Today is what I affectionately refer to each year as “Teachmas Eve.” We’ve made it through the faculty meetings and the first week or so of adjusting back to a semi-normal sleep and work schedule, and tomorrow we begin teaching in earnest. So with summer coming to a hard close, it seems like a good time to reflect on some summer reading and set a goal for the coming year.

Considering all that I did this summer (moving, etc.), I’m fairly pleased with the amount I was able to read. I read a few things on a whim (like Jon Meacham’s Destiny and Power–the biography of George H.W. Bush–which I recommend), and I was also able to mark off a few books that had been on the “To Read” list for years. One of those was Teach Like a Champion. (I know: It’s so 2010!) I had been meaning to read it for quite some time, but for one reason or another I never got around to reading it.

I don’t agree with everything Doug Lemov writes. Philosophically, for instance, I favor a more student-centered classroom than he does. That said, I am slowly becoming less ideological in my views on teaching. I still hold strong beliefs, but I’ve tried–especially in the last few years–to seek ideas from across the spectrum, and while I wouldn’t do everything Lemov advocates, that doesn’t mean I can’t or shouldn’t do any of it. I believe that all education is contextual, and the contexts in which he and I work are different in many ways. That said, students are still students, and some things probably are more science than art.

Over and over again while reading Teach Like a Champion, I found myself thinking, “Wow–that’s a great idea.” In fact, one of the biggest flaws I see with the book is that Lemov presents “49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College” (his subtitle). There are many great ideas in this book, but for any one teacher to try and implement them all would be nearly impossible. Even thinking about it would be overwhelming.

Even so, when I finished reading the book, I decided that I would try to incorporate some of Lemov’s ideas into my practice this year. I initially thought I would choose a technique from several different chapters, but the more I looked over his list again, the more I decided to focus on one area: classroom management.

I began my teaching career at an all-girls school, and I taught mostly juniors and seniors. The students were, almost without exception, engaged and motivated. They weren’t all academic superstars, but they cared and they wanted to please their teachers. If a student was talking in class or was underachieving, I usually just talked to them and the behavior improved. I loved teaching there, but one of the downsides is that I never really developed strong classroom management skills. I never really had to. When I moved to my next school, which was co-ed (but majority boys) and where I taught primarily 9th graders, this shortcoming hit me right between the eyes. My lack of classroom management skills shone through immediately. I learned on the fly and definitely got better, but it’s still an area that I would call a weakness.

So, with this in mind, I’ve chosen four techniques on classroom management from Teach Like a Champion:

Technique 36: 100 Percent

“There’s one acceptable percentage of students following a direction: 100 percent. Less, and your authority is subjection to interpretation, situation, and motivation.” (p. 168)

On the face of it, this would seem to be one of Lemov’s more authoritarian techniques–one that I would not likely embrace. And, in fact, that pretty much sums up my initial reaction to reading this. First of all, I think it’s a bit ridiculous to expect that 100 percent of students will obey the teacher’s every command, and I don’t think that’s generally the end of the world. We want creative types and divergent thinkers in our classrooms, just as in our world. That said, students should never be allowed to think that they can willfully ignore a teacher’s direction, and I appreciate Lemov’s approach to “100 percent compliance” (particularly using the least invasive form of intervention–a menu of possible responses to any challenge).

Technique 37: What to Do

“Some portion of student noncompliance–a larger portion than many teachers ever suppose–is caused not by defiance but by incompetence: by students’ misunderstanding a direction, not knowing how to follow it, or tuning out in a moment of benign distraction. . . . What to Do starts, logically, with telling your students what to do–that is, with not telling them what not to do.” (p. 177-178)

For me, this is critical. Patience is not my forte, and I know that I am quick to assume that a student is willfully disregarding my instructions. This technique serves as both a reminder that I should be explicit in my expectations and instructions, as well as a reminder to ascertain the cause of the noncompliance. I definitely zone out at times; perhaps this is true of a student as well? (Of course it is, but too often we teachers imagine that what we’re saying has such import that no student could possibly get distracted.) By taking a moment to determine if the cause is incompetence or defiance, we can respond more appropriate–defusing some situations and escalating the ones that need to be escalated.

