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Lessons as a Teacher

The teachers of the Normandy Institute 2017.

It’s impossible to leave this trip without a few takeaways for my work in the classroom. In fact, there are five big lessons that I hope to employ. Here they are.

Kids are ready for lectures. Our students were an attentive, learning audience for seven formal lectures. They saw a range of styles, from disorganized to organized, from conversational to professorial, and from very engaging to nuts-and-bolts. Some topics were quite abstract. And I’m convinced that the lecture on architecture in cemeteries marks the spot at which the group attainted a sophisticated level of thought that characterized the rest of the trip. As one of my peers her, Judy from Southern California put it, the lecture gave them permission to be scholarly without threat of judgment.

Kids are ready for readings. We read a lot in preparation for this trip. If students or teachers fell off pace, a staff member at NHD would remind us to get back on. It paid off handsomely. Students had context for what we saw and had a prayer of hanging in there on lectures in D.C. and briefings as well as eulogies in France.  

. . . and appreciative. The students acknowledge that the readings matter. They’re aware of the push they needed to be scholarly rather than just a tourist. They're aware of the need for manners and courtesy. If one trusts students to do the right thing, they usually do the right thing. 

Paul with his student at Normandy American Cemetery.

One-on-one conversations. There is so much power in the one-on-one conversation between a student and his or her teacher. I saw my peers engaging in them throughout the trip. Lauren and I sought one another out in every cemetery and processed what we were seeing. Our bonds with our kids are all different: I haven’t yet taught Lauren. Paul from North Carolina taught his student for three years, grades 6-8, and she’s now a rising senior. Some relationships look almost parental. Some look like it’s more about a mentoring relationship. But constantly throughout the week we had chances to teach and dialogue on the good (and bad) of what we were seeing.

Bill's grave at the time of Lauren's eulogy.

Time. The greatest asset we had on this trip was time. Time to think. Time to observe. Time to eat. Time to read. Time to be together in a social setting. Time to listen to one another. If I step back to the eulogies for a moment, each student spoke for about four or five minutes. There were fifteen of those eulogies. There was time for preparing the grave stone and moving from grave to grave. It was a little bit more than three hours. That’s two back-to-back blocks. It felt like it was over in no time. If I were to ask Lauren if she felt similarly in that 200 minutes felt like no time at all, my hunch is that she would agree with me. 

And those eulogies only were meaningful because the kids had time to be together, time to see the sites, time to contemplate, and time to pass. As teachers we can work in a rigid world in which time is measured out precisely with goals that must be accomplished. As parents we sometimes find ourselves shuttling kids from point to point, often without any time to spare and breathe. This experience has been a powerful exercise in understanding the importance of time in promoting real learning.  

With a remarkable teacher and former colleague, Lynne, who played an enormous role in leading and organizing the Institute. 

My roommate, Paul, and I at the Eiffel Tower. 


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