When Joel Rubin’s seventh-grade students file into his history classroom at the Fay School in Southborough, Massachusetts, he hands each child a small piece of paper. “I want you to write down the thing you want most in this world,” he instructs.
Next he collects the students’ papers, pausing for a moment before he tears them to shreds at the front of the class. As the scraps cascade to the floor, students laugh and chatter with confusion. “Chances are you’ll never get these things,” Joel tells them. “So how do you cope?”
This is the Lesley University middle school education alum’s segue into a section on Buddhism, desire, and suffering, and just one of the many ways he infuses personalization and modern-day meaning into his history lessons.
“I really like getting the kids moving out of their seats, creating things,” says Joel, who is determined to show students that studying history can be so much more than writing down dates and memorizing names. “Sometimes I have students take the role of the people living at the time to get their perspective of what was going on. The kids really enjoy it, and it makes the classroom a lot more inclusive.”
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Whenever possible, Joel helps students understand big ideas underlying historical events by drawing parallels to current issues. For instance, in a lesson on ancient Sparta and Athens, he makes connections to present-day China and its conflicts with the U.S.
“Athens was trying to make its own mark, just like China is this new, up-and-coming power that wants to be known by the world and the U.S.,” he says. “It's amazing to see how similar the situations are, although they’re thousands of years apart. It’s a lot of fun to see how students understand that, wow, things really aren't very different.”
Creating these 21st-century connections becomes especially interesting when students are empowered to contribute their own unique perspectives. Joel’s middle schoolers hail from all over the world, coming to Fay from places like China, Korea, Japan, Mexico, Russia, and Brazil to name a few. In his American History class, Joel encourages international students to examine U.S. events through the lens of their own culture and history.
“It’s an invaluable thing that you don't get in a lot of other places,” says Joel. “They're able to compare and see how different life can be in other places, but also see how similar they all are, and that it’s just land that divides us.”
Seeing how students react to what they’re learning is by far the best part of the job according to Joel. “I love their curiosity for the subject. They're always asking questions. The most surprising thing is just how talented they are and how creative they are,” he says, noting that when teachers are passionate about the subject matter, it reflects on students. “Be passionate about what you do,” he urges, “because students can read that. And if you can do that, they’ll bring it back to you.”
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