Tag Archives: Education

Confessions of an ex-pilgrim

OK, so I’ll come clear straight off. No actual confessions here.

There, that feels better. Glad I got that off my chest.

This is the time of year when I recall with great fondness my days as a “colonial interpreter” at the living history museum of Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, MA. It’s a wonderful museum where Native Americans interpret the history and culture of the Wampanoag people (from a modern perspective, known in the business as “third person interpretation”) and other people dress as pilgrims and hang around in reproductions of early 17th century hovels pretending to be pilgrims living in 1627 Plymouth Colony (a method known as “first person interpretation,” though most people think of it as acting). During my time as a pilgrim, I hewed logs, planted corn, cared for cattle and chickens, spun tales from the 17th century to schoolchildren and tourists, sailed on the Mayflower II, and even got to meet a few celebrities (I’m sure Alan Alda, Geena Davis, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, and Ron Howard all remember every detail of my interactions with them). Some of my strongest friendships were forged there, and my wife and I met while working in the pilgrim village.

It was the fall of 1992. I had earned my MA in History, but had not managed to land a teaching job. Demoralized and dead broke, I landed back home with my parents and resigned myself to the reality that I needed to find a job, any job, to start earning some dough. I opened up the help wanted ads (what a concept these days!) and saw an eye-grabbing one. The ad said “Time Travelers Wanted.” How could a nerd like me not answer it? I was offered a job as an apprentice interpreter. It paid a little more than minimum wage and would end less than three months after I took it, when the museum closed for the season. I thought it would be a three-month gig and then I would resume my search for a teaching job. Eight years later, I finally bid adieu to my dear friends from “the plant” and moved to Maine with my lovely wife to start a new life.

I am convinced that my time as a pilgrim made me the teacher I am today.

It was there that I learned true patience, interrupting a physical task over and over to answer the same question. I often found myself interpreting to a group of people composed of a mix of families on vacation, massive groups of excited schoolchildren, foreign tourists who could speak little or no English, and elderly leaf peepers exhausted by the long walk from the visitor center. Talk about differentiation!

Another aspect of interpreting in the village that prepared me well for teaching was the amount of preparation that went into a character portrayal. Some years I played single men who left little mark on the historical record, building a credible character out of a mix of representative information and primary sources on Plymouth Colony. Other years I played some of the founding fathers of the colony, such as Edward Winslow and Governor William Bradford; these roles required memorizing lengthy passages from primary sources to voice a man whose words and thoughts are recorded in detail.

First person portrayal of historical figures also requires a delicate balancing act, especially when it comes to icons of American history who, as 17th century men, held some distinctly unpalatable views on topics such as the role of women, Native Americans, Catholics, and child-rearing practices. I had to be true to the world view the 17th century religious dissidents while also not offending visitors or condoning those beliefs. Teaching social studies often involves treading on thin ice as well, as teachers need to encourage questioning sources without giving the appearance of inciting students to blindly assault and tear down the values that parents and others have tried to instill in them.

A final lesson that my pilgrim days taught me was genuine humility. I watched amazing artisans make products out of rough clay, cloth, and wood, and knew that I could never hope to emulate them. I studied the lives of people who lived centuries ago and, despite their obvious imperfections, grew to admire their willingness to risk everything in a harrowing ocean crossing. I worked with women who roasted meat by smoking embers on a broiling summer day, while wearing several layers of wool, the whole time smiling and chatting with visitors who little comprehended the heroic endurance these women exhibited. And I learned that people thought I had something to say, something worth paying good money and traveling hundreds or even thousands of miles to hear. I think I actually got pretty good at public speaking, and this helped me recommit to the idea of teaching, of trying to make a difference in kids’ lives.

I was finally ready to begin my own pilgrimage.

Here’s an image of me (on the right) and a fellow interpreter named Bil getting paid to eat, drink, and chat with people. We were living the dream!


Anti-intellectualism and the “game of school”

Last week I attended the induction ceremony for the latest members to be welcomed into my high school’s chapter of the National Honor Society. I watched with pride as many of my students took the stage, candles in hand, the students’ pictures and short biographies flashing up on the screen behind them. I was reminded quite powerfully of why it is such a joy to be a part of these young people’s’ lives.

I couldn’t help thinking, though, that these are the exact kids that some people talk about when they say that some kids are “good at the game of school.” I know that I have used this phrase before, as have many people whom I respect. At its best, the phrase is intended to convey the critique that schools are not “real life” and that learning in schools is not entirely genuine. At its worst, however, this term implies that the students themselves are somehow inauthentic, or even “grade grubbers” whose achievements are hollow and whose trophies are cheap things made of tin and plated with fools-gold.

Well, for one thing, I find it odd that adults set up this “game,” and then mock the students who are bright enough to perceive the rules, motivated enough to play by those rules, and skilled enough to master those rules. Doesn’t our society lionize people who are good at playing games? Football players, titans of finance and industry, and successful actors and musicians are all celebrated. Heck, we even assume that people who are good at one of these games must be good at all other games as well; why else would we allow those at the top of the tech industry to tell us how to organize our schools? Everything they touch must turn to gold, right? But that’s a post for another day…

More importantly, however, is the question of whether school really is an empty game. I know that school doesn’t work well for all kids. There are times when I think that maybe it only works well for a minority of kids. But there are some students who work very hard to achieve the honors and accolades that we set forth as prizes. As I looked at the students on the stage last week, I saw some of the nicest, hardest working, and most talented students in our community. They have shown me they are thoughtful, analytical, and independent-minded individuals. And these aren’t simply students who get high grades; they are the students who participate in the class fundraisers, who volunteer as big brothers and big sisters, and serve as class officers. I know for a fact that some of these kids have significant disabilities or have faced major disruptions or even tragedies in their lives, and presume that at least several of the students whom I do not know well have also overcome challenges. These kids have earned the praise that was heaped upon them that evening, and more.

There are things we need to change about our schools. But to dismiss these kids as “playing the game of school” is nothing more than anti-intellectualism masquerading as high-minded criticism. It’s a phrase I vow to use no longer.

Image: Bromann, Fabian. Playing Game of Life. 2007. Flickr. Web. 11 Nov. 2014. <https://www.flickr.com/photos/rastafabi/490403800/&gt;.