Technique 38: Strong Voice

“When you get loud and talk fast, you show that you are nervous, scared, out of control. You make visible all the anxieties and send a message to students that they can control you and your emotions.” (p. 187)

Again, because I lacked classroom management skills, I remember how, in my early days of teaching 9th graders, I would raise my voice to talk over students, and I would (at times) engage in a tense back-and-forth with the more outspoken members of the class. Strong Voice reminds me not to do that. When the classroom is loud; get quiet. Don’t allow yourself to be interrupted. Choose your words carefully and judiciously.

Technique 41: Threshold

“The first minute, when students cross the threshold into the classroom, you must remind them of the expectations. It’s the critical time to establish rapport, set the tone, and reinforce the first steps in a routine that makes excellence habitual.” (p. 197)

I’m not sure why this isn’t the first technique in the chapter, if not the book. When I read this, I thought, “Of course. Why don’t I take advantage of the time before class starts to welcome students, to make them feel welcome, and yes, to address any issues that need to be addressed. Why wait until the period begins to address a student who is wearing his headphones? Classroom cultures must be carefully cultivated and then defended vigorously. This will be a challenge for me this year as I don’t have a classroom of my own (I’ll be moving from room to room just as the students will), but I hope to make this part of my practice–to find a routine that works for me in which I can use that pre-class time to build and defend the classroom culture.

There are other techniques that I’d like to incorporate as well (Do Now, Cold Call, Pepper, Take a Stand, etc.) and I probably will do so here and there. But my focus, at least for the next few months, will be on using these techniques to improve my classroom management skills. I’ll try to write periodic reflections on how that is going.


As I noted in my last post, I spent the 2015-2016 in an administrative role at my previous school. Serving as the Assistant Dean of Students at a boarding school was an eye-opening experience on many levels. Now that I’ve left administration (at least for now) to return to the teaching ranks, I thought I should take some time to reflect on what I learned. Much of this is common sense, of course, but I want to have a reminder of my current thinking should I ever go back.

Whenever I’m asked about my experience last year, I always say that if I had to describe it in a single word, that word would be “humbling.” The feedback I received from my supervisors was almost uniformly positive, but I rarely felt like I was doing a good job. This is no doubt a function of perfectionist tendencies, but in many ways, my first year as an administrator felt an awful lot like my first year as a teacher. I was learning on the fly, juggling a lot of new challenges at once, and at times, barely keeping my head above water. More importantly, I learned just how complex the task of running a school really is. As one colleague said to me after I took the position but before I started, “Get ready for lots of grey.” I wasn’t sure what she meant, but I quickly learned. Rarely does a school leader face a decision that is black and white. Most of the “easy calls” are made by others, so by default, the issues that land on an administrator’s desk are challenging and complex. There is often no right answer, and odds are good that someone will be upset with whatever decision you make.

The other thing that caught me off guard (but probably shouldn’t have) was the public nature of the job. There is a steep learning curve, but unlike your first year as a teacher, almost every mistake you make is exposed to your colleagues. As a teacher, you can close your door and make mistakes with the knowledge that the only people who (usually) see them are students–and they tend to be more forgiving than adults! Whether it’s a presentation in a faculty meeting or a difficult disciplinary decision, as an administrator, it can feel like your every move is being scrutinized behind your back. To do the job well, it takes thick skin and maybe even a bit of practiced nonchalance. Sometimes confidence is a choice–fake it ’til you make it!

