Monday, May 11, 2009

from "A Morning with David McCullough"

Hello All,

This past Saturday morning, I sat at the feet of David McCullough with scores of other educators in the Mormon Tabernacle. In addition to the thrill of listening to Mr. McCullough's warm voice for an hour, we learned that two of Jordan School Districts' employees were winners of the ConSource Essay Contest, sponsored by Bonneville Communications, Kirton McConkie P.C. and Ray Quinney & Nebeker P.C. As winners, Pam Su'a, social studies consultant, and Rick Ochoa, history teacher at Alta High School, were invited to visit with the famous author prior to the morning's program. Congratulations to them both!!!

Anticipating a speech about John Adams, Harry Truman, or Americans in Paris between 1830 and 1930 - his current project, I was surprised that David McCullough's remarks focused upon teachers and teaching. Heavens knows I was not disappointed because he managed to lyrically blend historical figures and events into his personal experiences thus invigorating my love of history and education.

I created the following entry from my notes because Mr. McCullough's remarks addressed teaching, content, reading, and writing - important topics to us all! A webcast of the event is posted on the ConSource website, if you would like to view the speech in its entirety. Soon, Pam's and Rick's essays will also be added to the site.

The author started the morning by introducing us to favorite teachers of some important historical figures. We know these educators were favorites because their famous students expressed appreciation for them in their writings.
  • Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. dedicated his farewell address upon retiring from Harvard to Pierre Louis, a teacher he studied under while in Paris.

  • Thomas Jefferson said of his favorite teacher, William Small of the College of William and Mary, that he “probably fixed the destinies of my life.”
  • John Adams flourished under the tutelage of Joseph Marsh because of his kindness, thus Adams became the "essence of transforming because education."
  • Theodore Roosevelt grew to love geology because of his favorite teacher, Nathaniel Southgate Shale.

Mr. McCullough also shared a story about Louis Agassi, considered the most influential teacher of the nineteenth century, to illustrate the importance "[of learning] until you don't forget." Once he accepted an applicant as his pupil, Agassi immediately pulled a pickled fish from a bottle, placed it upon a pewter platter and ordered the student to "look at your fish." After which, the professor left the room and the "ordeal of the fish'' began and continued for hours, if not days, until the new student "saw how little he saw before."

Often asked, "What takes longer - research or writing," Mr. McCullough has never been questioned about how much time he spends thinking. The author has a plaque in his office that reads "Look at your fish" to remind him to put what he is studying on the table, to look, and to think.

Although Mr. McCullough did not know renowned teacher Margaret McFarland, he did know her famous pupil - Fred Rogers - as both gentlemen were Pittsburgh natives and worked extensively in public television. The author noted that Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood was based upon the principles extolled by Margaret McFarland, among which was this one, "What matters most in the classroom is attitude."

"Exactly what attitude?" Mr. McCullough asked. "The attitude of the teacher toward the subject matter. Show them what you love; you can't love what you don't know. Really know it!"

The author then talked of his teachers who really knew and loved the content they shared with their students. One was an English teacher who also taught drawing and painting. This educator did not see a line between the art classroom and the English classroom, and he worked with his students. "We knew he loved [what he did], and we wanted to be in on it," Mr. M. said of his former teacher.

"Teaching is a gift," he continued, "an art form and a manifestation of leadership." The oldest constitution in the world is the one drawn up for the Massachusetts Commonwealth, authored by John Adams. Among its admonitions is the declaration that it shall be the duty of the government to educate everyone - not just in agriculture, finances, etc., but also in values such as honesty, frugality, and humor!

The lack of honesty in today's leaders reflects a lack of learning and applying values, and Mr. McCullough asked, "Who were their teachers? Who were their parents?" In all the concerns about keeping bodies fit, he worries that we are not "keeping fit in the mind." He believes that "you are what you read," and if we are interested in our founding fathers, we must not just read about them, we must "read what they read," as that is one place where they garnered their values.

What did those gentlemen and gentlewomen read? Essay on Man by Alexander Pope, and works by Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare. Today, we quote these authors, and we don't even know it, Mr. McCullough declared, and then he challenged the audience to check out Bartlett's Famous Quotations, if we wanted to review Pope's, Cervantes', and Shakespeare's influences upon our conversations.

Every leader needs to be a reader, especially of history and biography, and again the historian reminds us that what we read is as important as reading. "Don't ask students to read what you don't want to read," he advised. "Like dreary textbooks." Instead, turn them to the literature of history, and he mentioned Killer Angels: A Novel of the Civil War as an excellent example.

Mr. McCullough wrapped up his hour with us by reviewing an experiment he tried while teaching at Cornell University. Half the students' semester grade was earned through examining and researching information based upon a historical photograph. No two students had the same photograph, but they could ask anyone for help, including their esteemed instructor. He invited them to "work out the puzzle" found in the photo and the statement written on the back.

It was a great success because they took ownership of that historical moment captured on film, and they "learned until they wouldn't forget" by looking, thinking, and writing. He extolled the importance of writing in all content areas. "Nothing focuses the brain like writing," he exclaimed, and then reminded us that all histories are stories of humans - "When in the course of human events ... ."

As a final suggestion, Mr. McCullough encouraged teachers to assign students to find a historical building or to visit a cemetery and invite their pupils to "work out the puzzle."

"Fire their furnaces with what they love!"
~ David McCullough

I can't sign off with anything better than that statement!

Best wishes,


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