation to learn the content and develop the skill set the course offers; however, a teacher—in a private or public school—is also wise in not passing up opportunities to offer students lessons for life—wisdom.  This in fact may be the single thing an unnamed, anonymous student may truly glean from a course.



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The Passionate, Multi-Dimensional Teacher

I really was quite stunned by the question the parent asked me in polite dinner conversation a few years ago: “So what are you working on?” I looked at her and hesitated. Did she mean the lesson plan on the Punic Wars I was revising? Did she mean the unfinished grading that lay at home? Was she really interested in where I was in revising my AP World History syllabus to pass the Audit? I really was not sure if she was querying me on my work at school as the teacher of her son or if she was truly interested in the other parts of my professional and intellectual life.

Having worked at a boarding school for twenty years, I can say with authority that the pace of the work week at such a school is very challenging and exhausting. I can recall a number of sixteen-hour days: academics, bus ride, sport event, another bus ride, chaperoning. When school is in session, it is certainly difficult to find time to do anything but school-related activities. However, it is exceptionally important that an educator stay in touch with the wider world and possess outside interests, activities, and—most important—passions.

First, by keeping abreast of what is happening in the outside world, the teacher can make the lessons more current and relevant to the students. As a history teacher, this is especially important. For example, in discussing terrorism today, I used a recent article on a policy statement by President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, to address the question of violating another country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty to capture or kill a terrorist. While staying current on the news is very important and useful to a teacher of the humanities, I would argue it is nonetheless important also for teachers in other disciplines to remain current. Not doing so may result in missed opportunities for reinforcing points in the day’s lesson.

Second, I think it is important to demonstrate to students that a teacher is not a one dimensional person. A teacher is a real person with many different dimensions. In my case, I as a teenager certainly viewed my teachers as a type of living being apart from normal humans, in a separate and somewhat unique category.

Third, while I want them to remember the similarities between the Western knight and the Japanese samurai, I am much more interested in showing them what it is like to be truly passionate—about such things as learning, sharing a sense of responsibility for their communities, and excellence on the sports field. In my experience, Mr. Barakat, a high school history teacher and coach, not only showed his love of European History, but—more so for me—his passion for basketball. After we lost a game by not listening to his instructions, he fulminated in the lock room, banging the metal wall lockers and screaming until another coach restrained him. One might conclude that he was a lunatic; what I drew from this incident was that basketball was not just a little game to him. He had real passion for it.

As it turned out, the inquiring parent was indeed interested in what I was doing outside of school. This was truly a refreshing question, and once I realized her intent, I was flattered and somewhat flabbergasted she actually asked me. Not only parents, but also headmasters and other senior administrators must ask these type questions of the faculty. And they must be genuinely interested in the answers and be ready to offer assistance, if need be, to help the teacher achieve goals beyond delivering the mission of the school. To the extent that a teacher, feeding some passion outside of school, is growing personally and professionally, it is fair to say he/she will be better able to deliver the mission in the fullest sense.

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All Sources Are Not Equal

 In teaching my 9th graders in Western Civilization the process of writing a research paper, I like to quote from the Declaration of Independence, a copy of which hangs on my wall. I refer to my hero, Abraham Lincoln, and tell them that his favorite line and the idea which he stated was the bedrock of all his political beliefs was: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ….” In the critical step in the paper-writing process of finding good sources, I proclaim the opposite: All sources are not created equal!

 For many years I would simply try to explain the differences in quality among sources they might see in writing their papers. This approach yielded me only mixed results. While browsing in a book store one day, I stumbled across a young adult book on ancient Greece: You Wouldn’t Want to Be a Greek Athlete, by Michael Ford. It is written in a very light, humorous style at about the 5th grade level and on each page it has text, large colorful illustrations, and caricatures of ancient Greeks—including Pericles.

 I then went to my book shelf to find two other books on ancient Greece that were of higher quality. The next book I used in class was William Harlan Hale’s Ancient Greece, published by iBooks in 2001. I handed this book to a student and asked her to look through it quickly: a table of contents, no information on the author, a few black & white illustrations and photos, no citations, no index, no bibliography.

 Finally, I handed a third book to another student: David Stockton’s The Classical Athenian Democracy, Oxford University Press, 1990. Stockton’s academic credentials were described on the jacket: college professor at Oxford.  It contained a table of contents, citations (footnotes), a bibliography, and an index.

I saw eyes light up. By giving them actual examples of sources with different scholarly levels, I was much more successful in getting them to understand.

The skill of writing a research paper—the correct way—is not a skill solely for history class, for high school, or even for college, but rather for life. No matter what occupation students eventually choose, they will be much better equipped if they know how to write a research paper the correct way. Being able to uncover and evaluate sources, and to select the best ones is an important step in that process.