A few other takeaways:

  • Before beginning, seek clarity about institutional priorities and how success will be defined in the role. There is only so much time in the day, and if you spread yourself too thin, nothing will get done well. When push comes to shove–as it almost certainly will–where should your attention be focused?
  • Find a mentor who is not your supervisor (or your supervisor’s supervisor). Ideally this would be someone who has done your job, but more important than that is finding someone who you feel comfortable asking questions of when you feel “stuck” or leaning on for support when the pressures of the job weigh you down. If you’re moving into an administrative role from the teaching ranks, this can be tricky, because many of the people you previously would have sought out may now report to you, which can alter the dynamic.
  • Early on, focus on “making sure the trains run on time” (that is, crucial logistical/organizational tasks and day-to-day management). We as a society seem to suffer from a “cult of leadership” in which “leaders” are visionary and heroic (think Steve Jobs) and “managers” are boring and maybe even a little bit soul-sucking (think Bill Lumbergh). Nobody aspires to be a “manager,” but in a leadership transition, it’s easy for things to fall through the cracks. No matter how incredible your vision may be, if you can’t (or don’t) “manage” the mundane aspects of the job early on, you will lose credibility and your ability to lead will be seriously compromised.
  • While you focus on the day-to-day, do take proactive steps to build your “leadership capital” for the long term. Even if you have a vision that you hope to implement, it makes sense to learn the lay of the land, and it’s always possible that your vision can be improved upon by others. Do this in the following ways:
    • Build relationships. Just talk to people. Get to know them better on a personal level, without an agenda. You don’t have to become best friends, but getting to know each other is more likely to create trust and make it easier to work through differences of opinion later on. (And for God’s sake, when those differences of opinion occur, don’t try to resolve them over e-mail. Get to know people well enough early on that you can say, “Hey, let’s talk.”)
    • “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” In his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey adapted this from the Prayer of St. Francis (“O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek . . . To be understood as to understand”). No matter where you get it, it’s good advice: ask questions in the spirit of curiosity. Envision yourself as the Direktor Grundsatzfragen or “Director of Fundamental Questions” (see p. 2 of the linked PDF), at least within your sphere of influence.
    • Empower people. I read recently that an administrator’s job is to “say yes as often as possible.” This makes a lot of sense to me, especially in schools. People typically choose to teach (or coach, or …) because they are passionate. Encourage them to develop their ideas, and if they bring one to you, find a way to make it happen if at all possible. It’s become a kind of cliche to say that leaders don’t have a monopoly on the best ideas, but just because it’s a cliche doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
    • Focus on getting a few small “early wins” to build momentum and show people that you can lead. Keep in mind, however, that in keeping with the above, you shouldn’t try to do too much too fast or risk alienating people, so choose the areas you want to tackle carefully.
  • On an ongoing (i.e., daily) basis, be relentless about maintaining your connection to others–both students and faculty. This is important for any leader, but it becomes (I imagine) even more important the higher you climb. (That is to say, it’s probably easier to become “detached” as head of school than as department chair.) Do this in the following ways:
    • If need be, manage your schedule ruthlessly. This may seem like an odd follow-up to “foster a spirit of connection,” but it’s far too easy to get bogged down in e-mail and sit behind your desk all day. Carve out specific times for things like e-mail, phone calls, and daily tasks. Schedule reminders for things that used to be spontaneous, because it won’t be anymore (see below).  The inevitable crisis will throw you off some days, but self-discipline is a must.
    • Be visible. Yes, keeping the trains running on time requires a lot of “desk work,” but people won’t follow you if they can’t see you. E-mails are not an acceptable substitute.
    • Show appreciation for faculty. They work hard and need to know that you recognize that. A small gesture (a handwritten note or a shout-out in a faculty meeting–there’s a big difference, so know your target!) can go a long way. Again, e-mail will not suffice.
    • Even if it’s not spontaneous for you (i.e., you scheduled it on your calendar weeks or months ago), bring joy to people’s day in a way that encourages connection. Have donuts for faculty on a random Tuesday. Set up a hot chocolate station for students as they pass between classes. (In schools–especially high schools–joy and food often go hand-in-hand.)

