Schooldays are right around the corner, and that reminds me of a time around 16 years ago. It was the same time of the year. I was a full-time high school English teacher hanging around the principal’s office when she suddenly said to me, “Hey, I haven’t found a history teacher yet and school is about to begin. Why don’t you teach world history?”
I said, “What? Do you know how little I care about history? It’s my second-least favorite subject.” (The least favorite being Filipino — in case you were wondering).
She insisted, “Come on. Help me out here. I don’t want to think about this anymore. I’ll give you an advance copy of the textbook so you can read up on it. I know you can handle it.”
When she was like this, it was very hard to argue with her. So I resigned myself to my fate and switched to bargaining. “All right, but I get to teach it my way.”
“What do you mean?” she said.
I said, “Well, what I hate most about history teachers is that they let students memorize a lot of trivial stuff — dates, names, places — instead of focusing on the importance or significance of the events. So I won’t be having any of that if I teach history. I plan on giving open-book exams.”
See, whatever subject I handled, my goal was always to teach students how to think critically rather than just memorize and spit out information that could easily have been looked up. There is that probably apocryphal story of Einstein who, when asked what his phone number was, went to the phonebook to look it up. His reason being that he didn’t want to waste his brain power memorizing things he could easily look up.
Anyway, my principal was a very broad-minded person (she was also the best boss I’ve ever had). She gave me free rein to go ahead with whatever I had planned.
So school started. I met my class and explained to them how I would be handling the class. They were generally happy when they learned about the open-books/open-notes tests, except for the intelligent few who knew that having an open-book test means you can’t find the answer in the book. So instead of asking them for names and dates of the first world war, I would ask them instead why Germany invaded Russia. Instead of asking who led this or that revolution, I would ask them what they would have done if they were that person.
Very quickly, my students learned that even though I allowed them to open their books, if they only opened their books during the test, they would fail. In fact, I warned them about it before the test saying they should study as if it were a closed-book exam — because if they would only study and read during the exam, they wouldn’t have time to finish the entire test. The books/notes should only be used as reminders and references but they should already have a good idea of the material beforehand.
I tried getting their interest in various ways, which was quite challenging because history has always been boring for me. I remember letting them watch the film, Schindler’s List (which had won 7 Academy Awards in 1993), to expose them to the horrors the Jews had to face in the second world war. In hindsight, it was probably too much for 14-year olds to handle, especially when the girls turned to me in shock (the boys were probably enjoying it) during a brief bed scene.
So the year passed pretty quickly and I was glad to have taken the challenge to do something I never thought I would do. My students probably learned a few things (hopefully) but I learned a lot of things as well. Teaching is, after all, the best way to learn anything.
But please, don’t ask me to teach Filipino.
Originally published in Sunstar Davao.