The World Can (And Should) Be Your Teacher

Intrigued by my experience yesterday of asking Dr. Paul Farmer a question, via Twitter, at a sold-out event at Duke that I did not attend (see my previous blog post), I re-visited Duke’s online video page:

I was curious to see what other events might be archived on that site.  There, I noticed a book conversation in the DukeReads series.  It was called “DukeReads with Tim…”

I clicked on this event, and as I suspected, “Tim” referred to Dr. Tim Tyson, a Duke professor who wrote one of the more powerful books I’ve read in a while — Blood Done Sign My Name.

I know what a thoughtful and dynamic speaker Dr. Tyson is because he delivered a great presentation and Q&A session at Cary Academy’s MLK Day celebration in 2010. He was phenomenal and inspiring. So I clicked on the link to learn more from Dr. Tyson.  I was curious to learn what book he was talking about at Duke.

Turns out he spoke — about a month ago — about James Baldwin’s book, The Fire Next Time. As I started watching the program, I saw that the person who introduced Dr. Tyson and talked with him about the book was NPR’s Frank Stasio, host of The State of Things every weekday.

So there’s Dr. Tyson on the left, and there’s Frank Stasio on the right, and they’re having a conversation for more than an hour about a classic book, The Fire Next Time.  How cool is that for Duke to put that online?  Thanks, Duke!

At the start of the program, Frank Stasio asked Dr. Tyson why he chose this book. Dr. Tyson explained that he moved into a rooming house in Chapel Hill when he was about 18 years old, and when he moved the bed, a piece of paper fell. And on the paper was typed these words:

“One cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own: in the face of one’s victim, one sees oneself.”

— James Baldwin

At the time, Dr. Tyson had not heard of James Baldwin, so he went to a used bookstore and purchased the book. He says that he’s been reading the book ever since.

Imagine a middle school student who got interested in The Fire Next Time because of this program. Now imagine a world in which the student would actually be allowed to read The Fire Next Time and blog about it for homework for the next few days.

Imagine that — giving students the flexibility to follow their own interests and passions! This is exactly what students will do on a regular basis at the middle school I’m opening in August 2013, Triangle Learning Community.

We live in a world where a student can visit any university’s website, click a link, and turn people such as Dr. Tyson and Frank Stasio into her teachers for more than an hour. And it’s not just university websites — students could also choose one of many powerful TED Talks to watch…

Or students could view one of many Google Talks, where prominent thinkers visit with Google employees to engage in conversation:

Why, in a world full of such rich and diverse content, are we still sending students to schools where there’s a set curriculum that mandates that everyone learn the same thing at the same time at the same pace? Worse, this curriculum keeps students so busy that it does not leave room for students to pursue their own interests.

If the goal is to engage with a significant text, why should it matter whether a student chooses The Fire Next Time or The Grapes of Wrath or To Kill A Mockingbird?

If the goal is to discuss a book with classmates, then of course we’d all read the same book. And that will happen at my school as well. But it should not always be the case that every bit of a students’ learning is prescribed for them. We can (and should) allow students to construct a great deal of their own learning.

It saddens me when students have a powerful experience, such as hearing Dr. Tyson speak, and then have to return to the “regularly scheduled program” of several hours of pre-ordained homework that usually (not always, but usually) consists of a good deal of busy work.


Building on the powerful experience point for a moment… when I taught at a school in Washington DC, we took 10th grade students on a morning field trip to the US Holocaust Museum. After that powerful experience, I was appalled that we returned back for lunch so that students could attend afternoon classes (many of them had a French test, as I recall).

I spoke to my department chair, Bill Brown, about my concerns, and the next year he put me in charge of the trip. I arranged for us to visit the museum (we still had to attend a morning class or two), have lunch at a nearby Smithsonian museum, and then break into groups of 10-15 students (led by teachers and parent chaperones) to debrief the powerful experience.

It’s not fair to students to give them a powerful emotional experience such as visiting the Holocaust Museum and then throwing them back into their regular classes without some time for reflection.


As a way of concluding this post, I was looking for a quote by Will Richardson about how some of the best teachers students may find are people they meet online who they don’t know.

I could not find that quote, but I just found (using that pesky internet again) a comment by someone I’ve never heard of before, but who I now want to meet: Principal Shawn Blankenship.  He wrote, in a comment on a blog in July of this year:

Technology allows us to break-down the classroom walls and go beyond what the teacher knows. Many times our students are limited to what the teacher knows and is able to do. As Will Richardson states, and I paraphrase, “With one click of a button, we have the potential for 2 billion teachers globally.” Information is more than doubling every two years. There is no way one teacher can stay-up.

Now, one of the things I’d model for students at my school is that it’s crucial to determine where your information comes from… and in this case, when you Google “Shawn Blankenship,” you learn that he is a principal of Dibble Middle School in Oklahoma.

He has a blog called Brain Vibe For Educators which looks quite interesting, and he’s a member of a group I know a bit about, called Connected Principals. Here’s the biography of Shawn Blankenship from the Connected Principals website.

The world — and people such as Shawn Blankenship — can be your teacher — if your school will let you out of the curricular shackles.

P.S.  I just found that quote by Will Richardson — it was annoying me that I could not find it.  I remembered that Will had been written up in USA Today, and so I searched accordingly:

Here’s the quote, from the end of that article: “I really believe that the best teachers in (students’) lives are going to be the ones they find, not the ones given to them.”

It’s instructive to me that if I had found Will’s quote immediately I would not have “met” Shawn Blankenship and I would not have found his comment, which I love: “Technology allows us to break-down the classroom walls and go beyond what the teacher knows.”

Learning is (or should be) less about finding the “right answer” and more about the process of thinking, reading, doing research, and creating value-added content.

About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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