In teaching there’s a term (and I guess in life, but I never used the term in life before teaching) we like to use when we go off our regularly scheduled plans to talk about things other than our plans.  It’s called a teachable moment.  I’m still teaching, but by golly it’s not the nouns and verbs and essays I had planned on that day.

My favorite teachable moment this year came on the second or third day of class this year when we were talking about my big motivational quote I have hanging above my board.  It’s from Gladiator (duh!).  “What we do in life echoes in eternity.”   I like it because I always want my students to be thinking about the long term impact of their lives and actions, and what they want their long term results in life to be.  So we were talking about people in history who have echoed in eternity, and students were talking about Martin Luther King, Jr., and Abraham Lincoln, and all of the African American heroes you would expect them to grow up admiring and being told they should admire them.

And then a student mentioned Hitler.

To preface: I’m no longer interested in having the leadership retreat discussion of “Was Hitler a great leader?” because we all know the answer we’re supposed to end with, but my answer will always be he was a terrible leader, unable to achieve an end goal because he was ultimately undermined by his unrealistic expectations of what he could do, how he could accomplish it, and how it would be received worldwide.  Moving on…

And then a student mentioned Hitler, and how Hitler is still a large figure in the world’s conscience, and how he did terrible things, and how he’s still known for what he did to the Jews, and how people still detest  him and compare people they really hat to him, and how if it weren’t for the brave men who assassinated him would go down in history for killing such a horrible man who still echoes in eternity.

Good.  Wait, what? Uh…

This is what I was thinking as he was talking.  I had to take that pause all bad teachers have to take when they just don’t know what to say.  And then the long delayed response: “Did you see Inglourious Basterds?”

“Yeah!”

“You know that never happened, right?”

“Huh?”

And that was that.  I was off on a historical tangent and most students had no idea what I was talking about, and those who did know what was going on did not seem interested in what I had to say.  But regardless, I had my fun moment explaining the real history of the end days of Hitler.  Thank goodness I’d seen Der Untergang and had a vague idea of what was accurate and right.  (By the by, a very solid movie, though slightly overrated in the spectrum of IMDb-hood because I’m not sure if the film is supposed to shock in how human it’s portrayal of Hitler is, or surprise by the reality of his end days situation, but either way, a very solid film, amazingly acted, and well directed.  Moving even.  Enlightening definitely.  Interesting, you can be assured.)

I’ve also been trying to be more motivational this year, so every time we read something I always remind my classes about how reading anything makes up smarter.  It wasn’t until about three weeks when I was called out on that fact by a student.  I didn’t have much of a response, but I did get a chance to talk about Genie.  You know, the girl who is in every general psychology textbook since the 1980s under the section about brain elasticity and language acquisition.   Genie was the girl who was tied to a toilet for most of her first 13 years by her parents.  Fed, but rarely interacted with.

I spin reading and writing and a practicable and developing skill that must be constantly engaged and honed.  Some guys genuinely seem to buy it.  Some don’t.  Some have never heard an approach like that before.  They were never given a reason to read before.  They never learned about malleable intelligence, were never told that smart is a thing you can get, isn’t a thing you are.  It surprised me they had never been messaged information like that before.

It made me feel frustrated that the young students trapped in West Philadelphia aren’t given much of a reason for anything, least of all school.  Least of all reading and writing.  Or math.  They come into high school depressed about having to take out another book, having to read another story, having to go over the multiplication tables that they’ve been going over for the last 8 years and still don’t understand.

Favorite thing said to me by a student so far this year: “Mr. W, I’m not trying to snitch or nothing, but people be calling you Harry Potter.”

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