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Real World Interviews and Conversations

Updated: Jun 5

“There is nothing small or cramped about wisdom. It is something calling for a lot of room to move.”

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, On Liberal and Vocational Studies

I start the school year with a conversation about the value of literature, so I like to end by giving my students the opportunity to bring words and philosophy into reality. I want my students to remember the literature they read, and I find that the best way to do that is to ask them to take the conversation outside the classroom.

So much of education happens inside a classroom. We go on field trips and find creative ways to get our students to connect literature and reality. Even in mathematics and science, our students digest the necessary information they need – the formulas, the equations, the processes, the incredible world that exists under the microscope, but what’s really important is what happens when students walk out of the classroom with their classmates. Students all over the world step out into a hallway, walk on a sidewalk, go to a coffeeshop, or get into a car or train. They take everything they learned and talk about it. Eventually, they decide what to do with the reality we give them, and they decide how they will use it. Maybe they will publish an article or create an app or a new medical procedure. Ideas come not from facts and evidence alone, but from those first conversations after class is over.

When they take the literature they read in class outside, they extend their own knowledge through an exchange with someone a different age, who perhaps lives in a different town, or grew up somewhere else. They should be able to pick the person they interview and treat the interview as an interaction or conversation, where they can both learn from the person and offer what they’ve learned through reading and discussing literature in class. They might read a passage from a novel or poem that establishes the foundation of the conversation and opens up possibilities for a good, deep, philosophical exchange about life, living, being, meaning, space, time, and culture.

After the conversation, they can share what they learned with the class, thereby adding more voices and perspectives to their understanding of the literature. Each topic we cover in class, like fear, crime, love, place, justice, faith, family, beauty, or identity, can function as the foundation of the conversation our students have with their parents, siblings, friends, coworkers, teammates, coaches, religious leaders, or people in their community that they think could share wisdom.

Our lives move so fast and it’s important to ask students to stop and reflect on it with someone else. Instead of thinking in isolation, our students can extend their thoughts by bouncing them off someone else. It’s hard to find the time to have a good conversation; everyone gets sucked into the internet for hours, where conversations are sound bites and sometimes contain the inappropriate and often cruel comments of strangers. Any time we ask our students to sit down with someone to talk about the ways of the world and the scheme of things, we open them up to consider points of view they may not have encountered before.

When I was in high school, my teacher had us interview our parents because we read The Joy Luck Club. When I teach The Namesake, I ask students to interview their parents about the origins of their name and to explore the history of names in their family. For Exit West, I ask my students to interview an immigrant or anyone who has traveled.

Early in my teaching career, I have a vivid memory of a student playing clips of an interview for our “Oral History Project” that related to Night and Maus II. It was on a microcassette recorder, which was surprisingly loud. Now that most students have access to a phone or computer they can easily record a conversation, it’s a lot easier to ask students to conduct an interview and even create a podcast.

I’ll end with an excerpt from John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University:

“If then a practical end must be assigned to a University course, I say it is that of training good members of society. Its art is the art of social life, and its end is fitness for the world … It is the education which gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them. It teaches him to see things as they are … to disregard what is irrelevant.”

Teacher's Workshop, online professional development for secondary ELA teachers

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