In terms of the big picture, I learned that leadership can be a lonely business (as when making difficult or controversial decisions), but it can become even more lonely–perhaps dangerously so–if you are not careful and intentional about how and where you spend your time. In addition, effecting positive change in schools is a long game. As with the stock market, invest wisely and be patient, seeking steady growth rather than quick gains, which can be lost just as quickly.

And what about for me going forward? Well, I’ve learned that a formal leadership role can wait until I feel the NEED to lead. Looking back, I wanted to lead and was drawn to some of the challenges of the job in an intellectual sense, but I didn’t have the deep wellspring of passion and energy for the job that it required. Moreover, given the personal/family considerations that ultimately led me to Tampa, I probably wasn’t prepared to play the long game that leadership requires. Someday I might be, and I think this experience helped to clarify for me what kind of leader I would want to be. I’m certainly grateful for the opportunity to learn so much relatively early in my career, but in the meantime, I’m happy to be back in the classroom, and as I get settled in my new school, I’ll seek out smaller, informal leadership opportunities in order to keep building my capacity.

I was doing better with my resolution to write more this year… and then life caught up with me. The last few months have been a whirlwind of job searching, soul searching, house hunting, packing, moving, unpacking, and settling in. Now, as the dust begins to settle, I find myself wanting to get back to writing (and teaching).

As I alluded to in my last post, I’ve been in the midst of a career move, leaving the small boarding school in rural eastern Virginia where I spent the past three years in favor of a considerably larger day school in Tampa, Florida. My wife and I decided last winter that it was time for a change, but I don’t think either of us could have predicted the way things shook out. (Florida, for instance, was not even on our radar when I started my job search. Life is funny sometimes.)

The school we left behind was a lovely little community in many respects. We made some good friends, folks we’ll probably stay in touch with for a long time, but the career opportunities for my wife were sparse, and while she did manage to find meaningful work, few of her colleagues were in the same age bracket/life stage. Owing to the “triple threat” nature of boarding schools, I was usually busy, even on the weekends, and she felt particularly isolated.

Finally, last year I had been offered an administrative role at the school. I was initially very excited about the opportunity, but as the year progressed, I found myself missing the classroom. I taught one section of a class which met 2-3 times per week, and there were plenty of times when that was the highlight of the day. It got me out of my office, interacting with kids, thinking and talking about ideas, and I came to realize that this is the part of the job I love the most. I also felt like I had a lot more work to do to hone my craft as a teacher, and I wasn’t able to do it in that setting or especially in that role. I may very well return to school leadership someday—there are challenges in that realm which intrigue me—but at this point in my career, I don’t feel the need. (That said, I did learn a lot this past year, which I expect will serve me well if/when I do rejoin the administrative ranks. Perhaps that will become a future post.) Along with a few other factors which I won’t get into here, these things set the stage for a move, so I set out in search of a new teaching position.

My experience of the job market was very different this time around than last, when I talked to what felt like 50 different schools and went on (I think) eight campus interviews. This time, the search was more focused from the very beginning. I was invited for a campus interview here in Tampa, and my wife and I spent a weekend here prior to that (neither of us had ever been here before). We really liked what we saw. Tampa felt like the right size—not huge, but with plenty to do. There were different areas of the city, each with their own unique feel. We got some great restaurant recommendations, visited a local brewery, and went for a run along the Hillsborough River, where we saw dolphins breaching the surface. (Of course, it helped that the weather was fantastic. Only a couple of days before, I had been wearing fleece long underwear on the baseball field in Virginia, while in Tampa I wore shorts and a t-shirt.)

In terms of the school itself, I was impressed. There seemed to be a strong intellectual culture among the faculty, along with significant support for professional development. Students appeared bright and engaged, and the history department’s approach meshed well with my own. As we left Tampa, I was excited about the possibilities and hoped I would get an offer. About a week later, it did.

