It’s back-to-school time. Unfortunately, our materialistic society “gears up” without preparing properly, focusing on increasingly complicated lists of school supplies and ever-more expensive school outfits. As an educator and the father of four, I wish students also outfitted themselves intellectually, psychologically and spiritually for their educational adventures.
These magical, mystical, whimsical school supplies for all ages could make school the mind-expanding and soul-stretching experience it should be rather than the mind-narrowing and soul-deadening ordeal it often is.
A pencil case stuffed with sharp questions Dr. Isidor Isaac Rabi, the Nobel-prizewinning physicist whose pioneering work on nuclear magnetic resonance led to MRIs and microwaves, recalled that “every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘So? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother.” She asked: “Izzy, did you ask a good question today?” “That difference,” Rabi explained, “asking good questions, made me become a scientist!” Our family friend Meir Rotem always welcomed Shabbat guests by saying “ein habaishan ochel” – “the shy one doesn’t eat.” Similarly, I welcome students by saying “he or she who does not question does not learn.”
Notebooks for interpretation, not just transcription The overwhelming amount of information teachers feel compelled to pass on can be deadening. When education becomes just a knowledge transfer, students never learn how to learn. Interpretation, analysis and understanding how to think about an issue all last longer than a memorized list.
As a historian, I need students to know basic names, dates and places. But history teachers who stop there shortchange their students.
Once they have some basic facts, then the fun begins, with the search for meaning and a multi-layered, multidimensional and often multi-generational dialogue not only about what happened but why it happened and what we can learn from it.
Pens, pencils (and even laptops) for writing, not just note-taking The best way to integrate information, to analyze, is to write it up. Increasingly we live in the land of “listicles,” chronicling often trivial happenings or images; we must free ourselves to live in the empire of interpretation.
Learning how to write a basic, compelling, logical, elegant essay is our passport into the world of reason and ideas.
A never-ending reading list Often, students peruse the lengthy syllabus I distribute at the start of my class, then look stricken. I reassure them that, especially in American history, the challenge is to learn how to read big books, manage long assignments and process vast amounts of information without drowning in the details. But much as I take pride in my syllabus, the best path to a sharp mind and a creative imagination is to read, read and read some more. Yes, great books, classics, deep texts are better. But, especially in our age of snap-reading and snap-chatting, the delightfully old-fashioned act of reading a good long book from start to finish is revolutionary enough, valuable enough – the literary quality is the bonus. So, every time you cross off a book from your reading list, two or three should magically appear, Harry Potter-style.
A Mary Poppins-style backpack Remember Jane and Michael’s wonder as Mary Poppins pulls a hat stand, lamp, mirror and other goodies from her magic carpet bag, chiding them to “never judge things by their appearance” when they say the bag looked empty? Too many kids’ overstuffed backpacks today weigh them down, evoking the slaves dragging bricks in Egypt not birds soaring through the air or explorers wandering exotic locales, unleashing their imaginations and being delightfully surprised by their discoveries.
Remember great education’s guaranteed investment strategy: the more you invest, the more you risk, the wider you roam, the more you gain.
An art kit to bring color and sparkle to even mundane tasks My ninety-year-old grandmother said that when she looked in the mirror she still saw a young woman. Art supplies are our pixie dust to enlighten, illuminate, inspire, letting us see the world as it once was or as we wish it could be, not just as it is.
A compass to draw a tight, warm circle of friends together Learning individually is fine. Learning in a community of shared values, shared beliefs, shared experiences and strengthening bonds improves the experience exponentially.
A tablet (think Moses, not Steve Jobs) We can be hip and tech-savvy, but remember those two famous tablets too. We may ask “what am I going to do” without the latest high-tech gizmos; but without Ten Commandment-style morality, without tradition, without anchors, we end up lost, wondering “who am I” and “how do I live a meaningful life?” Not just an apple for the teacher but respect, appreciation – and higher salaries Once, parents assumed the teacher was right. Today, with “helicopter parents” having become “bulldozer parents” knocking down any obstacles in their precious children’s way, teachers are frequently challenged if they dare question a kids’ behavior. Apples are nice, but three “gimmes,” three times during the school year when students and parents give teachers the benefit of the doubt, would not only help the teacher but the child. Growing up involves adjusting to unpleasant situations, dealing with disappointments, coping with unhappy adults, and letting go, even if you believe you are right.
And in the lunch box: a balanced approach to schooling to match your nutritionally balanced packed lunch.
The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s which will be published this October by Thomas Dunne Books of St. Martin’s Press. A professor of history at McGill University who will be a Visiting Scholar at the Brookings Institution this fall, this will be his eleventh book. Follow on Twitter @ GilTroy www.giltroy.com.