"A good teacher helps students to understand that controversy is the lifeblood of democracy, to learn how to inquire into past and current controversial issues that are meaningful to them, and to participate in public life."
― Alan Shapiro
Alan Shapiro was a teacher, poet, education activist - and cofounder of Morningside Center's TeachableMoment website. Alan was also the quintessential educator for social responsibility. After a lifetime of teaching, learning, writing and action, he spent the last ten years of his life, until his death in January 2011, producing hundreds of in-depth, inquiry-oriented lessons on current issues to share with educators through TeachableMoment.
In this area of TeachableMoment, we offer a glimpse of Alan’s bracing vision of education, which we aim to keep alive through our work.
Alan's Key Essays & Teaching Ideas
by Tom Roderick
Alan joined with a small group of educators back in 1982 to found ESR Metro – now called Morningside Center. At that time the U.S. and Soviet Union were engaged in what came to be known as a nuclear arms race – an absurd competition to see which country could build the most effective weapons for ending life on earth. The aims of ESR Metro were to mobilize educators to protest this arms race and to educate a new generation of young people to become informed and active citizens.
At the beginning of his career as a teacher, Alan dutifully taught the standard curricula in history and English. Gradually he realized that the texts and lesson plans promoted a political agenda he didn’t agree with. Realizing the political nature of education, Alan asked himself, Whose interests will I serve? His answer was clear: He would serve the interests of the learners and their education. And that meant helping students think critically and imagine an alternative politics. He liked to tell the story of one of his first high school assembly experiences:
“One of my first school assembly experiences featured an electrifying performance by Pete Seeger, who had 900 students clapping, chanting, stamping feet, and singing South African freedom songs. A day later the principal discovered who Pete Seeger was and ordered every record, printed song, and scrap of paper with his name on it confiscated.”
That led right to a second principle:
If text books present bland and regressive politics – and they usually do – students need to learn to examine them critically and imagine an alternative politics. This begins with taking care with language. Alan quoted a great essay by George Orwell, Politics and the English Language. Orwell wrote, “Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties from Conservatives to Anarchist – is designed to make lies sound beautiful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change all this with a movement, but on can at least change one’s own habits.”
That leads to Alan’s third key principle: