I found myself coming back to a couple of specific chapters as I was preparing for our Diegueño Book Club next week. We’re reading Daniel Wolff’s book How Lincoln Learned to Read, a collection of a dozen stories of Americans and their school age years, including the titular Abe Lincoln, as well as Abigail Adams, Sojourner Truth, and Elvis Presley. It’s a nice choice for our parent and teacher book group, with plenty of examples of how some dynamic historical figures answered the question from Wolff’s prologue: “How do we learn what we need to know?” It’s a question important for educators and parents alike to ask as we look at the kids in our lives and to the future they will create.
As we think about the answers to the question for our students today, How Lincoln Learned to Read offers a nice perspective on how these folks learned what they needed to know to become presidents, inventors, writers, teachers, civil rights leaders, and even the King of Rock and Roll. Tenacity is one of the constants in these stories, and coupled with a spirit of adventure, a willingness to risk failure, and the ability to recognize what matters most to them, this pluck is just as relevant to our students as it was to two of my favorites from the book: Rachel Carson and Henry Ford.
Rachel Carson would have ended up in my office. She attended a Horace Mann style school beginning in 1913, and spent the better part of the next decade dodging classes in favor of staying at home to read, wander the Pennsylvania hills, and write stories about nature and (after the US entered World War I) soldiers. The stories she wrote received criticism not from an English teacher, but from magazines, which published four of her stories by the time she was in seventh grade. In education we often talk about the value of “publishing” work and the benefits of sharing it with an audience beyond the classroom. We talk about the way the technology has helped make this more possible than ever. The twelve year old Rachel Carson was doing this before 1920.
Education, for Carson, shifted when she made the decision to pursue her studies of nature, her focus on going to college and becoming a biologist fueling her as she navigated the rigid structures of the early 20th century schoolhouse. She succeeded, of course, becoming a powerful voice for change through her books The Sea Around Us (my favorite) and Silent Spring. She also showed the strength to carve her own way in a male dominated society, and the spirit to make her passion her life’s work.
Henry Ford looked at the question of learning and found that what his generation, and generations that followed, valued wasn’t what he needed. As Wolff writes of Ford:
An educated man is not one whose memory is trained to carry a few dates in history,” he’d declare, “he is one who can accomplish things.”
Just what those “things” are differs from person to person. Mine might be to be the best educator I can be. For someone else those accomplishments might involve rockets or ragu, cellos or ceiling fans. For each of us, however, the ability to “accomplish things” involves learning, following our passion, and figuring things out.
Like Rachel Carson, we must allow ourselves to dream; like Henry Ford, we must experiment along the way; and like both Carson and Ford, we must pursue our dreams with tenacity, perseverance, and pluck.
I’m excited to discuss Wolff’s book with the parents and teachers who come to our Diegueño Book Club, and to see what folks have to say on the #SDUHSDchat that will accompany it on Twitter. I look forward to hearing which stories from How Lincoln Learned to Read resonate with the people at the table, and to asking them the question: How did you learn what you needed to know?