I received an email from a former student today. She wrote,
“I am currently a senior [in college], and have been focusing a lot on political economic theory recently . . . and I keep on thinking about your lit and philosophy class. It was really really smart, and I am really grateful to have taken it. I was wondering if you still had the reading list for the class?”
This is not the first time I’ve been asked this. (It’s a great honor, and these messages always fill me with gratitude and joy.) It was a popular class, one that I completely made up from scratch. When writing the syllabus, I never once considered the state’s Essential Academic Learning Requirements or what a traditional “philosophy” class might include. Instead, I focused on creating a curriculum that inspired me, selecting ideas that had a profound impact on the way I think.
Because I was inspired every day, I was able to facilitate class discussions with energy and enthusiasm. Every class period really mattered to me because every class period was focused on an idea that had changed my life!
I knew that, at some point, the party would have to end. After a number of years, the class was taken away from me and given to another teacher. When my colleague asked for my course materials, I was happy to share but knew they wouldn’t really help. The selected readings I’d chosen only made sense in context with personal stories I tell along with them. The connections I would make between a particular video and an academic article were not necessarily obvious to anyone else.
This is true of occasions where I was expected to teach a brand new class in an area in which I had little expertise. I would visit a colleague who had taught that class with great success, and ask to borrow her curriculum. In the end, I would almost never use any of it. It didn’t make sense to me because inspired curricula are almost never transferrable. They’re created by teachers as artists, and great art is unique to the artist.
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My friend Nick wrote to me earlier this week and scolded me for constantly critiquing the existing paradigm while rarely proposing specific solutions. So, with a nod to Nick, here’s my specific advice:
1. Hire talented teachers and let them teach what inspires them.
2. Never require—in fact, never allow—a teacher to teach content that doesn’t inspire him or her.
3. Allow teachers to bring their whole selves to work; don’t limit their ability to share talents and things they love simply because it falls outside of their academic department.
I know what you’re thinking: If we followed this advice, we’d have to completely re-invent the way we’ve structured our schools. The current model simply can’t accommodate these recommendations.
Exactly. We have to re-invent the way we structure our schools.
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