Tag Archives: books

The Swerve in the Classroom

I haven’t taught World History in about 10 years, and I miss it. Although there are times when I go back in the midst of teaching Multicultural Studies to the histories of different parts of the world, it just isn’t the same. There’s something about teaching the stories of hundreds of years ago in distant lands that almost makes me think I am dusting off some scroll somewhere.

That’s exactly what happened to Poggio Bracciolini in 1417.

He is the subject of a book I just finished reading called, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt. It’s the story of a papal secretary who, after having his boss jailed, takes his time scouring Europe’s hidden monasteries trying to find, copy and share the writings of the ancient world. He belonged to a group of thinkers called Humanists, who all shared the same goals. Well, in 1417, Poggio stumbled across a scroll written ages ago by Titus Lucretius Carus, a Roman philosopher. It was called, On the Nature of Things – and surprisingly, the author of this book (The Swerve) came across Lucretius’s work in almost the same way, in a used book bin one day.

Greenblatt’s thesis is that the poem, On the Nature of Things, helped catalyze the changes going on in Europe during this period by challenging basic ‘truths’ that were violently enforced by Church dogma. Once other thinkers also read this poem, they were forced to look at the world in a different way as well. This meme would shape the Renaissance. So…

What does this have to do with the classroom?

In my time teaching, I’ve often wondered what creates that spark. What memes cross from me (or our research, lessons, activities, projects, debates, etc.) to my students? What ideas have the longest lasting power? Which ones stimulate the deepest pondering? What stories connect personally to students? Where is the swerve?

The title of the book was chosen to represent a central theme by Lucretius in his poem. He points out that the universe is made of invisible particles that do not move in a predetermined order. The smallest variations, combined and recombined infinitely, create what we know as free will. This swerve accounts for all awareness and wonder.

So, in the history class, is it justice? Does that idea move through students to focus awareness and wonder? Is it identity that personalizes the events and issues in history through the eyes of different, unique individuals? Is it the concept of time, binding cause and effect in a seemingly endless cycle?

Well, I’ve got some questioning to do. The wonder has begun…

To End All Wars

I am a prisoner of the Great War.  I am terrified by the magnitude of suffering, but also humbled by the individual stories of character and integrity that is demonstrated by the most common soldier.  I am more angry at this war than any other.  The futility of direct assault and the crime of attrition seem to me to be dangerous indicators of humanity’s basest weakness: man’s inhumanity toward man.

My feelings about World War 1 were validated in a new book by Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion 1914-1918.  In reviewing the book, Christopher Hitchens writes in the New York Times Sunday Book Review,

“In his previous works, on subjects as diverse as the Belgian Congo and the victims of Stalinism, Hochschild has distinguished himself as a historian “from below,” as it were, or from the viewpoint of the victims. He stays loyal to this method in “To End All Wars,” concentrating on the appalling losses suffered by the rank and file and the extraordinary courage of those who decided that the war was not a just one. Since many of the latter were of the upper classes, some of them with close relatives in power, he is enabled to shift between the upstairs-downstairs settings of post-Edwardian England, as its denizens began in their different ways to realize that the world they had cherished was passing forever.

No single narrative can do justice to an inferno whose victims still remain uncounted. Hochschild tries to encompass the global scope of the disaster, and to keep us updated with accounts of what was occurring at a given time in Russia and the United States, but his main setting is England and his chief concern the Western Front. In this hecatomb along the minor rivers of Flanders and Picardy, the British people lost the cream of their working class and the flower of their aristocracy. The poems of Wilfred Owen and Rudyard Kipling, in their contrasting ways, still have the power to touch the tragic chord of memory that Hochschild strives to evoke.

Part of this is the chord that I try to evoke myself in the classroom when teaching the Great War.  I use clips from the powerful documentary, The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century, to provoke ethical problems to address as well as practical military strategies to resolve, but the war is so encompassing that I almost never feel I do it justice.  One of the most thought provoking narratives that Hochschild highlights is that of the dissenter, specifically English anti-war activists and conscientious objectors.

