Reflections of a Great Books Road Warrior

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”― Marcel Proust

Summer 2016 marks my twentieth year as a Great Books professional learning consultant. During my second interview for the position I was asked if I liked to travel. Sure, I thought, who doesn’t like to travel? The question was followed by the news that the position could involve as much as 225 plus days of travel a year—and so a road warrior was born.

As a man on the road my position involves, among other things, training teachers and administrators across the country in the Shared Inquiry™ method of discussion. I recall a conversation I had on the tarmac at LaGuardia airport early in my career. After introducing herself, the smiling person next to me asked, “What takes you on the road so much?  “I teach,” I replied.  “Oh! Who do you teach?” she inquired. “Teachers,” I said. “What do you teach teachers?” she asked quizzically. “How to teach critical thinking.” At this point the friendly woman turned away, picked up a magazine, and ordered a cocktail. I learned that critical thinking might not be the most vital topic of conversation while sitting on a tarmac. But I’m convinced that it remains one of the most vital and essential components in educating K-12 students and beyond.

If my friendly seat partner had asked what critical thinking is, I would have told her: critical thinking is idea-evidence-response. Idea = having an idea, an opinion, a point of view, and a willingness to express it. There isn’t a student in a classroom anywhere—no matter how we may label them—who doesn’t have ideas worth hearing. Especially when their ideas are generated by the outstanding literature and powerful engagement Great Books provides. Some students may be more reluctant than others—and some more eager than others—to express their ideas, but they all have them. The educator trained in Shared Inquiry learns how to draw these ideas out in discussion, inviting students to confidently express themselves without waiting for the teacher to tell them what to think or what to say.

Learning to share and express ideas is only one part of critical thinking. We all know people who have no problem telling us all of their ideas, sometimes ad nauseam. But when asked where the ideas are based, what evidence or support they have for them, they become silent or argumentative—often responding with something like “Well, it’s just common knowledge, everybody knows it! It’s a fact!” Critical thinkers back up their ideas—they ground them in evidence so we know where they come from, giving us a better chance of engaging with them and their ideas. Educators trained in Shared Inquiry give students the practice of supporting their opinions and ideas, and backing them up with evidence from the text.

A third component of critical thinking is response. Like it or not, my idea is never the only one, or necessarily the correct one. Shared Inquiry discussion reinforces the reality that we live in a community of ideas. Whether the community is a second-grade classroom, city, county, or world, participating in Shared Inquiry makes it more likely for us to be open to other ideas and opinions, and learn from them. It makes civil discourse possible—listening and exchanging important ideas with one another. Educators trained in Shared Inquiry offer their class ample opportunities to practice the art of listening, to respond directly and respectfully with one another, to agree and disagree, and to build on and develop ideas. Great Books professional learning also advances teachers’ abilities to listen, engage, and ask follow up questions that lead to deeper comprehension.

I once saw a card propped next to a mug filled with coins that read “If you don’t like change, leave it here” at an airport Starbucks. My career as a Great Books road warrior has been all about change. Not only changing planes, trains, and automobiles, but changes of every kind. When I started, pay phones were still a common a form of communication. I didn’t get my first cell phone until after I accidentally spent the night locked in Bronx school stairwell in 2000 (long story). Twenty years ago endless security lines were nonexistent and airlines were still an enjoyable experience for the most part, serving real food and not charging for luggage (imagine that!) In the classroom overhead projectors gave way to Smart Boards, heavy laptops have been replaced by feather light tablets, dial up internet has yielded to high speed, and No Child Left Behind made way for Common Core. I’ve witnessed numerous changes at the Great Books Foundation as well, including changes in an emphasis on works of fiction to include nonfiction texts, changes in leadership, staff, logos, and office space.

I, of course, have also changed. My back is a little sorer, my head balder, and my tummy thicker. But more importantly I’m richer, and I hope wiser, from being exposed to countless authors and texts that I may otherwise have never read or discussed: from Langston Hughes to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, from Flannery O’Connor to Samuel Beckett, from Emily Dickenson to George Orwell. The list truly goes on and on. I learned to have some compassion for Rumpelstiltskin after a Shared Inquiry discussion with second graders in Buckhorn, Kentucky enlightened me to a few redeeming qualities I’d failed to recognize. I’ve had the opportunity to listen to many insightful points of view— from Atlanta kindergarten students discussing an Ethiopian folktale to teens in the South Bronx discussing this year’s presidential elections. I’ve probably been changed the most by the teachers and administrators I’ve had the privilege to not only teach, but to endlessly learn from.

I’ve long forgotten the precise number of schools, and the full names and faces of the thousands of teachers and students I’ve been lucky enough to work with over the years. But this I will always remember: they have challenged me to be a better thinker, a better teacher, and I hope a better man than when I started on this road of critical thinking twenty years ago.

Fred Hang is the most requested staff member of the professional learning department. Once he works with teachers and administrators, they always want him back. When he isn’t working and traveling for Great Books, Fred enjoys photography, hosting meals for friends, and hanging with his canine pal Fritz.

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