At that point, everything “got real,” and the decision was much harder than I expected it would be. Even with its downsides, the setting in Virginia was beautiful—right on the Rappahannock River near its confluence with the Chesapeake Bay. Crossing the river on the nearby bridge, especially at sunset, could be truly breathtaking. The leadership at my school had been good to me, rewarding me with new responsibilities each year, and it seemed as if I was on an upward career trajectory. And perhaps most importantly, we were close to our families—about 90 minutes away. Even though we didn’t see them nearly as often as we would have liked (boarding school life…), knowingly putting 12 hours of driving distance between us suddenly became tough to justify. After much soul-searching, it was my wife who clarified things for me. She had initially been skeptical when I told her I was thinking of applying for the job in Tampa, but she warmed to the idea, and after listening to me hem and haw for a few days, she finally said, “Matt, this is a good opportunity. You should take it.”

The saga of our house-hunting adventure could easily fill many more paragraphs, but in the end, we bought a small house in a neighborhood that we love. We’re within walking distance of a great park along the river. After several years of having to drive 45 minutes to a good restaurant, we’re now within walking distance of several. And I didn’t realize it before I took the job, but Tampa Bay actually has a phenomenal craft beer scene, with several breweries a stone’s throw from us. We have a sunny backyard where we hope to finally be able to do some gardening, and I’ve made it to my new school in 7 minutes, though I think I may try biking to work when the weather cooperates. All in all, we’re excited about our new situation, and after several weeks of settling in (and countless trips to Home Depot), I’m finally in a place where I can enjoy what’s left of summer.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading (another future post?) and am beginning to plan for the coming school year. While I can’t honestly say I’m not quite ready to give up the summer schedule, I am starting to feel the itch to get back into the classroom. It’s a good feeling.

Note: This post is an attempt to hash through an experience I had alongside my students earlier this semester. I’m attempting to make sense of some big ideas for myself, and I find that I think better through writing, so here goes. What follows may or may not come out in a clear, coherent form. (It should also be noted that this piece was written in dribs and drabs over a period of almost two months.)

I teach in a school that has an ambitious vision for education, which is one of the things that drew me to it in the first place. While many schools talk of an “integrated curriculum” or “place-based education,” this place comes the closest I’ve seen to backing that up, with scaffolded themes and essential questions for each grade level (progressing from a local emphasis in the 9th grade to a global emphasis in the 12th). Each grade level also has a unique three-day “immersion trip” designed to bring these themes to life in an experiential way. Also incorporated throughout the curriculum is a “triple bottom line” approach to sustainability, though the degree of incorporation varies by teacher.


For a sense of what this looks like in practice, I served on the 9th grade team for my first two years here, so I spent some time paddling a canoe around one of the most ecologically significant ecosystems in the entire Chesapeake Bay region, visiting one of the earliest and largest tobacco plantations in the area, talking with an elder of the Chickahominy Indian Tribe, and thinking about the ways in which the Rappahannock River watershed might impact culture and economy (both historically and in the 21st century).

This year, I served on the 12th grade team, so the focus was much broader. In theory, our students are prepared by the 12th grade to address complex questions on a more abstract level, and so in early April, we spent a long weekend in the DC area, exploring questions of global significance. (Because I recently accepted a position at another school, this was also my last immersion trip, so it was very bittersweet for me personally—but what a privilege to be able to witness the entire progression of the program from 9th grade to 12th grade before I leave!)