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Can the Lecture and Crash the Boards: Moving to the Group Exercise Format

It really is one of my best lectures: “The Rise and Fall of Soviet Communism.” I have given the lecture in both my AP European History and my AP World History courses. The lecture is fortified by the six years I spent in Germany as an Army officer. During my last assignment there in the late 1980s, I lived in Bonn, the then capital, saw the Berlin Wall fall, and witnessed the wave of political revolutions sweep through Europe, ultimately dooming Soviet Communism. Also, in conducting my research for my dissertation on the unification of the East and West German armies, I interviewed former East German Communist officers and sergeants.

 I would begin my lecture in 1848 with the publication of the Communist Manifesto, move to World War I and the Russian Revolution, then on to Lenin, Stalin, World War II, the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Prague Spring, détente, Gorbachev, crisis, and finish with the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. I would end analytically with the four factors that best account for the ultimate unraveling of the Soviet Union. This was a solid lecture, accompanied by a chronology and outline.

 So it was with some trepidation and hesitation that ten minutes before class this spring I decided to change teaching formats. Instead of the lecture I chose to send them to the blackboards and have the students in small groups develop the chronology themselves. I continued to pepper them with questions, leading them to the key events and personalities.

 Despite all the high technology available to enhance and diversify our teaching formats, I believe the traditional lecture still has its place. Though the feedback I received from my lecture format for this class was good, I was even more satisfied with the group-exercise format I had decided on for this lesson. This satisfaction rests on the presumption that students learn more (1) by doing and (2) by teaching each other. I would like to ask any readers with knowledge of research supporting this presumption to please inform me. Many thanks.

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Cultivating Creativity with Role Plays

The quote attributed to Albert Einstein, the epitome of a physical scientist, has always fascinated me: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” By integrating individual role plays into courses such as History and English, a teacher can challenge students to use their imagination and creativity, light up their right brains, and also have some fun.

          Over the past decade many writers have emphasized the increasing importance of imagination and creativity for the future. In his seminal work A Whole New Mind, Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future, Daniel Pink argues that to prepare for the “Conceptual Age” we must “master aptitudes that are high concept and high touch (61).”  He identifies six of the aptitudes or “senses,” all of which have seats in our right brain. Creativity relates to most of these, but especially three: Design, Play, and Meaning. Of the first he states: “Today it’s economically crucial and personally rewarding to create something that is … beautiful, whimsical, or emotionally engaging.” (65) Also, the much acclaimed Ken Robinson has written two books stressing the importance of creativity: Out of Our Minds, Learning to Be Creative (Capstone Publishing, 2001) and The Element (Viking Adult, 2009).[1]

          To pursue the objective of cultivating creativity, I fashioned a Creative Role Play Requirement for students in my course on Ancient/Medieval History. For many years I employed role-playing as a teaching format; however, I used only the group, not individual, role-playing. For example an entire class acted out the debate between the American revolutionaries and the British in the early 1770’s, the British Civil War of the 17th century, or the beginnings of the French Revolution.

          I had never asked an individual student to role-play an individual historical character alone. With this requirement I did. I prepared a list of 25 ancient Greek characters, specific ones like Pericles and Plato, but also others like a soldier at Thermopylae and an Athenian speaking in the assembly. Gender was irrelevant; however, I did include characters like the wife of Socrates and the wife of Alexander to increase the number of female options. The student had to speak for two to four minutes before the entire class and had the following options: 1. Pretend you are the person and speak in the first person. 2. Pretend you are the person’s friend (or enemy) and tell the class about the person. 3. Write a poem or story about the person and read it to the class. I stressed that this was not a research exercise, although outside research was certainly welcomed. The heart of it was the student’s ability to take the ample information in the textbook about the person and apply a healthy dose of imagination. My evaluation criteria included: creativity, expression, content, and use of allotted time.

          I was pleased with the results. The students seemed to enjoy these exercises and learned much. As the oracle at Delphi, Claire did a great job in placing herself in a trance and spouting off nonsense leading to her advice for the future. Matt played a fully bold and arrogant Alexander the Great, and Mike distinguished himself as the tough and laconic Spartan. As the wife of Socrates, Kathryn revealed her distress over her ever-wandering husband:

One day, two days, three days,

Oh, how I lose track,

These days are so long,

I wish he could come home,

Just once before

I lose him for good.

 Chris in his poignant poem about a soldier at Thermopylae ended with:

We died for king and country

We died to save our seed

But we shall live immortal

On the glory of our deed.

           Finally there was Kathryn Y, who did an outstanding job in portraying Pallas Athena. Three years later I was very proud to see her playing the Featherduster in our school’s production of Beauty and the Beast. A few days after the production, I congratulated her on the performance. She smiled coyly and startled me by saying, “Well, you know, Dr. Zilian, it all started with your role play exercise freshman year. That’s what sparked my interest in acting.” For a teacher, this was praise that money could not buy.

[1] See also Bruce D. Taylor, Not for Art’s Sake Only, Arts Education and 21st Century Skills, Education Week, February 2, 2011; David Burns, “Creativity: The Path to Economic Recovery,” Education Week, May 13, 2009.

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