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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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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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