On a few occasions, I have moved in this direction, by having students focus on the reasons for war and its negative impact on the individual by using segments from the documentary, Soldiers of Conscience and its POV coverage (with lesson plans), which addresses current soldiers in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who have chosen conscientious objector status.  On other occasions, I find even myself trapped by the excitement of the war.  Gas attacks, new weapons, aerial bombardments, and epic battles almost intoxicate me.  In the words of Australian soldier Cyril Lawrence, I see this same sentiment when he reflected powerfully in his diary…

“This is a marvelous war, you know, when you think it over.  Life will be awfully tame afterwords.  Really, I do not know what we shall do for excitement.  Where shall we see such things as a bombardment at night, with a thousand of gun flashes stabbing the air everywhere?  The indescribable din and noise, the thrill that comes with the sight of a balloon coming down in flames, the excitement of a gas attack, when you spend hours in a helmet and the whole atmosphere is deadly, the awful mud and the constant struggle against difficulties, danger and death.  I can never forget that none of us when we went on leave could sleep that time. The quiet disturbed us.”

How much of any lesson on war in a history class reflects this dichotomy?  Hochschild does begin a debate on the balance of dissent in war, and I applaud him for his careful and complete research on the subject, but I struggle with these same questions when facilitating any instruction on war in my class.

And then there’s my students.  Does the quiet of their life disturb them now?  Is this one of the reasons we, as an aspect of our common humanity, are drawn to conflict, as well as its resolution?

I have many questions to ponder, but for me and my teaching philosophy, I would have it no other way.  That is what I bring to my students.

Teacher Bookshelf

Aiding the development of the NBLA has been dozens of authors who have led the way in their fields.  Whether studying how differentiated instruction combines with Understanding by Design or studying small school models, the teachers of the NBLA design team have collected a large bookshelf of resource materials.  We’d like to share these books with you and explain how each book has contributed to the NBLA design. [Note to other teachers: I’ve used Son of Citation Machine at http://citationmachine.net/index2.php?start=# for the MLA format.]

  • Wiggins, Grant and Jay McTighe. Understanding by Design. 2nd. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2005.
  • Tomlinson, Carol Ann and Jay McTighe. Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design: Connecting Content and Kids. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2006.
  • Wagner, Tony and Robert Kagan. Change Leadership: A Practical Guide to Transforming Our Schools. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2006.
  • MacGregor, Mariam. Building Everyday Leadership in All Teens: Promoting Attitudes and Actions for Respect and Success. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing, 2007.
  • Wiggins, Grant and Jay McTighe. Schooling by Design: Mission, Achievement and Action. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2007.
  • Lee, Valerie and Douglas Ready. Schools within Schools: Possibilities and Pitfalls of High School Reform. New York, NY: Teachers College Press, 2007.
  • Feldman, Jay. Choosing Small: The Essential Guide to Successful High School Conversion. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2005.

Lords of Finance

As I’ve done over the last couple of years, I go to a bookstore in the beginning of the summer and look for the Pulitzer Prize winners in non-fiction.  This year, it was Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World.  Ah, it was going to be another book comparing the crisis we are in with the Great Depression.  Or at least that is what I thought when I picked up the book.  Ironically, it was given some kind of ‘best book of the year’ by Goldman Sachs.  Hm.  If the current bankers who broke this world thought this was a good book about past bankers who broke their world is a good read, I thought I would give it a try.

Because I have read a heavy amount of books about different issues, events and individuals in history, I usually can determine how and why it was written from the first chapter.  Journalist-historians have a powerful narrative to tell.  They are great at weaving together different facts to make the story a fun read, but usually without much depth of research.  Academic historians are a bit more stuffy.  They love the research and can’t wait to share the two or three hundred footnotes they’ve collected after a decade of basement-dwelling and document reading.

This was a surprising blend of the two.  It reminded me of Timothy Egan’s powerful book on the Dust Bowl, The Worst Hard Time, and how it was written.  In this case, the story focused on the leaders of the central banks in the nations of the United States, Great Britain, France, and Germany and their role trying to preserve the gold standard and prevent the economic damage caused by World War 1 from destroying their collective economic wealth and prosperity.  By their misplaced actions, they helped strongly to contribute to the same collapse they dreaded.  One voice stands out among this crowd, almost arrogant, but definitely prophetic – John Maynard Keynes.  As a nay-saying economist he more than anyone else saw the dangers of these actions and warned the world about them – to naught.

Another surprise was that the book was written before (actually, part of it was during) the collapse of Lehman Brothers – the rock that began the avalanche.  As with all good lessons in history, this book teaches us our mistakes.  Hopefully we can learn and avoid them in the future.