The trip spanned Thursday morning to Saturday afternoon, and we spent the first day hiking along the Potomac River in Great Falls Park and in Old Town Alexandria. The hike was a bit more strenuous than I expected—a lot of rock scrambling which tested my balance and ankle strength—but the views of the river were worth it. I had heard of Great Falls but never imagined that there was something of such impressive natural beauty and power in such close proximity to the nation’s capital. And that was the point. The trip was designed to take students—and first-time faculty, like me—from a place of relatively unspoiled natural wonder (unspoiled to the naked eye, at least) just a few miles into the city to demonstrate just how much our “built environment” affects the natural environment. After dinner and some time for exploration in Old Town, we ended up along the banks of the Potomac just downriver from its confluence with the Anacostia—a heavily-polluted and long-neglected waterway. We were also about two miles due south of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, almost in a direct line with its north-south runways, which meant that there was a constant flow of planes overhead. I marked them at about one every 90 seconds. Except for the noise, it was hard to imagine a better setting in which to talk about global development and the triple bottom line. Not only was it literal the confluence of two rivers, it was the figurative confluence of people, environment, and economics—all very tangible for students in that moment.

One of the highlights of the trip for me was a visit to the headquarters of the National Geographic Society and its well-known magazine, where we visited with Robert Kunzig, Senior Environmental Editor. kunzig_port2_tnKunzig gave a brief presentation on climate change and the challenges we face, and I was pleased to learn that he is basically optimistic about our prospects. Without downplaying the reality of climate change at all, he acknowledged that there is a lot of scary, out-of-context information out there, and that meaningful improvement is within our reach… if we act. He offered a quote from E.L. Doctorow, which I found quite poignant: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Doctorow, of course, was referring to the process of writing a novel, but Kunzig applied the same principle to reversing climate change: We can’t necessarily see the destination right now, and we certainly can’t reverse climate change in one fell swoop, but that doesn’t mean we can get there.
The best part of the visit, however, was not Kunzig’s presentation; it was the Q&A that followed. The big question of the weekend for me—the question that kept playing in my head, as if on a loop—was “Where does culture fit into the ‘triple bottom line’?” If you’re familiar with the concept, you know that “triple bottom line” companies seek to achieve sustainability, which is defined not strictly as environmental protection, but as a balance of environment, equity, and economy (e.g., profit). But what about culture? Perhaps it fits into the equity (people) category, but that doesn’t feel quite right, as my understanding of equity is structured more around issues of fairness, etc. A company which seeks to profit but do so equitably may nevertheless destroy or change a culture in the process.

Nevertheless, this question of culture arose in my mind on the first night of the trip as we discussed the sustainability of Old Town Alexandria, and affluent community with many historic row houses and other buildings. In a discussion with students about urban planning, I suggested that the preservation of older buildings was one element of sustainability; by not tearing down old buildings to construct new, modern ones, fewer resources were consumed. One student rightly countered, though, that many of those old buildings leak energy, which led to a broader conversation about the “energy cost” of tearing down a building, removing the old materials, the environmental cost of disposing of them, etc. It was a good conversation, and the students were doing their best to consider the different elements of the “triple bottom line,” but I was struck by how quickly the conversation became about economics and ecology. For all of its flaws, one of the things I appreciate about Old Town Alexandria is its charming historical character, and this was barely a consideration.

The question really came to life for me later that same night, as I lay in my sleeping bag on the floor of the church where we were staying. Preparing for our meeting with Mr. Kunzig the following day, I read his article, “Germany Could Be a Model for How We’ll Get Power in the Future” (in National Geographic’s recent “Cool It.” issue).  In it, he connects Germany’s environmentalism to its culture:

The Germans have an origin myth: It says they came from the dark and impenetrable heart of the forest. It dates back to the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote about the Teutonic hordes who massacred Roman legions, and it was embellished by German Romantics in the 19th century. Through the upheavals of the 20th century, according to ethnographer Albrecht Lehmann, the myth remained a stable source of German identity. The forest became the place where Germans go to restore their souls—a habit that predisposed them to care about the environment.

As I read that, I began to think more about American culture. One “grand narrative” of American history involves manifest destiny: “Go west, young man.” Strike out for the frontier. Conquer the land. Bend nature to your will. Having grown up with this narrative likely gives us Americans a very different perspective on the environment. (I recognize that I’m oversimplifying here, but I do think the principle holds.)

