Of Ignorance and Ideas: A Teacher’s Conference

February 21, 1990 2 min read

In the following excerpts from Doc: The Story of Dennis Littky and His Fight for a Better School, Susan Kammeraad-Campbell recreates the Thayer High School teacher Valerie Cole’s account to a friend of her first professional meeting with Mr. Littky:

Right after her conference with Littky, Val headed to Barb Eibell’s house. Barb wasn’t scheduled to meet with him until the following week, but she was anxious about it.

“Well, how’d it go?” Barb asked.

“A lot better than I expected, almost too good.”

“What does that mean?”

“He knew I didn’t want him for the job. [Another teacher]4must have told him.”

“You mean he actually confronted you?”

“He wasn’t confrontational about it at all. He just said it. Then somehow I started telling him everything. I don’t even remember exactly how it happened. I just started talking and couldn’t stop. ...”

“I guess it was because I trusted him. Or maybe it’s just that I wanted to trust him.”

“He’s got all these ideas and plans. And he wants me to work on ideas right away. We actually talked about teaching technique and curriculum.”

“I told him about the section I taught on the Bible a couple of semesters ago. I told him how I just added the section on the8spur of the moment to fill in the last month of school, even though I knew next to nothing about the Bible.”

“When I told him how I thought that worked to my advantage, he looked really interested, even kind of excited.”

“So I kept on. I told how I went to the library and took out everything there on the Bible and pored over it--we’d just finished reading Moby Dick, and there I stumbled on Ahab, Peleg, Bildad, and Jonah. I thought it was all so incredibly interesting.”

“But I realized I couldn’t spend three hours reading each night preparing for one or two days of lectures. I had other classes to prepare for as well. So I told Dennis how I met that Monday morning with my senior seminar class and confessed my ignorance about the literature of the Bible.”

“But I explained why I thought learning about it would be a worthwhile pursuit and suggested we might tackle this problem together and that this class might now contain 16 students and no teacher.”

“You should have seen Dennis’s face. It was all lit up like a little kid’s. He was so excited, he kept saying, ‘That’s great! That’s great! That’s the kind of teaching I’m talking about!”’

“I’m still not sure what’s so great about confessing ignorance--but he’s right, it was one of the most rewarding classes I’ve ever taught. Everything about it was fresh and warm, and the kids were excited and engaged.”

“Several of them already knew about Ahab because they’d read about him in Sunday school, and they drew connections that I’d overlooked.”

Barb’s husband, Fred, came in from the next room.

“I don’t know,” he said. “He sounds great on one hand, but trouble on the other. It’s tough working for a fanatic. They expect too much. They eat, sleep, and live for their job, and expect you to do the same.”

From Doc: The Story of Dennis Littky and His Fight for a Better School by Susan Kammeraad-Campbell. Copyright 1989 by Susan Kammeraad-Campbell and Dennis Littky. Reprinted with permission of Contemporary Books.

A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 1990 edition of Education Week as Of Ignorance and Ideas: A Teacher’s Conference