Monthly Archives: January 2015

Lighting Up Curiosity and Ancestral Past with a Term Paper

In 1895, when only 13 years old, my grandfather — so the story goes — had a fight with his Prussian father, ran away from home, and in the north German port of Kiel stowed away on a ship headed into the Atlantic.  After some 22 years, my grandfather, having helped complete the Panama Canal, finally journeyed to America in 1917 with his wife and four children including my father.  This was the very year that the United States entered the “war to end all wars,” a war in which Kaiser Wilhelm II and the German soldiers were turned by the yellow press into ape caricatures donned with pickelhaube helmets.  It is not surprising then that my grandfather, Gustav  Zilian, German through and through, did not wish then or ever to speak German or talk about his German roots or the old country, even with his children.

My curiosity, increasing as years wore on, about this man who died two years after my birth compelled me eventually in 1991 to pursue the mystery of my paternal ancestry in that port city of Kiel armed with only his name — an incomplete name at that I discovered — his year of birth 1882, and his place of birth — Kiel.  From these beginnings sprang one of the greatest adventures of my life.  After many phone calls and letters, two visits to Kiel, much walking and knocking on doors, much questioning of local Germans who with eyes askance glanced cautiously at me, clad in my distinctly un-German clothes, I was able to isolate the house from which he ran.  I relished every moment as I sat  listening to two elderly people right out of a Grimm’s fairy tale, relate stories about my grandfather’s family and pore over old, yellow-gray, dog-eared pictures and pieces of paper as they looked for pictures and phone numbers of my distant relatives.

For my sophomore history students I did not have the intent of even coming close to replicating the experience I had.  But could I give them even an inkling of the thrill and adventure I experienced while also achieving other educational goals such as enhancing their curiosity?  I thought I could by fashioning a term paper in which each student had to research and write about a relative not in their immediate family.  After employing this requirement for three years, I am delighted at the benefits which flow from this exercise.

The Results

I continue to be amazed at the discoveries which the students make in preparing these papers and how the papers can serve to catalyze meaningful discussions on topics too often left in a box or under a rug in the attic.  Ryan, for example, finally had the talk with his father about Vietnam, a subject his father never before wished to discuss.  Greg wrote about his distant relative thirteen generations ago, Roger Williams, who had a defining role in the establishment of the state of Rhode Island in the mid-1600’s.  Greg had a revelation in writing the paper: “Through my research I noticed that my whole life I have unintentionally been following Roger Williams’ footsteps.” They both had lived in Seekonk and Plymouth, Massachusetts.  Roger Williams and Greg’s parents had both bought land in Rehoboth, MA.  Greg joined the boy scout troop of the very church in which Roger Williams had preached 300 years ago.

Abe wrote about Great Uncle Joseph Vilardo and the realization of “the American Dream.”  “Uncle Joe” came from Italy as a young man and eventually his family in the late 1920’s operated the “Princeton Market, an Italian butcher shop in the Polish section of Jersey City.  Until Abe wrote the paper, he stated: “I have never known much about my family history, much less my Uncle Joe.”  At the end of his paper Abe included a formal picture of Uncle Joe’s parents, Clementina and Benedetto Vilardo — simply a gem.

Cara wrote on her grandfather, a former police chief of a nearby town.  She interviewed the current police chief and discovered that her grandfather had helped solved a murder case.  Writing the paper “opened a window in her mind.”  She never knew how dedicated and hard-working her grandfather was or the positive influence he had had on people.  Cara has taken one of her grandfather’s guiding principles as her own: “Fate casts a long shadow, but keep your own light shining.”

Francesca wrote about the forced flight from Nicaragua of her grandparents from the Sandinistas in 1979.  This was a tale of success in Nicaragua, of speedy departure, of struggle here in America, and finally of success once again here in America. Because of the paper she no longer simply knew the facts; she was now “able to feel the emotion, the anger that my grandparents had and still do towards the Sandinistas, and the love they had for each other.”

Matt related in his paper at the outset that when he received the assignment, he was scared because his family did not know much about its ancestors.  But he went into the attic and uncovered the obituary of his great-grandfather, an inventor of the electric car, a 32nd degree mason, an excellent cook, and a very strong man.  Before the assignment Matt had not known a thing about this man, not even his name.  He indicated: “But as I learned more and more about this man, I now see him in parts of my relatives and family members.”