During our conversation with Kunzig the following day, a student asked a question about climate change deniers, and Kunzig (who was surprisingly even-handed throughout) came the closest I saw to being dismissive. He basically said that those who deny the science of climate change aren’t worth wasting our time our breath on. While he was talking, though, it hit me: Why not use culture to “sell” action on climate change? It seems to me that many of the people who deny the science are the same ones who might actually be persuaded by a a more visceral cultural argument in favor of environmental sustainability. (Kunzig pointed out that there is a small evangelical movement focused on climate issues, and in response to a student question about the viability of living off the grid, he posited that he could see a rancher in Wyoming choosing to do so because he wanted to be “independent.”)

Yes!, I thought, when he said this. A rancher in Wyoming who installs wind turbines, solar panels, and a cistern for harvesting rainwater? This is rugged individualism. This is bending nature to your will for the 21st century. Of course, when thinking about the triple bottom line, we need to take into account the upfront costs of these technologies: what is the break-even point for recouping one’s investment? And, as the residents of Cape Cod could tell you, wind turbines may affect my neighbor’s business, property values, or  quality of life, so there are equity issues to consider as well. But culture has a role to play, too.

The triple bottom line model—useful though it is—is insufficient to address this. Perhaps it’s time to explore a quadruple bottom line.


About a month ago, I saw a number of people in my news feed sharing an article called “Horizontal History” from the website Wait But Why. I wasn’t familiar with the site before, but it seemed interesting, so I saved it in my Instapaper queue. I finally got around to reading it this week, and it’s worth a read. Fair warning: the language is a bit coarse at times, but the ideas are nevertheless worth considering. I was particularly struck by the following passage.

The reason history is so hard is that it’s so soft. To truly, fully understand a time period, an event, a movement, or an important historical figure, you’d have to be there, and many times over. You’d have to be in the homes of the public living at the time to hear what they’re saying; you’d have to be a fly on the wall in dozens of secret, closed-door meetings and conversations; you’d need to be inside the minds of the key players to know their innermost thoughts and motivations. Even then, you’d be lacking context. To really have the complete truth, you’d need background—the cultural nuances and national psyches of the time, the way each of the key players was raised during childhood and the subtle social dynamics between those players, the impact of what was going on in other parts of the world, and an equally-thorough understanding of the many past centuries that all of these things grew out of.

That’s a pretty good explanation of why we must teach students to think historically. It also explains why history, as it should be taught, is far more complex than names and dates. Like Whitman, real history is large. It contains multitudes.

Earlier this month, Valerie Strauss, in her Washington Post blog “Answer Sheet,” published a guest post by Steve Neumann entitled “Why kids—now more than ever—need to learn philosophy. Yes, philosophy.” Neumann, to his credit, recognizes the seeming absurdity of his claim, opening his manifesto by acknowledging that “The idea that schoolchildren should become philosophers will be scoffed at by school boards, teachers, parents, and philosophers alike.” But Neumann is not arguing for esoterica; his is a call for a more usable philosophy. As he writes, The kind of philosophy I have in mind helps kids become better citizens by turning the classroom into what the philosopher John Dewey called ‘embryonic society.’”

Laughable though it may appear, in today’s hyper-partisan society, Neumann’s call is spot on. In particular, Neumann takes issue with political polarization and the “state of discourse” in our current political culture—an issue that shapes my own educational philosophy. Neumann states, “I think most of us realize that society is a necessary compromise, and at least pay lip service to the idea that critical thinking and effective communication are virtues essential for its success. As we get older  many of us tend to be less open to new information, evidence, and arguments — but we can and should instill the requisite virtues in our children via K-12 education.” He quotes Frederick Douglass in support of this: “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

Central to Neumann’s article are the concepts of inquiry and dialogue—hallmarks, to my mind, of any good classroom.

