Enlightenment and Purple Passion

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I had a revelation about my Modern World history class the day after I struggled to engage my students in any meaningful way. I ended the class feeling unsatisfied and frustrated because I thought I had pretty much tried everything – until I realized I had missed the most obvious opportunity.

It was Friday, only two days back from Winter Break and the topic of the day was an introductory discussion of the Enlightenment. Students greeted me cheerfully but with a distinct lack of focus. Several asked if we could watch a video about Ray Lewis, trying to convince me of how inspiring his story is. Although we were all decked out in purple Ravens gear, and I even sported a “Thanks, Ray” t-shirt, I said no. I spent the rest of the class trying to spark discussion, asking students to read in their packet and generally pleading with them to “do their part” to make the class work. In the end, I let them go five minutes early.

In response to this, I decided that I needed to create an awesome next class and spent all day Saturday crafting a scavenger hunt where students would decode clues that they had to find (including several books in the library) and then discover the key Enlightenment principle illustrated by each clue, an activity in inductive reasoning. As an aside, this class went well, where even the incident of sabotage provided an important teaching moment. Still, it did not make up for the lost class of the previous week.

Somehow after working on this activity for several hours, I had a simple, yet powerful thought. I should have challenged my students to connect the life of Ray Lewis to principles of the Enlightenment. One of two things would have happened. They would have been creative and thoughtful in making the connection, which would have led to an engaging and relevant discussion about the Enlightenment. Or, they would have failed at making the connection, and we would have moved on to discussing the reasons why. Either way, they would have been engaged, thoughtful and productive, which was the opposite of what actually happened. Lesson learned – I hope.

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