Randolph students are really kind, or so I thought. Earlier this week I dropped by the RFAC to have my picture taken for the yearbook, and an eighth grade girl waiting in line snarled at me, “I was so mad at you earlier today!” It was clear that she was by that time on the mend, so I knew the crisis had passed; nevertheless, I was really interested in what had provoked her anger and what I’d done to earn her ire.
It turns out that it all started in American history class. The students are working their way through colonial America and moving forward on the path to Revolution. You might remember the drill. At some point along the way we all buckled down and memorized the chain of events that led to the Declaration of Independence and the Battle of Bunker Hill: French and Indian War, Proclamation Line of 1763, Sugar Act, Stamp Act, Townsend Duties, and so on and so on. For all but the history buffs, this can be pretty ho-hum material, especially for an eighth grader more emotionally interested in the drama of the day than the evolution of Jefferson’s world view.
Randolph’s 7th and 8th Grade Dean and American history teacher Tim Moore brings the course alive by inciting a student revolt that gets them more emotionally attuned to the mindset of the colonists as they broke free from England. Earlier this week (before the unit on the American Revolution begins, by the way), he handed out a memo from me on Head of School letterhead requiring students to pay 50 cents per page for all photocopied material from the library.
Mr. Moore explained that the change in policy was necessary for Randolph to increase revenue as a result of the economic downturn. Students who failed to comply were to receive a zero on the assignment. Bedlam ensued: “That’s so unfair!” “What?” “I’m taking this to my parents!” “This is crazy!” “He can’t do that!”
Mr. Moore kept the straight face and said we’d all have to sacrifice for the good of the School. He then asked the students to go to their lockers for the money necessary to pay for the photocopies. Still fuming but resigned to the School’s authority, they went away to comply with what they deemed an unjust policy.
When they came back he broke the news. Of course it was all a hoax, but one carefully designed to re-orient their perceptions of the past (you might remember that the Crown deemed the Stamp Act necessary to raise revenue for protecting the colonists in an expanding Empire) toward their own lives and day-to-day life at Randolph. A few savvy students gave the memo to their parents, one of whom apparently cursed my name and nearly had an accident on the drive home from school.
Teaching like this requires creativity and innovation. It demands imagination. It calls for a keen ability to understand what matters to students and how those concerns (for eighth graders at Randolph it’s apparently grades and fairness) can be leveraged to expand their perspectives to the wider world and the nation’s past.
We learn best when we’re emotionally engaged and when we’ve decided it matters. Most of us have forgotten far more than we remember about the path to the American Revolution, in part because memorizing dates and filling in the blanks on standardized tests turns out to be pretty boring. But the kind of teaching we deliver at Randolph has the potential to stick, and change a child’s understanding of an epoch forever.