The focus is on asking questions because philosophy, as Socrates said, begins in wonder. We don’t just ask ourselves questions—we ask others, those who make up our society. It’s true that philosophy involves a lot of sittin’ and thinkin’ on one’s own, but as the late American philosopher Matthew Lipman wrote in his essay “The Educational Role of Philosophy:”

“Philosophy may begin in wonder and eventuate in understanding, or even, in a few instances, in wisdom, but along the way it involves a good deal of strenuous activity. This activity generally takes the form of dialogue.”

Dialogue is key because only then will our assumptions, reasoning, and conclusions be challenged. Only then can we become better thinkers. And in the process of becoming better thinkers through intellectually rigorous dialogue, our children can become better citizens.

Neumann argues for a constructivist classroom, or as he describes it, “a kind of philosophical apprenticeship where they learn by doing.” Although his focus is explicitly on philosophy, I think the idea holds for history as well. As he writes, “The teacher’s job is to guide and inform student inquiries, helping them pay attention to the quality of their reasoning, and making sure they realize they’re meeting on terms of equality and mutual respect.” That’s exactly what I try to do in my own classroom. I even wrote an article about this a few years ago.

As I read the news about Antonin Scalia’s death and the partisan rancor that swirls around his potential replacement, I can’t help but think of the opportunity that exists for those teachers brave enough to wade into the controversy. What a wonderful opportunity this offers to help students ask important and relevant questions, and then converse about it. In an ideal setting, the classroom would contain a spectrum of opinions which led to strenuous—though civil—conversation.

We have an opportunity to help our students become philosophers or historians or whatever they want to be, but we have an obligation to help them become citizens worthy of the name. Neumann is right: the younger generation has the capacity to create a better, more civil politics, but they won’t do it unless we help them. Left to their own devices (literally and figuratively), they will be socialized by the likes of Donald Trump and Michael Moore, and they will be trapped by our broken status. We, the Teachers, must help them become philosophers (in the sense that Neumann describes) so that they might envision a better way.

This is a great article and should be read by all teachers, but especially history/humanities teachers.

On Monday, I came across this article on The Atlantic website: “A Better Way to Teach History.” It should be required reading for all history teachers. The author describes an undergraduate class at Harvard taught by Professor David Moss, who does most of his teaching at the Harvard Business School.

In a spacious classroom in Aldrich Hall on the Harvard Business School campus, 100 students are passionately discussing a case called “Battle Over a Bank.” But these aren’t MBA students deliberating over how much the government should regulate the financial sector. This group of mostly undergraduates, guided by the award-winning Harvard Business School professor David Moss, is diving into the fierce 1791 debate over whether the Constitution could be interpreted to allow the fledgling U.S. government the power to form a bank at all.

This class, “History of American Democracy,” is no pedestrian historical survey course. It uses the case method—the business school’s signature teaching technique—to immerse undergraduates (as well as a limited number of HBS students) in critical episodes in the development of American democracy.

The article was a revelation. As someone who is committed to a more constructivist classroom, I am always looking for tools and techniques to add to my toolbox. The Harkness method forms the cornerstone of my pedagogical approach, but students (and I!) sometimes need a change of pace. The case study approach looks like a wonderful way to bring the concept of contingency alive for students–to illustrate the present is profoundly shaped by each decision made in the past. By extension, the decisions we make in the present will shape the future.

Along those lines, the case study method offers a way to engage students in the learning process and also, as the article states, “help students develop an instinct for how to respond even to problems—whether they be furor over same sex marriage or a massive financial crisis—that feel unprecedented. Through sheer repetitive exposure to problems and problem-solving, students learn the art of decision-making.” This is very much in keeping with my vision of history education as a key to civic preparation.

Last fall, I discovered the National History Center‘s Mock Policy Briefing Program, which has the potential to do much the same thing: illustrate for students for students how the study of the past can, in fact, have relevance in the present and influence the future in important ways.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.