Friday, October 16, 2009

Better off Leiken

"Ladies and Gentleman," I begin, voice echoing with authority. "Can anyone give me one of three reasons why the United States is the most powerful country in the world today?" I write three numbers on the board.


I fully expect someone to call out the military, or the economy, but not the #1 reason. Culture.

"Culture, mister!" a girl shouts.

My marker drops. Who told her that? American culture, that all encompassing, hegemonic force that devours other cultures like the blob and replaces it with blue jeans, Disney, and McDonalds! How could she possibly know?

"Where did you learn that?" I ask, stunned.
"You told us that last year!"
"I did?"
"Yes, and then you went on about how people in other places like our movies and our music and how everyone wants to be like us!"

The class nods their heads. I taught them something and they actually remembered? From last year? How is this possible?

Its possible because of my work with Duran, who gives me free reign to teach one of his history classes. He facilitates, while I put on the show. I draw cartoons on the overhead, I sing songs, crack jokes, recite ancedotes, all the while prompting students to think for themselves.

I'm not just teaching history. I'm telling a story.

The difference between a good history teacher and a bad one is the ability to relate it to the students. They would call this "keeping it real," but I call it "making connections."
Pioneers, for example:

1. Pioneers
2. Davy Crockett
3. American Folk Lore
4. Popularization - Disney
5. Which leads to me singing...

"Born on a mountain top in Tennessee,
Greenest state in the Land of the Free,
Raised in the woods so's he knew every tree,
Kilt him a b'ar when he was only three!
Davy, Davy Crockett, King of the wild frontier!"

The students stare at me with wide saucer eyes as I sing the lyrics off a power point with a picture of Davy Crockett and his trusted Indian side kick, Mingo.

"Hey Mister, wasn't Mingo the name of one of those 18th century slaves that escaped?"

Damn, how are they remembering this? "Yes, that's from the reward poster I showed you. No relation to Davy Crockett's side kick."

"Oh." the student replies, disappointed.

A week later I'll be covering the Civil War. I have several power points that I've created along with it, there is something magical about having a picture projected onto a screen to go along with a lecture. I finish the first part of the lecture a few minutes early.

The students look up, surprised. "What? Is that it Mister?"

"That's it for today, I'll start part two tomorrow."

"But you didn't tell us what happened to that Jackson guy!"
"Yeah, and you didn't even get to that big battle, Getty something."
"And did they ever stop calling Lee "Granny Lee?"

I smile and shake my head. "You'll have to wait until tomorrow."

The class lets out a sigh of disappointment.

There is a movie called "Better off Dead," starring John Cusack. In the film a high school math class loves their math teacher, clapping every time he shows them how to solve a problem on the board. When the bell rings, they let out a giant "AWWWW."

The teacher tells them not to worry, that he'll see them all again tomorrow. The class in the film cheers.

"I'll see you all tomorrow." I smile, expecting applause.

No one claps.

Damn, not quite that good yet.

The bell rings.
"See you tomorrow mister! This was cool!"
"Good lecture Mister Leiken!"
"You'll be here tomorrow, right?"

I nod. Someone pats me on the shoulder. A student approaches me and holds out his hand. I stare at it, and for a moment am unsure of what to do.

I reach out my hand and he shakes it.

"Thanks Mr. Leiken. You tell it like it is."

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