The Past Becomes the Present, Finding Fixes for the Future

Alzar School | 01.05.13

I hope that all you readers have a day like I had a couple Fridays ago. We had reached the end of our units, incidentally, in both Spanish classes, World History, and US History. As such, we were presenting alternative assessments to illustrate our learning from the unit. As our unit on the natural world came to a close in Spanish, students were assigned to write and to recite a nature poem. As they read to the class, it overwhelmed me just how much they have accomplished and how much tangible growth I could see in my students. Mind you, this is all a testament to their exceptional attitudes and hard work. Writing poetry in English is hard, in a foreign language even more so. And here students were, presenting unabashedly in front of their peers on complex themes, requiring listeners to draw inferences and to make connections. If this had been the only occurrence of the day, this would have been a stellar victory, another of the many reminders of how wonderful our students are here. But that wasn’t it.

In US History, we were finishing up our discussions of the first half of the 20th century, discussing the implications of two world wars. To that end, we simulated the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War in an effort to see if we could avoid a second one. Of course, we did. We agreed that punishing Germany too harshly would only result in lingering animosity, but we also agreed on the need to reduce the amount of weapons available to each country. I have faith that whether our history students become diplomats or driving instructors that they will be able to advocate for compromise and coolheaded-ness. Students not only got to assume alternate personalities (I think some of them particularly enjoyed feigning Southern accents), but they got to experience the world from a different perspective. And isn’t that one of the ultimate goals of learning?

In World History, we faced a similar task, as our classroom took on the feel of a think-tank. The last class of the Friday, this was the culminating moment that convinced me that our world was going to be all right. As is the case with the media, the good news doesn’t always make the history books, thus, it is an important reminder for us all to consider the version of history that we digest. Reading about world wars and institutionalized killing can instill hopelessness on occasion. I invite anyone who is feeling this way (or who has been reading too much history) to join class with my students. They present the perfect antidote to diplomatic despair. That Friday they spoke with clarity and eloquence about the ways in which history is still relevant, the connections that have shaped our world into what it is today. We discussed the pros and cons of the Industrial Revolution and the social, political, cultural, and economic changes it engendered. Students dissected the causes and connections present in nationalist and revolutionary movements, along with the mass migration of humans. I can’t articulate how impressive the level of thought was that students showcased and continue to demonstrate in class.

I should mention that the most noteworthy consideration of the day was how much students generated the discussion. As a teacher, I can occasionally fall into the mindset that I must foster critical thinking in my students. Realistically, however, my most effective course of action occasionally is to get out of the way and to listen. I think I said fewer than 200 words in every one of my classes that day; those of you who know me understand that is an exceptionally small number. The students were the ones challenging their peers and posing complicating questions, also a testament to the sorts of discussions (Harkness) that Ellie has been teaching in English. In short, Friday was the kind of day that confirms the truth that students take ownership and challenge themselves when presented with the opportunity.

As we transition into our new units, we are focusing very much on the future. We are watching history become the present, and we can’t help but speculate about the future. I can’t speak for my students, but they give me much for which to be hopeful. In Spanish we are considering the future as well, in this case literally through the future and conditional tenses. We are asking what will and what would happen? We are examining the role of technology in today’s world and the role of Spanish as a global language. It’s a pretty exciting time.

I want to reiterate again how honored I am to teach your sons, daughters, cousins, nephews, nieces, friends, acquaintances, sisters, brothers, teammates, advisees, and students. I hope they can serve as a reminder to all of us that our world is coming into pretty good hands after all.