The Nature of the Requirement

I have several objectives in assigning this requirement.  First, to have the student be able to write a well-organized, well-developed paper using good prose and clear, grammatically correct English.  Second, to learn about a relative and in some small way replicate the adventure which I had in researching my grandfather.  Third, to afford my students the opportunity to become closer to their families.  Fourth, to do what historians do: work with primary source documents and evaluate them in terms of bias.

In its current form the requirement is for the student to write a 600-800 word paper analyzing at least three primary source documents about his/her family or an important event in the life of the family. Sources may include: birth certificates; old family pictures; letters from parents, grandparents, aunts, or uncles; a family tree document, and interviews of grandparents, aunts, or uncles.  At least two of the three sources must be written documents.

I provide my students specific questions to be answered in their papers, including:

  1. Describe the focus of the paper and what sources you used: What person(s) or event(s) does the paper focus on?  What is your relationship with the person?  Time-frame of the person’s life?  Why did you select this particular person or event?
  2. Discuss the nature of the sources you used: Are the documents believable?  Do the authors have any biases of which you should be aware?   What impact might these biases have on the information in the document?
  3. Analyze the content of the sources: What new information do the sources provide to you? How does this information affect your understanding of your family?

A Very Unique Paper

And finally there was Mary’s paper, focusing on the tragic car accident and death of her Uncle Philip, the uncle that served as protector of Mary’s mother when she and Philip were young.  He was only 26 when the car accident occurred.  “With a severed spinal chord, he lay a quadriplegic in the hospital, unable to breathe on his own or move from the neck down.”  Mary’s paper spoke of the heartache and frustration of her mother’s family, who for months watched not only Philip’s body wither away, but more sadly his former indomitable spirit.  The family agonized over what to do during the ten months he continued to exist, not really live.  “My family hurt, but nothing lasts forever, not people, not pain, and finally they were reminded of life’s perpetual cycle.  I [Mary] was born three months later … and the spring was pushing out the harsh winter.”  How very gratifying it was for me to realize that I had set the conditions for Mary to probe more deeply than she had before into the life and death of her uncle and articulate the impact on her family and for her to see her fortuitous role in the rebirth of hope in her family.

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The Humanities Keep Us Human

(This essay was originally published abridged in print as “Remember that the Humanities Keep Us Human,” by Education Week, January 7, 2015.)

President Obama’s recent announcement of an additional $28 million to bolster STEM teachers is great news and reminds me of my passion for science during those heady days of the Kennedy “Camelot” when the president announced the goal of reaching the moon. In a speech before a special joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, he said: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project…will be more exciting, or more impressive to mankind, or more important…and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

During those days, the Cold War—the state of tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union—was in full swing. Several years before in 1957, the Soviets had leapt out in front us in the space race with the launching of Sputnik. There were fears of a “missile gap” by which the Soviets, leading the U.S. in missile technology, could intimidate, coerce, and—at worse—attack us with nuclear missiles, and we could not defend ourselves. Fallout shelters were all the rage.

Though the STEM acronym did not exist at the time, I was STEM through and through: Sputnik, Telstar, missiles, spaceships, those great missile-like fins on the ‘57 Chevy and the ‘59 Cadillac, and atom-smashing accelerators. Hollywood gave us all those great, corny, “B” science fiction movies. I was all in.

The president’s Educate to Innovate program is now five-years old. When Obama launched it on November 23, 2009, he described it as “a nationwide effort to help reach the goal this administration has set: moving to the top in science and math education in the next decade.” The White House has portrayed it as “an all-hands-on-deck campaign to help more girls and boys be inspired to excel in science, technology, engineering , and math (STEM) subjects.” The program has sought a synergistic effort, using the combined forces of government, education leaders, foundations, companies, non-profits, and scientific and technology professionals. Its major components have included such initiatives as the 100kin10 (seeking to prepare 100,000 excellent STEM teachers over the next decade), Change the Equation (a coalition of CEOs committed to expanding STEM programs to more than 1 million students by 2016), and Discovery Communications (launching a new show next year to inspire students in STEM fields, highlighting “All –American makers”). Even though I chose not to become a scientist, I am all for this.

However, caution is needed here, a caution against imbalance. In our rush to emphasize the empirical sciences, we must be careful not to reduce too much the resources devoted to the Humanities, the mix of subjects normally including the language arts, history, philosophy, religion, and the visual and performing arts. (STEM in recent years has, in some circles, morphed to STEAM, integrating the visual and performing arts.) Science and technology have given us wondrous benefits and conveniences. I can imagine the relief in back pain when 5,500 years ago we invented the wheel. I relish the ability to communicate with ease with my friends in Germany or Skype with my grandchildren far away. Nonetheless, we should not place STEM on a pedestal too high. It brought us the wheel, the polio vaccine, and the Internet; it also brought us napalm, cluster bombs, and the atomic bomb.

