Stand And Deliver

April 01, 1998 4 min read

In his new book, Altered Destinies: Making Life Better for Schoolchildren in Need (St. Martin’s Press), Gene I. Maeroff profiles schools and teachers across the nation who are using promising strategies to educate impoverished children. Searching in their work for commonalities that might hold promise for others, Maeroff concludes that while the argument to set high academic standards for students is compelling, needy children will need enormous help, both tangible and intangible. Writes Maeroff: “A sense of connectedness, a sense of well-being, a sense of academic initiative, a sense of knowing—all of these must figure in the effort to raise academic achievement.” A former education writer for the New York Times, Maeroff is director of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City.

Normally, the attitude of adolescents toward going to history class is more or less the same as they feel about getting acne. As teens put it, in their inimitable language, they both suck. It was therefore a startling testimony to Bruce Cunningham that his class, titled “U.S. and World History 1900 to Present,” was arguably the most popular among students at Clay High School in West Virginia. The 46-year-old teacher won praise the old-fashioned way: by lecturing. At a point in the school reform movement when lecturing was dismissed as a deadening, passive, outmoded instructional technique, Cunningham used the lecture to engage students with great success. His combination of corny humor, arcane tidbits, and animated presentation kept students thinking about the lesson even if the names, places, and events were totally new to them.

Students also seemed to like Cunningham because they believed that he cared about them—even if he was demanding. One day when Pam showed up after missing class the previous day, Cunningham asked her in front of the entire class why she had been absent. Told by the girl that she had overslept, Cunningham offered to call her each morning. Although it was a bit of sarcasm, no one doubted that he would be on the phone if she truly wanted him to do it. “So, what’s happening in the world today?” he said by way of shifting the students into a social studies frame of mind. “What about O.J.?” Cunningham used this approach in racing through a litany of current events to grab onto his class before he put them into a time capsule for a trip back to the beginning of the century.

A tall, rangy man with dark, thinning hair, Cunningham largely fit the profile of the average American teacher—middle-aged, a quarter of a century on the job, and pay of about $40,000 a year after beginning his career at $313 a month. And, perhaps not so typically, he conveyed a devotion for what he did that helped maintain his students’ interest in the subject. This particular class session came during the week that President Clinton had spoken to Congress, and Cunningham used the occasion to give the students some history of the annual speech, which none of them could identify by name as the State of the Union. Soon Cunningham had segued into Theodore Roosevelt’s era, and the class was in full swing. He was walking up one aisle and down the next, past the desks of the students as each was required to recite a fact that he or she had learned about T.R. No one could use a fact that someone else had mentioned earlier, and as he reached the last of the 27 students, they were straining to dredge up something new. This class knew its Teddy Roosevelt.

Suddenly Cunningham made it clear where the term “pop quiz” got its name as he announced that each student should take out a single sheet of paper. The 10 questions further tested the students’ knowledge of Roosevelt’s turn-of-the-century administration. After reviewing the answers—no one got all 10, and only two students got nine right—Cunningham was lecturing on material that he assured the students they would not find in their textbook. He painted a fascinating picture of the United States as it was in 1910, even describing the incidence of heart disease at that time. On that pretext, Cunningham returned to modern times, mentioning the AIDS epidemic that people did not have to worry about in 1910. “I can’t preach enough to you about self-preservation,” he said, changing the subject in a way that hardly seemed a digression to the attentive class. “Don’t trust anyone when it comes to your personal life.”

Cunningham quickly reverted to his portrait of life in the century’s first decade, telling the class that toothpaste did not exist and people had to use tooth powder. “If you’re not true to your teeth, they’ll be false to you,” he said, not able to resist dispensing a little of his cornball humor. Cunningham delved into some additional facets of early 20th-century life and, imperceptibly, made his way to the 1940s, which allowed him to mention a poker-playing incident involving Truman and Churchill. Quick as a flash, he was back at the start of the century and the dawn of aviation—"Orville and Wilbur Wrong,” as Cunningham told it. A quiet moan ran through the class. Then it was on to Henry Ford and his automobiles. In a melange of interesting tidbits, Cunningham was talking about the production of early motorcycles, the San Francisco earthquake, Annie Oakley, and Isadora Duncan. In fact, Cunningham did almost all the talking, but like a storyteller spinning tales around a campfire, he seemed to have an uncanny ability to keep the students engaged.