Several years ago I chose to assign Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind, Why Right-Brainer’s Will Rule the Future to my budding secondary history/social studies instructors. Pink’s thoughts on slightly different ways to think about the world are not necessarily “new” nor unfamiliar to some of my students. In addition, the ideas are not, strictly speaking, related to education, yet I found the text generated the most consistent discussion in class (for good or ill). A close second, in terms of sparking conversation, remains John Arnold’s good History: A Very Short Introduction, particularly when pushing students to think more expansively about history in general.
Whole New Mind offered some intriguing exercises that I found helpful in getting students to think about teaching and education from slightly different angles. Pink divided the text into section on themes like empathy, symphony, play, and story among others. Each section included a “portfolio” section that made suggestions for the reader to continue exploring the theme either through the internet or on ones own.
In “story” I fell for the mini saga exercise described in the portfolio. A London newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, had run a contest a number of years ago asking writers to submit tales in 50 words – no more, no less. I’ve adapted this exercise for the classroom, giving students ten minutes or so to develop a 50 word mini saga on a particular historical topic, biographical portrait, or concept. Most students choose a person or event – in addition, they find the exercise both challenging and entertaining, particularly as each class begins to chew on words a bit, frantically counts words, edits, curses a bit, etc. I participate as well, typically choosing an event or person I know well, and attempting to capture the essence of the story or person in that small amount of words.
I explain to students that “writing small” is a massive challenge, yet a good exercise in which to engage as it will help them in their own classrooms. If you can’t break down events, I argue, into small, consumable bits, you cannot effectively reach students and string together a lesson that will make sense and create connections across the class period. In addition, it’s a great academic workout for students who struggle with longer essays and can serve as a substitute assessment for students who are acquiring both social and academic English language skills. While the purpose, ultimately, is to craft a great piece with good syntax, sometimes, getting students who won’t (or can’t) string together three paragraphs, to write even these small 50 word stories is enough to get a sense as to understanding and retention.
I’m way over 50 words in my explanation, so I’ll close with one of my essays from an earlier semester – see if you can figure out what historical story I’m telling!
The people before them were unlike their nation yet perhaps they could be useful? In addition, they appeared so weak as to not be a threat of any kind. Striking up a conversation, such as it was, could not be too dangerous? In this second year, all people must share.
Final note – if you’re hoping to get students to have fun while learning a few habits of grammar (including picking on my 50 word mini saga for its lack of pronoun specifics) check out Weird Al’s Word Crimes: