A Letter to Isabelle and Timothy

May 24, 2018

Lesson Launch: a weekly academic social studies teaching tips blog, which occasionally touches on other topics.

By Dr. Paul E. Binford
President, Mississippi Council of the Social Studies

This week's blog post is written by my good friend and colleague, Dr. Kenneth (Kenny) V. Anthony.  I first met Kenny at a professional conference in Pensacola, Florida as I recall.  He attended a paper presentation and expressed a genuine interest in my research as well as the research of other presenters.  In part, he seemed to recognize how encouraging it was for the presenters to be asked a thoughtful question about their research. As the months passed, I met him at other conferences in Orlando and Natchez, and I thought how cool it would be to have him for a colleague.  A position opened at Mississippi State University in the fall of 2015, and it was Kenny's conviviality that led me to apply.  

Beyond this friendship, Kenny serves in the National Guard as he has for many years including several overseas stints.  Presently, Kenny is in the Middle East, and he represents to me the many men and women who are--right now!--making sacrifices so our freedom and liberty is secure. 

As we approach this Memorial Day weekend, you'll appreciate Kenny's blog post, a letter to his children, which also speaks to the important place of the social studies in the curriculum.U.S. flags on the National Mall 2007

 

Alexandria, Egypt

Dear Isabelle and Timothy,

Tonight I’m sitting in bed at the Helnan Palestine Hotel in Alexandria, Egypt thinking about you and your education. This hotel is literally on the edge of the African continent. If I open the door to the balcony I can hear the waves of the Mediterranean Sea crash on the shore. The hotel was built to house the heads of state and kings of Arab nations during a summit in 1964. The Palestinian Liberation Organization was founded during the summit. Why does this matter to your education? I guess because I’m here. When I think back to my education it prepared me to be here.

Some background. By all accounts Kenny Anthony was an average or a bit below average student. I consistently scored at the 50thpercentile on every California Achievement Test I took in elementary grades. I was forced to attend summer school after 1stgrade because I had not met the reading benchmarks. I made Ds and Fs in math on my report card during 5th, 8th, and 11thgrade. In 11thgrade, I failed the first semester of Algebra II and had to retake the first half of Algebra II my senior year in order to graduate. I should have failed chemistry in 11thgrade, but my teacher had mercy or maybe she didn’t want to teach me again. I scored at the national average on my ACT. By all accounts I was average as measured by grades in school and nationally normed tests. But I don’t feel average and I never have.

Tonight I was eating dinner in the hotel restaurant and the host sat a stranger at my table. I was writing you a letter, so I said hello and continued to write my letter since I felt no strong obligation to engage him in conversation immediately. Once I finished my letter, I began to make polite conversation with him and learned that he was from Bosnia. I know a good bit about Bosnia because I was deployed there for about seven months in 2001- 2002. I was able to talk to him about Bosnia and we had a pleasant conversation. The interesting thing is that I learned about Bosnia many years ago when I was in school. What I learned about Bosnia in my social studies class in 7thgrade helped me as a soldier in Bosnia and then helped me tonight make polite conversation with this stranger. I can say the same about other places I have been- Iraq, Italy, Germany, Rwanda, South Africa, Korea, Thailand, Romania, Hungary, Mexico, Canada. All of these places were familiar to me because I had learned about them as a child in school or in my own personal reading. I was comfortable with these places because they were familiar. I knew their geographies, histories, and knew how my country was connected to each country. I felt a connection to them. Now I wasn’t an expert and am not an expert (don’t trust experts), but I could have a conversation and place these countries and others in an historical, political, and geographical context. The world is not a stranger to me. How did that happen? 

I was given a world class education in Tupelo, Mississippi. More specifically, I was given a world class education in the Tupelo Public Schools. How was my education world class? Because my education opened the world to me. My teachers from the very beginning gave me the keys to learn about the world that I still use today. My teachers read to me and made me read about the world. It was in Mr. Watkins’ 7thgrade history class that I learned about the conflicts in the Middle East and about the Palestinian Liberation Organization. He didn’t teach me specifically about the Middle East conflict, but the US News and World Reportmagazines he brought to class and put on the back shelves did. Now Mr. Watkins taught me a lot about the world. I first learned about Islam in his class which helped me in 2005 in Iraq when I worked to connect with the people there. I learned about the world through geography. My teachers explicitly and implicitly taught me about the world. In school, I had time to look at maps and globes. I was encouraged to read about the world by librarians. Reading wasn’t connected to points on an AR test. Reading was connecting me to the world. I learned about the world in so many different ways. In sixth grade, Mrs. Lawson taught me about Canada and South America. I learned about the world in literature classes. The great literature of the world, including poetry, is important because it teaches us about the world and the people in it. I learned about the world reading the philosophers. I learned about the world in elementary music and art classes. I learned about Renaissance art and remembered what I learned from 6thgrade when we went to Rome in 2012. What I knew about Michelangelo and other artists didn’t come from college, it came from my 6thgrade art teacher. I love music because of Mrs. Scales my music teacher at Thomas Street Elementary School. It was there I first encountered the Beatles and Woodie Guthrie. I majored in history in college, but I knew I had a world class education, when in an upper level history class about Early Modern Europe, my professor asked me what prep school I attended. I laughed. I had read Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau at Tupelo High School. I had read 90% of the college reading lists in both American and English literature classes in high school. I could go on, but I don’t want to belabor the point. So what is my point?

My point is that I want you to have the education I did. My education prepared me to go out into the world and be successful. Whether that was as a teacher in a 7thgrade English classroom in Natchez, Mississippi; as a scholar/researcher at a national conference in Boston, Massachusetts; as an intelligence officer in Bosnia during a peace keeping mission; as an infantry platoon leader in the war in Iraq; as an English teacher in Korea; as a tourist in Rome; on mission trips to Mexico and Rwanda; as a professor at a university. This average man was well prepared as an average boy. 

Earlier I wrote that I don’t feel average. I don’t and it’s because I feel comfortable in my world and I feel I can thrive in my world because of my education. I was comfortable making conversation with the man from Bosnia who sat at my table. I’ve always been comfortable in the world because I have my education to draw on. My education wasn’t elite but it was complete. 

How do you get the education I got? Demand it. Demand your teachers show you the world. I will do a better job of demanding it of them. The tests be damned. Forget the tests. Read. Study. Do your best. The tests will take care of themselves. Open up atlases and look at globes and learn where countries are located.  Read about those countries. Read about the people who live in those countries. Read about their histories. Their struggles. Read about Rwanda. Read about Rome. Read about all the places you’ve visited and want to visit. Read about your own country. Read its history and literature and learn about its politics. Read poetry and literature. Learn about people and how they think and act. Read Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Coleridge. Learn about different cultures. Learn about different languages. Learn about different art, music, food. Of course, learn math. I use it all the time as a professor and as an officer in the military. But remember math and reading aren’t life. They are tools that you will use to understand your world. They open many doors, but they aren’t the doors. To get a world class education, you have to go beyond reading and math. You have to learn about the world and the people who live on it. Then you will have a world class education. 

Love,

Daddy

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