The bell rings as I distribute the next big assignment.
“We’re tired of writing such structured history essays,” says Sabrina Rodriguez ‘16, one of my strongest American history students. “Please, not another one. They are boring, and you grade them so harshly.”
On hearing this, I first think of my conversation with Nikhil Goyal, 17, author of One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assesment of School. He told me that learning should be relevant and engaging, and with yet another essay assignment I question how well I’m faring on both ends.
This year, I have favored teaching skills over content, encouraging my students to engage with primary sources to inform highly analytical, well-written essays.
I don’t question my decision to deemphasize rote memorization. I’m not naïve: few will remember precise names and dates after the final exam. I have long ago done away with multiple-choice, the main reason countless students dislike history class.
In the fall, students had struggled with effective structure, topic sentences, transitions and analysis.
Early this semester, students completed a five-page essay on Civil War reconstruction:
They have come a long way, making more effective use of primary sources. Their structure is also much improved, but I have done a poor job of teaching proper Chicago-style citations. I also want to reemphasize William Strunk and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style.
I try to explain that the skills gained from these formal writing assignments will serve them well in life, and that they should strive toward perfection.
It’s a tough sell.
After class, I review my interview notes with Goyal.
“Kids need to know statistics and probability and basic algebra,” Goyal says. “They don’t need to know trigonometry or calculus unless they’re going to a mathematic or scientific field.”
This gets me thinking.
Why am I training all of my students to become the next David Macaulay, two-time Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian?
I majored in history and Latin American Studies at Brandeis University, where I had the honor of studying under eminent scholars.
Granting their lingering deficiencies (and quite a few remain), many of my students already write better than most college history majors.
For two years, I served as News Editor of The Justice, the independent student newspaper of Brandeis. I wish I still had copies of the incoherent junk that my reporters, and even follow editors, would submit. Even while persuing my graduate degree, also at Brandeis, I was shocked by several of my classmates’ sloppy writing.
I must stop exerting misspent energy trying to get students to follow my academic pursuits. Instead, I should strive to get them excited about taking ownership of the learning process.
As a teacher, certainly my job is to teach content and skills—which I’ve done. But more than anything, I want to prepare the next generation to succeed in this new century. I want to inspire innovation in how young people brainstorm, create and express new ideas.
I recently finished reading Tony Wagner’s Creating Innovators, in which the eminent education expert explores the significance of embracing this crucial paradigm shift:
The solution to our economic and social challenges is the same: creating a viable and sustainable economy that creates good jobs without polluting the planet. And there is general agreement as to what that new economy must be based on. One word: innovation.
The ability to effectively express oneself in writing will always remain extremely important. At the same time, I must also learn to give equal attention to helping students find their creative spark, which might just translate into something truly extraordinary.
I wish to thank my students for reminding me that writing, while important, is not the only way to express understanding—and sometimes not even the best way.
I traded another essay for this assignment. I think the results speak for themselves, and not to be overly presumptuous, but I think that Goyal and Wagner would agree.
Jack London’s The Apostate
A student creates an authentic diary chronicling Johnny’s life.
One of my students, an exceptionally gifted artist, wanted to express her understanding through a painting. Due to the lack of more traditional “content,” part of her assignment called for a one-on-one discussion with me about how her finctional Johnny dealt with major historical occurrences. She also offered a brilliant oral presentation to the class. Danielle wrote a brief statement, which I include beside her portrait. If you have ever doubted that a picture is worth 1,000 words, start believing.
In my continuation of Johnny’s situation, the train stops in New York City. Johnny spends four months on the street after his arrival. I envision Johnny poor and starving. He is later found by a wealthy and charitable individual, who takes him in as his own. Johnny receives a top-class education with considerable financial support
He always feels grateful, but things still feel amiss. He doesn’t feel like he belongs, and despite this fortuitous turn of events, Johnny contracts a mysterious fever and dies shortly before the outbreak of World War I.
I wanted to portray Johnny utterly deprived of everything. I wanted the atmosphere around him to suggest a state of depression, which the charcoal helped provide. But I also didn’t want him to look as though he regretted leaving his family at the end of the story.