In my freshman World History/Global Studies class this year, we have a habit of getting into the weeds on all kinds of topics that are not directly related to our curriculum, which covers the first few millennia of human civilization. Our 10-minute Daily Briefing projects that begin each class have consistently evolved into 30-minute discussion of ISIS, Syria, liberal vs. conservative philosophies, Palestine and Israel, and other items. None of these topics are explicitly covered in the curriculum for the course, but I think helping students understand, for example, why ISIS is such a vexing problem is essential.
Last Thursday I was giving a very brief lecture on some background on ancient Greece, including Homer. As a Classicist, it breaks my heart to try and summarize the Iliad and the Odyssey in about two minutes, but I did, highlighting a couple of my personal favorite scenes from each (Hector and Andromache from the Iliad, and Odysseus and Argo from the Odyssey), knowing we'd come back to them in more detail later.
After I regaled them with these barebones stories, multiple students said, "That sounds really cool, can we read them? Can we read the Odyssey?"
"This is it," I thought. I had actually inspired 14-year-olds to want to read Homer, the foundation of all of Western literature. What more could I ask for as a teacher? I wanted to stop everything and say, "Great idea, let's spend the next four weeks reading and discussing the Odyssey! We can even find free translations online!"
But of course, that's not what I did. Reading the Odyssey isn't in the curriculum for World History/Global Studies 1. I have just one semester to cover not only ancient Greece, but also the Neolithic Revolution, the rise and fall of Rome, Egypt, China, India, Nubia, the Olmecs, not to mention a plethora of skills like SPICE charts and thesis writing and five paragraph essays. There's just no time to read the Odyssey in class.
My point is not that the Odyssey should be on the curriculum. Sure, I'd love to teach Homer to all our students, but even if this particular group would enjoy it, I've had plenty who didn't share their interest. No, what I can't help but note is that it increasingly breaks my heart just a little bit each time I'm made aware that I can't allow students to follow their own interests, even though I know it happens every day in large and small ways.
I realize that most students would not likely have signed up for World History/Global Studies 1 to even hear about Homer if they weren't required to take the class. And I know that each day my classroom activities are likely not engaging the interests of each and every student. But the more I teach, the more I try (even when I fail) to focus on the students and what they are interested in, not me.
I love teaching about ancient Greece. I could lecture about Pericles and the hubris of Athens all day, or show countless examples of Greek art and architecture. But the last few years, I've essentially stopped lecturing about Greece at all beyond the basic introduction, instead allowing students to choose a research question that interests them and then to present their research to the class.
Does it pain me that some years no students will choose the topics that I love the most? Absolutely. And if I think a topic is important enough, I'll make sure we cover it in some way. But the students are vastly more engaged and the work they produce is better if they are able to follow their own interests.
For example, on Thursday after this exchange about Homer, the students split into groups to work on crafting research questions for their presentations. I had three different groups tell me that they wanted to research the role of women in ancient Greek society. That's a topic that I only very briefly covered in my lectures back when I started teaching, simply because I chose to spend my time on other areas. Whether it's me choosing what topics to cover or the students, either way we're only going to be able to scratch the surface of all there is to know about ancient Greece. Once I accepted that I'd never be able to cover everything, it helped me give up some control and hand it over to the students.
But despite my halting efforts to try and take into account the students' interests, I still have to make sure I am serving The Curriculum. Don't get me wrong, as curricula go, World History/Global Studies 1 at my school is a good one, with a solid mix of content and skills. And of course, I'm in a privileged spot only teaching one class, so it's easy for me to wish I could adapt things for my students when I don't have to worry about teaching other classes who may have different interests. There are very practical and pragmatic reasons why I can't drop everything and read the Odyssey with my students, but increasingly, the practical and pragmatic answers have become less satisfying for me.