Food for Thought [2]: On Teaching

I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say. ~Flannery O’Connor

I think a lot. Often I over-think things and, as a result, get caught up in my own head. I consider myself to be an articulate person, an opinionated person. But I’m not very good at developing opinions quickly. Even if I react to something immediately, a gut reaction if you will, it’s often hard for me to put those feelings into words. Blogging has helped me conceptualize my thoughts and feelings because now, when I hear something that makes me think, I often think about how I would write about it. How I would break it down, how I would express my opinions about it. So I had an idea about a post-series I could start called “Food For Thought” (because a) it is appropriately stimulating and food related and b) the second post I ever made on this little blog was called Food For Thought and consisted of my thoughts on democratization and an egg dish) where I write about something I’ve been thinking about and, per usual, accompany it with something I’ve made recently.

I first heard this story on NPR while driving out to D.C. It is a story about a man named John Hunter. An unlikely teacher who, I believe, truly understands what teaching is about.

He invented an in-class simulation called “The World Peace Game”, an activity in which classroom students solve a series of 50 inter-locking problems of various natures (military, economic, political, environmental, etc.) facing four fictitious countries of which they are the leaders. The students have titles such as Prime Minister, Defense Minister, Secretary General, and they belong to the cabinets of their respective countries as well as other global organizations such as the UN or the World Bank. Their job is to negotiate treaties, wage war, avoid waging war, assess strategic trajectories and trends, implement long-term thinking calculi, and much much more in order to ‘win’ the game (which requires that all 50 problems be solved and that every country be in a comparatively better state than when the game started). These students are in the 4th grade.

John Hunter presents his students with incredibly complex situations that don’t have answers and overwhelms them with information and responsibility. He pushes them out of their comfort zones and confronts them with a likely sense of failure, but also allows them to do what they do best: think and create uninhibitedly.

The truth is that children know no limits. Their minds are not constrained in the ways that ours are and they approach this game with the intention to and the belief that they can succeed because they have no reason to think that they can’t. Pessimism, practicality, and crippling uncertainty are conditions that develop with age.

During my last two terms at Carleton I met once a week with a 10-year-old boy from the local elementary school. His teacher had asked my boss if there was anyone in the writing center who would be willing to work with him on his creative writing. She said he was incredibly talented, but that they didn’t have enough time in class to devote to free-writing and she didn’t want his talent, or his passion, to fade. I said sure. I could write poems with a 4th grader once a week. That sounds like fun.

And it was. It took him awhile to warm up to me and it took me awhile to get used to adolescent boy humor (I never had brothers and didn’t really talk to boys until I was 15, so these kind of jokes were new to me). But pretty soon we were both cracking jokes, telling stories, and throwing old donuts at buildings (it’s a long story, but I discovered that is THE best way to make a 10-year-old boy feel better. I also learned that they will eat anything if you give them a dollar). I was immediately impressed by his creativity, mostly by the sheer speed at which he could produce beautiful poems. What we would do is come up with a topic, take a few minutes to write a poem, and then share them. I always went first because he was shy. While I agonized over word-choice, rhyme, and general coherency…he just wrote. Whatever he felt like. His poems often had structure and some kind of rhyme scheme, but he didn’t care if they did or not. He just expressed himself the best way he knew how, which was by writing down what went through his boundary-less mind.

One time we were playing that game where you make up a country. You know; draw a map, make up a name, and then describe the geography, flora/fauna, language, resources, etc. Stuff like that. We each took a few minutes to jot down our ideas and in the time that it took me to come up with two names (which ended in ‘land’ and ‘stan’) he had come up with ten. He didn’t care about the typical convention for country names. He didn’t care about typical conventions for words. He simply created.

Just like him, the kids in the World Peace Game make up the names of the countries. They are thrust into the shell of a make-believe world and then are told to make with it what they will. They solve problems like global warming, age-old ethnic disputes, and issues of natural resources, and do so in a way that involves strategy, multiple parties and mediation (typically by a UN mediator), assessment, and consequential thinking.

Their earnest creativity and problem-solving capabilities were captured in a documentary called “World Peace and other Fourth Grade Accomplishments” and attracted the attention of someone rather important.

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Yes, that is Leon Panetta. The kids were invited to the Pentagon so that senior policy-making officials could observe how they play the game. How they come up with solutions to problems that paralyze our government and have remained unresolved for decades.

What John Hunter did, and what I believe all great teachers do, is create a space for authentic, spontaneous learning. Allow the students to come across and discuss complex problems of humanity, of morality on their own. Don’t give them the answers.

The whole time I was listening to this story I was thinking a) this is the coolest idea ever and b) what would have happened  if his supervisor had not given him the liberty to pursue such an experiment? What if she had been too preoccupied with standardized test scores? I don’t know enough about the education system in the United States to truly feel justified commenting on it, but I know it is under-prioritized. I know our nation’s children are not being invested in as much as they need to be and I know that our nation’s teachers are under-valued and under-supported. I think the solution lies somewhere in between the space between structure and creativity.

And solutions are already being thought of and implemented in the invisible classrooms across America. But few are given the attention they deserve. Luckily John Hunter’s is.

Please explore more about the World Peace Game here and watch Jon Hunter speak about it here.

And a very important take-away point: “Don’t ever cross a nine-year-old girl with tanks”. Good advice.

So, speaking of creative experiments….I made something the other day that I’ve decided to call Sticky Cardamom Raspberry Banana Bread.

I was bored, hungry, and wanted to make my house smell like something comforting so I mixed a little bit of everything I had lying around into a bowl and baked it for 20 minutes at 350. Pretty safe bet when experimenting.

I was left with this: a hearty, goey loaf of something that smells like spices.

Sticky Cardamom Bread2

This recipe would have made great muffins, but I don’t have a muffin tin. So I cut them up into squares and that is working just as well.

Adapt this ever way you like because I made the whole thing up as I went along. But here is what I did:

  • 1.5 cups quick cooking oats
  • 1/2 cup all purpose flour (because the batter was runny)
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 banana
  • 2 tbsp coconut oil
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tbsp maple syrup
  • 1 tbsp raspberry preserves
  • 1 tsp cardamom
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp almond extract

No method, no expectations. Just a small kitchen that smelled like warm spice and a satisfied stomach. I’ve got some other interesting ideas of things to write about and tasty things to make, so stick around!

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