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Time-Traveling Teacher

I am deep into Stephen King's latest novel, 11/22/63--and loving it. I was a huge Stephen King fan in my 20s, gobbling up his books like literary snack food. The writer was in his 20s, too, which probably has something to do with why I found his writing so addictively delicious. I can't say that Stephen King enlightened me or changed my worldview. Although I recognized that his work was a long way from great literature, the books were tasty. They rang my chimes.

At some point, in the 1980s, I stopped reading Stephen King books. I just got tired of dead pets, haunted cars and general weirdness as entertainment. I thought I'd outgrown King. I found other snack-reading authors, and read plenty of award-winning literature, too. I also began to read non-fiction prodigiously, mostly about education.

Then--while visiting a friend in Bangor, Maine, I picked up a copy of King's marvelous On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, at a funky, dusty little bookstore right out of a Stephen King novel. I had just started writing about education; the book turned up at the exact moment I needed it. You could say it rang my chimes.

The protagonist of 11/22/63 is a teacher, who time-travels back to the early 1960s in an attempt to prevent the assassination of President Kennedy. (You can tell that much by looking at the book cover. I hate spoilers, and promise not to reveal any more plot details for those of you planning to pick up the book and tackle all 850 pages.) In an interview in the New York Times, King tells Errol Morris that he won't write another novel like 11/22/63 soon, or perhaps ever--the research detail was way too much work.

King gets one thing exactly right, however: teaching.

Jake Epping, the hero (or anti-hero) steps into teaching seamlessly, after traveling back in time 50 years. Kids love him in 2011, and revere him in 1960. He knows how to teach, how to make content come alive for his students, how to value their unique voices and bring out their best. King's ear for teachers' lounge talk is dead accurate, and several of the good guys in the plot are educators, straight shooters who don't shy away from a righteous battle.

Lots of things in the book are amusingly familiar--everyone smokes, for one thing. Scenes set in hospitals, where the technologies of healing are relatively primitive, remind of all the progress we've made in dealing with trauma to the human body.

While Jake misses things in the 60s (most notably, his cell phone and Google searches), none of them involve the classroom or instruction. There might be a reason for that.

Techies are fond of reminding us that school is one of the few institutions that would be immediately familiar to someone returning to earth after being gone for a century or more. Classrooms, black--or white--boards, desks. Someone standing in front of the room, teaching.

Maybe we'd be better off if the technologies changed. But I'm wondering if there isn't a kind of timeless core in formal education--and if change isn't all it's cracked up to be, in classroom-based learning. That core would begin with the relationship between teachers and students.

One of the strongest themes of 11/22/63 is that the past resonates with the future. King calls it "harmonizing"--the intuitive prescience of understanding something before it happens, coincidences that aren't random. We have all been here before, he says.

I was in the 7th grade when Kennedy was assassinated, and the day is burned into my memory. I saw my English teacher, Miss Alison Olding, step out into the hallway to weep in shock. I adored Miss Olding and was more horrified and frightened by her reaction than anything I saw on TV. I remember lots of what she taught me--mostly because of who she was, a real person with strong feelings.

That ringing chime? It may be a warning that newer isn't always better, when it comes to education. Some values and practices just might be ageless.

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The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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