STEM can give us the “what and why” of the physical universe, but not the “ought.” Beyond the molecules, fractions, and scientific laws that govern the physical universe, the Humanities, collectively, teach us about “human-ness” and our relationships with each other. They help us connect with each other, understand each other, and cooperate rather than conflict with each other. As the world gets smaller and as we are forced to share more of its fewer resources, it is the Humanities along with the social sciences that will help us cooperate, coexist, continue, and even flourish rather than cancel each other.

We need the language arts. When I decided in 10th grade to study German, little did I know that almost thirty years later, I would be using German to interview former communists of the East German army about German Unification (1990). As anyone who understands a foreign language appreciates, actually living in another language—rather than relying on translations–gives one a much richer and comprehensive understanding of that people, a larger and more nuanced window into the world of that society.

We need English and literature so that we can see and employ the beauty and utility of the spoken, recited, sung, and written word. We cannot think without words. The more sophisticated our vocabulary; the more sophisticated and subtle our thoughts, especially important as we increasingly rely on clipped and mangled English in the digital world. Also through reading about other humans, we can learn more of ourselves. Finally, in my first career as a professional Army officer, during the challenging times I faced, it was not the First Law of Thermodynamics or Newton’s Second Law of Motion that sustained me. It was Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Frost.

We need history. The historical method teaches us how to weigh carefully the credibility and reliability of the sources from which we derive our information and hence our picture of reality. Though I strongly disliked all the “curricular requirements” faceless, unnamed but clearly highly-credentialed educators from the College Board heaped on me as an AP history teacher, I appreciated how these forced me to teach my students such essentials as the difficulties of pursuing knowledge and causality in history compared to the STEM subjects. Crucial is also the skill of patiently and thoroughly asking questions—before the first word of the document is read—about the creator of the document (or visual).

We need philosophy and ethics. More here than in the other Humanities, especially for students who prefer rationality and linearity, is where we can learn to deal with ambiguity and irrationality, where we can grapple with essential questions which have no right answers. In my “War & Morality” course, we deal with such questions as: When is it right to use violence against other human beings? Who is to judge whether there is “just cause” to begin a war? How many alternatives must a state attempt before it is using violence truly as a “last resort”? My students role-play a post-World War II commission, examining whether the British-American fire-bombing of Dresden in February 1945 was a war crime. We end the course with the political, military, legal, and finally ethical implications of using drones in warfare. Moreover, in a world where so much emphasis is placed on “metrics” to measure, these subjects can force us to deal with factors that resist quantitative measurement: trust in Ferguson, Missouri; mistrust with Iran; the fundamentalism and hatred of ISIS.

And finally, there is religion. Whether one is a believer or non-believer, understanding the history of the world’s major religions, their role in societies, and their influence in shaping our world today is crucial to any educated person and engaged citizen. Religion also can give us words and ideas for our celebrations as well as for our commemorations and memorials.

After a Western Civilization lesson on the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, one of my Chinese remained after class. She was curious about Jesus Christ and the broader subject of religion and society. I asked her about religion in China. She indicated that she was never really taught religion, and followed by saying that if there was any “religion” in Chinese education, it would be “science.”

In ancient Greece even wealthy, aristocratic non-Greeks would journey to the famous Oracle at Delphi to seek guidance on their most pressing questions. One of the most common responses the oracle gave was: Meden Agan (Moderation in all things.) STEM must be complemented with an ample ration of the Humanities rather than displace it. Giving too much emphasis to STEM may cause us to lose too much of our HUMAN-ness.


