Unorthodox Living and Teaching in a Standardized World: part two

Standard

Innovation requires out-of-the-box vision. We respect and revere men like Steve Jobs for their vision and for their ability to see the potential in ideas. Yet we don’t teach our teenagers to think for themselves.  Teachers in the humanities need to encourage students to find their OWN insights into literature along with learning what other scholars think. History should be a captivating story of society and cultures, how it rises and falls, evolves, changes, succeeds, and fails. We learned early on that “in fourteen hundred and ninety two Columbus sailed the ocean blue” but why? What motivated him? How is he like Neil Armstrong or Walt Disney or Bill Gates? The connections are what make history come to life. But the connections don’t matter on a standardized test so we don’t ask.  But, why NOT? Teachers are supposed to train learners, aren’t they?  Doesn’t it follow that a kid who finds relevant connections to history and literature and economics is going to do just fine on the standardized tests?

I’m a big fan of asking questions. First of all, I don’t have all of the answers. And if you’re honest, you don’t either. Secondly, as compelling as I think I am, no one wants to listen to me tell facts about this or that.  Facts matter, yes, but only as a foundation for discourse.  The interesting stuff starts to happen when students make connections between facts and themselves. Students recognize this, too, even though they may not know it yet. When I teach F451, most students intuitively like Clarisse and dislike Mildred. Why is that? Mildred represents everything we seem to value: she has material goods, friends who make her feel good about herself, and a place in a society that is a perfect fit for her. She may not be in the A-list group, but she isn’t the bottom of the heap, either.  Clarisse, on the other hand, is a loner, ostracized by her peer group, ridiculed in school, unconventional in her interests, habits, and appearance. Clarisse is, in her society, weird. Mildred is normal.  It never fails, though. Every reader sees Clarisse as the more appealing character. Clarisse thinks deeply. Clarisse questions authority. Clarisse wonders and reads and talks. Students want to do the same, but too often we tell them the answer we want to hear and expect them to parrot it back to us. This is counter-productive. Is Clarisse a symbol? Perhaps, but more importantly to this generation, Clarisse gives teenagers permission to be unorthodox enough to find wisdom. Our job as teachers should be to show students the joy of imagination and wonder and discovery.

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