A Wall of Talking Dead People


Last week I suggested that we can fill our classrooms with more than decorations — we can make them into places that help students feel better and think more brilliantly. This is "classroom as brain extender": a student working inside it, to put it oddly-but-truthfully, might have a higher EQ and IQ than she would have working outside it. 

There are lots of elements to this — today I'd like to paint a picture of just one of them (in truth, my favorite) — a Wall of Talking Dead People.

A Wall of Talking Dead People.

In brief, a Wall of Talking Dead People is (1) a collection of portraits of historical folk with (2) speech bubbles coming out of their mouths.

As the year begins, one whole wall is empty. Then, as we learn about people, we can hang a small portrait of them on the wall. Each portrait will have a speech bubble: a quote that encapsulates what the person did, or thought.

The purpose is to make ideas and stories immediately accessible to students, so the kids can do stuff with them.

As with the other tools, the Wall of Talking Dead People will be populated piece-by-piece. Portraits will be hung up only after we learn the stories of the people. This means that students will at all times have a basic knowledge of everything that's up on the wall. A source of pride: I know all this!

And the students can be in charge of some of this. They play the role of historians, in two ways:

First, who should go up on the wall? This'll spark a conversation about the relative importance of each person: there's not enough space for everyone. ("Who makes the cut?" is a contentious historical question, as any "100 Most Important" list makes clear!)

Second, which quote should we attach to the person? This'll spark a conversation about what the meaning of each person is: how should we remember them? Take Napoleon: do we celebrate his audacity by remembering that he declared, "The word impossible is not French!" or his tyranny by remembering that he confessed "I have come to realize that men are not born to be free"?

School is about remembering — and the Wall of Talking Dead People helps with that. But it's also about interpreting, and valuing — and the Wall provides opportunities for that, too.

"Here's to the crazy ones."

Where will we get these people from?

History, for starters. It'll be made easy by the fact that biographies will play a fairly large role in our big spiral history curriculum (especially in the early years). The typical human brain is designed to learn about other people — their backstories, their personalities, their hopes. For most of us, biographies are easy to latch onto. They're almost addictive. A school for humans can play to that.

But not just history! Math is filled with brilliant creators, as is science, literature, the visual arts, music, the culinary arts...

Steve Jobs said it best:

Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call 'life' was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. 

Once you learn that, you'll never be the same again.

So often in schools we pretend "knowledge" comes from textbooks — assembled by some drone working in a dark Satanic mill.

It doesn't. Knowledge comes from people. And, more often than not, fascinating people — people who pushed boundaries, people who refused to accept the status quo.

Steve Jobs, again, said it best, in the famous 1997 Apple commercial marking his return to the company and re-launching the brand —

Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The trouble-makers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status-quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify, or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.

Jobs was right, and we need to reframe all of education to catch up to him. Most everything students learn in the K-12 curriculum comes from these amazing humans: they're what the curriculum is already about. But schooling hides this.

What we can do — what a Wall of Talking Dead People can help us do — is to reframe learning as a conversation with the crazy ones. 

Music is a conversation with Beethoven and Duke Ellington; science is a discussion with Darwin and Galileo. Geometry is kibbitzing with Euclid. Algebra is deliberating with al-Khwarizmi; literature is debating with W.B. Yeats and Chinua Achebe and every other author we read.

Of course, math is still math, and science is still science. Connecting knowledge to its sources doesn't mean turning it into story — just exposing the story that's already there.

If we bring the creators back into their creations, I suspect that we can help students live more fully in the world. They'll see that they're surrounded not by abstract, inhuman facts, but by the beloved handiwork of people — people they even like, people they even are like.

In short, in our classrooms we can surround ourselves with the greatest doers and thinkers the world has known — which will help them see that we already are.

A Wall of Talking Dead People, in short, can help re-humanize the curriculum — and students' conceptions of the world.