It’s 2 a.m. and I am wide awake because I am excited about teaching U.S. History this year at Research Triangle High School, a public charter school in Durham, NC.
I want my students to engage with history in ways that are meaningful, and I thought a compelling introductory topic would be to debate whether Andrew Jackson belongs on the $20 bill. We see Jackson all the time:
But what do most people know about President Jackson?
As I started to research the topic, I came across a compelling piece in Slate, titled Kick Andrew Jackson Off the $20 Bill! The sub-heading is “The seventh president engineered genocide. He should be vilified, not honored.”
The piece is written by Jillian Keenan, who describes herself on her website as “a writer, journalist, and Shakespeare geek in New York City.”
I emailed Jillian to see if she would be willing to Skype with my students after they read her piece in Slate.
Because it’s 2 a.m., I did not expect to hear back from her for a while.
Surprisingly, she emailed me back in less than five minutes. From Madagascar!
Here’s what she wrote:
Very cool! I myself had an amazing history teacher who encouraged me to think critically about things I’d otherwise take for granted, and he legitimately helped shape the person I am today. Teachers are the best.
But I digress! Let me think–I’m in the middle of a long reporting trip with the United Nations (I’m Madagascar right now, flying to Niger tomorrow) but I should be able to Skype on … hmm. Would Tuesday, August 19th work?
Like I said, I’m traveling, often in areas with no Internet access, so if I’m slow to respond to any subsequent emails, bear with me. I’ll get back to you as quickly as possible.
Thanks, Steve! This sounds fun.
This email exchange at 2 a.m. with a writer in Madagascar reinforces a few ideas for me that I want to share with my students:
First, the world really is global. When it’s 2 a.m. in the Triangle, it’s 9 a.m. in Madagascar, and someone might respond to your email right away.
To put Jillian’s trip in perspective, I used Google Earth and discovered that Niger — Jillian’s next stop on her reporting trip — is more than 3500 miles away from Madagascar.
Second, I love being a teacher — people want to help you help your students learn. Even when they are in Madagascar, heading for Niger. And they are excited to work with students — here’s a Tweet Jillian sent out just seconds after I emailed her:
Third, we live in an age when students, armed with internet access, can reach out to the world and learn on their own. I’m modeling that behavior for my students by reaching out to the author of a piece in Slate about Andrew Jackson. I am doing so because I found the piece compelling and think it’s fun to talk with experts. I also think that a Skype conversation with a published author will inspire my students to learn more about Andrew Jackson.
But I am also hoping that my students will come to realize that they don’t have to wait for me — they can write their own emails (as long as they do so respectfully) as they reach out to learn from people all over the world.
One of my former students, John Guerra, now a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, noted that the most valuable thing he learned from me is how to take the initiative to learn on his own. He can (and does) use his computer to conduct research, find reputable information, learn about the world, and reach out to experts. John’s eloquent 6-minute testimonial about my teaching is available here.
As John recalls in that testimonial, a question came up in class that I could not answer, so John decided to Google “Roman History Expert” and then email a professor of Roman History to see if that professor could help us out.
John sent this email at 11:46 a.m. —
One minute later, John got this response —
That’s the world we live in today — students who take time to be thoughtful and come up with good questions can now get their questions answered by experts from around the world, if they reach out in a respectful way.
What an exciting time to be learning!
And now I need to get to sleep 🙂