Thinking Citizen Blog — How to Teach English (Second in a Series)

Thinking Citizen Blog — Friday is Education and Education Policy Day

Today’s Topic — How to Teach English (Second in a Series)


1. Yesterday, I met a retired middle school English teacher. I asked him what books he ever taught were most loved by his students. His answer: A Christmas Carol and Treasure Island. He could not come up with a third. I was astonished. I had just written a post on A Christmas Carol the day before arguing that A Christmas Carol was far and away the greatest novel ever written in English! And I thought I was being contrary! Maybe I just never grew out of middle school!

2. And, honestly, A Christmas Carol is somewhat hard to read even though it is short. Treasure Island, on the other hand reads itself. Even though it’s longer. You can’t put it down. But maybe that’s just a boy thing. Enlighten me.

3. And what about Thoreau and Emerson and Hawthorne and Alcott, the titans of my adopted home town of Concord, Massachusetts? Should they be forced down the throats of K-12 students? I ask because yesterday I was asked by a neighbor what my favorite quotes of Emerson and Thoreau were and I was seized with stage fright, a kind of primal panic, until I came up with “Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!”

NB: And the light bulb flashed! Orion to the rescue! On a white horse! Guns blazing! Sword waving! Of course! Every teacher should have an “Orion” (an ordered sequence of seven) for every author worth reading and for the course as a whole. So here goes. My Orion for Henry David Thoreau. Experts — please chime in. Correct, elaborate, elucidate.


1. “Simplify, simplify, simplify!” Einstein’s riff: “Simple but not too simple.” My riff: “Simple, but complete.”

2. “The sun is but a morning star.” Last line of Walden — his masterpiece and a unique work. Perhaps the greatest in American literature. But does not fit into any box.

3. “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” Very Gandhi (“God is truth.”) Very Diogenes (with his lamp searching the streets of Athens, naked, for an honest man). Very Harvard with its motto “Veritas.” Very me.


1. “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.” What have you lived worth sharing? Well, for me, the most educational experience of my life was the experience of founding a company that failed and then building a new life.

2. “The question is not what you look at, it’s what you see.” I looked at the Seine in Paris for five decades without seeing the impressionist masterpiece that was staring me in the face the whole time.


1. “Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.” And there is no day that is not an opportunity to become a better world and thereby make the world a better place. In the words of basketball coach John Wooden, “Make each day your masterpiece.” (He got the advice from his father upon his graduation from third grade in 1919).

2. “Read the best books first or you may not have a chance to read them at all.” Yes! The man nailed it! This is the crime of schools in America — not doing the real job of identifying the best books (across all fields). Curricula at every level make no sense! Worse than random! A toxic mix of randomness and politics! To me, the French have a better system. Today, any french speaker from Africa, Haiti, or France knows what the best book written is because it says more in less space than any other book in human history — that book is Aesop’s Fables translated into French by Jean De La Fontaine. When I greet tourists from Haiti, Cameroon, the Congo at the North Bridge in Concord with a recitation of a La Fontaine fable, their faces light up like a Christmas tree. Their joy is irrepressible. They join with me in the recitation. We become a mini-chorus. Great works of literature are gifts that keep on giving — if the best of the best is committed to memory at a young age. Hallelujah!

Henry David Thoreau Quotes (Author of Walden)


PDF with headlines — Google Drive


Please share the coolest thing you learned in the last week related to education or education policy. Or the coolest thought however half-baked you had. Or the coolest, most important thing you learned in your life related to education or education policy that the rest of us may have missed. Or just some random education-related fact that blew you away.

This is your chance to make some one’s day. Or to cement in your own mind something that you might otherwise forget. Or to think more deeply than otherwise about something that is dear to your heart.



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