When last we met, I was explaining my dread, as I contemplated using Will’s boxes with my 4th-6th classroom. Here was this rich, layered theory, which I still hadn’t mastered; yet, the politicolors had given dimension to the founding, I’d never before imagined. Could I bring them to life?
It was understood that I had a looooong way to even near Will’s grasp. After all, I’d still look back at photos of the concept maps and ponder the meanings of words written in the corners of the boxes or lines that could sometimes be dotted, and I’d wish for a National Academy 2.0. However, I easily recalled Will’s self-effacing persona: one that was not just a style, but his genuine self. He was always open with our crew, explaining that he was still discovering new meaning here, that our questions were important to the illumination. And that was a comfort to me: that I didn’t need to know everything to open the pack of multi-colored Expos that would paint our white board.
A few lessons into the We the People curriculum, I had introduced the philosophers: Cicero, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, and Madison. Knowing they were a well-educated assembly of Framers, the students understood that the Constitution had not appeared out of thin air. It helped that I teach across curricula: Cicero could be connected to math and the laws of physics, and Aristotle’s biology background could be easily referenced with our studies of classification. I guess my grasp of Cicero is a bit weak, because the kids latched on to the “body politic” notion far more tightly than the music of the spheres. Perhaps it was because we had been using the microscope that week, for they related well to the idea of citizens as cells and their functions as differentiation. The students ran with one of the last Aristotelian nuggets I offered up: “One who is not in the polity, must be a beast or a god.”
One student alluded to the notion that no man is an island; while several realized that one would have to be almost extra-terrestrial to not need others, if not a “deranged, crazy guy”.
This provided a perfect segue to my next lessons on Thomas Hobbes. For me, Hobbes had been the most difficult philosopher to access, yet ultimately the most rewarding. For my Nat’cademy project, I’d even chosen one of his pages for my writing assignment. I wanted so dearly for the students to know him for more than life as “nasty, brutish, and short”. Indeed, they would have to, for Hobbes was represented by the red box. The kids needed to understand the idea of what it meant to be a people.
As providence runs, we were heading into the last week of school before the holiday break. Here was my chance to access Hobbes just as I had. For in the July sun of Loyola Marymount, my unveiling of the red box: sprung from Will’s lectures, then rose with the provocation of preceptor break-out sessions, only to finally land firmly in the sagacious realm of… Dr.Seuss.
Improbably, in the dead of summer, I found myself in Marina Del Rey purchasing a copy of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
That night was to be another unveiling, Rowling’s last Harry Potter book, and Barnes & Noble was abuzz. The sales clerk looked a bit sidelong at me as I slid the book across the counter. I expected to hear some smart Alec response along the lines of really early gift shopping?!
But instead, she proceeded to tell me how her favorite tale hands-down was Horton Hears a Who. (Another text with great connections to the boxes, I’ve just realized.) I smiled and insisted I needed this one. I wasn’t sure, but I had a feeling that they didn’t have a copy of it at the University’s library.
Fast forward a year and half, and across the country, to Michigan. Well, once I’d finished reading the story to my students, they were out of their seats trying to identify the philosophy in it. They saw Aristotle’s beast, with Whoville as a polity. They explored the Whos as a people. They connected the Grinch to Hobbes, as he was never really out of the community. And, in a moment of sublime, one student linked the outsider to the homeless we’d seen in Detroit on a recent trip to St. Anne’s.
There have been many memories so far this year. One can never prioritize them, but there is a fourth grade girl that’s just amazing me. I’ll call her S. here. The thing about S. is that she’s totally into this stuff, so much so that she goes home and writes poems about it. And she’s got a great theoretical mind. One of the most powerful examples to date came when we studied the early philosophers and their notions that there could be many successful ways in which to rule effectively. I’m mostly referring to Arsitotle’s idea of the Good King, Aristocracy, or Democracy. After contrasting each with its negative, S. just kind of blurted out, “Why not mix them?”
Yeah. That’s what I’m talking about.
My other favorite S. moment to date came when she raised her hand and asked, “What do you think James Madison would think of this, if he were here?”
I smiled, then added, “I think he is.”
As the class cracked up, she inquired, “What, his ghost is here, like, sitting next to me or something?”
Waiting for the giggles to subside, I explained, “Not his ghost, his spirit.”
It was the perfect plant for my already envisioned denouement. On the last day of Civics, I intend to conclude with the end of James Madison’s life. It is said that upon his deathbed, Madison’s last words indicated that his passing was “nothing more than a change of mind.”
TOMORROW: Conclusions and Questions