Connecting Students to Content: Steve Cohen

Phil Gay

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Interview Participants
Teaching isn't just talking and telling isn't just learning. The most important thing I think to try to do as a teacher is to see who is in front of you. What are they thinking about? What do they know? You really have to spend time doing the intellectual work of teaching which I think is, thinking about the subject, what is essential about that subject, and then thinking about well,
how do I answer the question of the student who says ‘So what?’ I ask them to look at things that they usually think they know, but to look at them in a little bit of a different way. I asked them to draw metro Boston and it was pretty funny.
This is Boston.
I can tell. Actually, it looks a little bit like Saudi Arabia. And then I connected maps to this question of, well, why do maps change? The answer was about war. And then I brought them here to the Memorial Steps and we started at the bottom.
There are a series of six memorials to different wars and I asked the students to look at those and to read the words. What do they say? What do they tell us about these conflicts? “To commemorate those Tufts men who in the war with Spain took up arms in defense of an ideal of justice.”
Is that what happened? How did that war start? What were they there for? Cuba. Who owned Cuba then? Spain. And how were they treating the Cubans?
Not well.
Of course not. That's the answer to any imperial question. Not well. Sort of the more the excuses a war requires, the more people talk about ideals of justice and freedom. Right, abstractions. Whereas the more concrete the reason, the less people tend to rely on those. We make fun of Vietnam era. Now, take a look at this. So, what does this say? What's the reason for that war?
There is no reason.
There is no reason. This is about as value-neutral as you can get.
If teaching is not just talking, then having the students look at something they often pass over, really forces them to think about American roles in war that aren't just the answers to memorization questions, but really says, what were those policies like? Why did we do this? And how do we remember that which we did?