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Faculty Culture

“Faculty culture” is the sum of the dominant beliefs, attitudes, and behavior patterns of the entire faculty.[i] At any given school, it existed before the dean of faculty (or principal) assumed his or her position and will continue to endure after the dean’s departure. It is not easily measured and is perhaps the most overlooked factor in analyzing a school’s environment. This intangible, however, stands as one of the most critical factors in any private school delivering its mission. Faculty culture directly impacts student culture, and these are the two most important components of what can be called “school culture.” Since a school’s higher, long term goals relate to the inculcation of attitudes for life beyond the school (and even college) rather than bits of content easily forgotten, a healthy school culture is a driver in the formation of the school’s graduates.[ii]

Independent School Management (ISM) has stressed the importance of faculty culture and maintains that “developing a growth-focused faculty culture is the most critical ingredient in the long term quality of the student experience—that is, the central determinant of your students’ performance, satisfaction, and enthusiasm.”[iii] ISM also states that faculty culture is the “prime determinant of student retention and recruitment.”[iv]

Touchstones of a healthy faculty culture include such things as:

  • New initiatives percolate from educators rather than generally being directed by the Head of School.
  • Collegiality within academic departments: Departments meet regularly and discuss not only administration but the education of the students.
  • Collegiality among academic departments: Inter-departmental meetings take place on the initiative of the department heads.[v]
  • Teachers do not have major problems finding volunteers, including administrators, to cover their classes.
  • Educators support their colleagues in need within and outside the classroom.
  • Educators have meals together.

The dean must be ever vigilant in tending the lamp of the faculty culture: she or he nurtures it, enforces it, defends it, protects it, and passes it on.


[i] Independent School Management defines faculty culture as the “assumptions, ideas, and beliefs that drive professional attitudes and behaviors.” “Faculty Autonomy and Collegiality: A Leadership/Management Challenge,” Ideas and Perspectives, Vol. 31, No. 7.

[ii] Independent School devoted its summer 2011 edition to the theme “Developing a Professional Culture in School.” See especially Patrick Bassett, “Towards a Professional Culture in Independent Schools,” pp. 9-12; Jonathan Howland, “Morbidity and Mortality,” pp. 24-28; Alexis Wiggins, “Doors Open,” pp. 39-42; and Hugh Jebson and Carlo DiNota, “Trust, Accountability, Autonomy,” pp. 58-62.

[iii] “The Allocation of Time and Your Faculty’s Professional Growth,” Ideas & Perspectives, Vol. 33, No. 9, July 14, 2008, 35. See also “New Research: The Relationship Between Faculty Professional Development and Student Performance,” ISM, Ideas and Perspectives, Vol. 34, No. 13, October 19 2009, p. 49. In his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink expounds on three key drivers: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. For an example of a school that is attempting to apply these principles in its faculty culture, see Jim Scott, “Finding Our Drive,” Independent School, Spring 2011, pp. 50-54.

[iv] “Managing Faculty Culture in Times of Turmoil,” ISM, Ideas & Perspectives, Vol. 34. No. 7, May 18, 2009, p. 27.

[v] For a discussion of the critical component of collegiality, see Robert Evans, “Getting to No: Building True Collegiality in Schools,” Independent Schools, Winter 2012, pp. 99-107.

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Faculty Are the Frontline

The faculty, as teachers, are the frontline where in a private school—with all its various supporting components—has its most important interface with students. No other group of people in the entire school community—administrators, staff, board, parents—has as much daily contact as the teachers. Teachers—as coaches, advisors, mentors (and house parents, in boarding schools)—are the frontline where the school engages its students with its athletic, extracurricular, social and moral/ethical/character curricula.[i]

Research has shown that the faculty is the critical school component not only in student achievement, but also in student satisfaction and enthusiasm. Studying countries such as China, Finland, Canada, and Singapore, Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, has indicated that industrialized countries are in broad agreement on the key role teachers play in student achievement.[ii] Based on its research, Independent School Management (ISM) states the categorical importance of faculty to a school’s mission accomplishment: “…there is no more pivotal, important task than ensuring your school hires mission-appropriate faculty.”[iii] The dean of faculty, or principal in a public school, is the critical administrator in hiring and retaining these teachers, the frontline “service providers” of the school’s product.


[i] Independent School Management (ISM) uses the metaphor of the teacher as “the linchpin to student success.” “The 21st Century School: Teaching Time,” ISM, Ideas & Perspectives, Vol. 34, No. 13.

[ii] “Teacher Quality: What’s Wrong with U.S. Strategy?” Educational Leadership, Dec 2011-Jan 2012, 42. See also Bess Keller, “Teachers Seen as Making Difference in World’s Top Schools,” Education Week, November 7, 2007, p. 8. For a study of 800 pairs of twins that demonstrated the importance of good teachers, see Debra Viadero, “Twin Study Bolsters Arguments for Value of Good Teachers,” Education Week, April 28, 2010, p. 8. David Bouton, principal of Trinity High School, PA, maintains “a good school is one that finds ways to unlock the change agent within teachers—so that they, in turn, can unlock the potential within every student.” “The Key to Unlocking Student Potential: A Collaborative Learning Model,” Independent School, Fall 2011, p. 58.

[iii] “Characteristics of Professional Excellence: Faculty Interviews,” ISM, Ideas & Perspectives, Vol. 33, No. 10, August 11, 2008, 41. A study involving 2.5 million students over 20 years showed that teachers who helped raise their students’ standardized test scores appeared to have positive, longer term effects in other areas of the students’ lives. See Annie Lowrey, “Big Study Links Good Teachers to Lasting Gain,” The New York Times, January 6, 2012.

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Teaching US History: An American Creed

As a retired Army officer, I had always been nagged by my prep school’s rejection of any signs of patriotism. Like most boarding schools, it has never acknowledged several national holidays. Memorial Day has normally been our first day of spring term exams. We have celebrated Martin Luther King Day with a 40-minute program instead of a holiday. Until 9/11, Veteran’s Day was barely recognized, perhaps a quick reference to it during our opening prayer when school assembly fell on the holiday. Our student body has never been asked to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

Therefore, it was with some misgivings that I decided my US History students and I would formulate an American Creed in phases as we progressed through the course. I explained to them that unlike most great powers in history, Americans define themselves by certain words. We have never reposed our trust and identity in an emperor, king, ruler, or political party.

As much as for my students, this would also be a healthy and challenging exercise for me. Having never attempted such an exercise, I held but few preconceived notions about its ultimate composition. I knew clearly it would contain some lines from the Declaration of Independence and probably Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, but beyond these, it was a blank slate. I recognized that it should be neither too long nor too short; the students should be able to memorize it without too much effort. The assessment would come at year’s end with a quiz in which they—with a few prompts—would essentially write the entire Creed. I pictured it containing five to eight statements. I told them that we would not formulate the words; they must come from historical figures—speeches or documents.


Abraham_Lincoln_November_1863, Lib, Congress

Since my school is a Catholic-Benedictine boarding school, all students take Western Civilization in their freshman year. They all learn about the Council of Nicea. In 325 CE, Roman Emperor Constantine, the first Christian emperor, troubled by the controversy over heretical Arianism, called a council of church leaders to resolve it. In ultimately condemning Arianism, it also formulated the Nicene Creed, the basic beliefs of Christians which 1700 years later Roman Catholics still recite at every mass. In this age of heightened partisanship which at times evolves into gridlock, could my students and I discover words on which most Americans would or at least should agree?

But then there were the international students. Over 40% of my students were international, mainly Latinos and Koreans. Should I also require them, not only to help formulate but also commit to memory this American Creed? I decided ultimately that they too would be required to know it and be quizzed on it. Equity was one factor; more important was my conviction that it would be a healthy exercise for them which they could replicate for their own countries’ Creeds. I wagered that they would also benefit, perhaps more than the American students, from comparing our ultimate American Creed with their own.

In the end I decided on these elements. One: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed ….” (Declaration of Independence, 1776) Two: “…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” (Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, 1863) Three: Emma Lazarus: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. (Emma Lazarus, 1883) Four: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.” (Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933) Five: “… ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” (John F. Kennedy, 1961) And finally, six: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” (Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963)

Since I essentially had done the selecting, I asked the students, when assessment time came, to add a seventh quote. I received some interesting ones. Not surprisingly, one student offered the Pledge of Allegiance. Also, “The greatness of a man is not how much wealth he acquires but in his integrity and ability to affect others around him positively.” (Bob Marley) “All great change in America begins at the dinner table.” (Ronald Reagan) “The life of the nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful, and virtuous.” (Frederick Douglass)

Toward the end of the musical Don Quixote, a dramatic moment comes when the near-death Quixote, scorned and covered with scars, asks Dulcinea: “Tell me the words.” He has forgotten the words which once actuated him on his quest. This exercise reminded me and my students of timeless key words which have inspired Americans.

George Packer, in his award-winning book, The Unwinding, suggests how America in the last four decades has been in a “vertigo” of “unwinding,” bringing power to organized money, a surfeit of freedom, aloneness, change, and new celebrity icons. As we undergo renewal, only the cacophony of “American voices” has persisted.

Perhaps in our renewal process, we can rediscover the right words from our past, rebalance their inherent conflicts, and find their best application in the 21st century.


An educator for 35 years, Fred Zilian teaches history, ethics, and political science at Portsmouth Abbey School and Salve Regina University, RI. Contact:





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