There are few things that I enjoy more than getting students to question, analyze, write about, discuss, and, ultimately, clarify their own views on complicated questions. It reminds me of my own history teachers in high school and how they communicated their passions to us students. In one class, we were supposed to study American history to the end of World War II, but we got caught up in the details and the stories and the discussion—and we never made it to the end of the Revolutionary war. My other favorite class was called European History, but it was actually a long, in-depth analysis of German culture including art, philosophy, and history, and the goal of the class was to examine what it was about Germany that allowed Hitler and the Holocaust to happen there. We read loads of primary sources, we discussed complicated ideas every day, and we tried to answer questions that might be impossible to answer.
In another class, we skimmed through World War I and World War II in a week or so, got up to speed on the rest of the century, and then settled in to spend a few months listening to and discussing Vietnam protest music. The teacher had been at some of those protests, and he wanted us to find that same spirit of purpose in our own lives. I liked that teacher’s view on the world so much that I later signed up for his semester-long class on Marxism. Yes, this was a public high school (before the age of standardized testing or No Child Left Behind). And again, we read primary sources, we discussed big ideas, and we came closer to figuring out our own ideas even if we didn’t quite find answers to some of the questions.
These classes were specific, they were deep, and they did not prepare us for any kind of all-inclusive exam. But they did teach me to think, to discuss, to read complex texts, and to value the ideas that I developed through that process. I took a few lessons from those classes that I always keep in mind as a teacher.
It’s important to read difficult texts on important ideas. I was reading Marx and Nietzsche when I was sixteen, and I am sure that I understood about 10 percent of it, but I gave it a go. I got comfortable reading things that I didn’t always understand. I did my best to get what I could, and I asked questions in class for clarification and help. I learned that a challenge doesn’t have to be scary, and that it’s okay to try something even if don’t always succeed.
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