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Principle: We think in the service of emotional goals
Nick was a high school English teacher and an administrator responsible for the school's curriculum. For years, Nick had known that emotion played an important role in learning, but he assumed that the intellect and emotion were separate functions. In his junior English course, Nick worked to get students to understand literature both intellectually and emotionally, "to find themselves in what they read," as he put it. He also asked them to write about not only what they thought to be true, but also what they felt to be true. Still, his insisting that they check their emotional problems at the classroom door so that they could do intellectual work revealed his conception of the separation between heart and head.
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Once Nick discovered and began to understand that emotion is the rudder for thinking, he thought that he might have found the key to motivation: Our needs and interests are rooted in our emotions, which motivate us to think and act. We choose to learn when we need or want to learn. So, Nick decided that if he wanted his course to be emotionally relevant to his students, he needed to give them more choice over what they studied—get them more invested in what they read, discussed, and wrote about. At the same time, he worried that such freedom might result in their failing to learn what they needed to know, especially for their college aspirations.
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Ultimately, Nick devised a solution and decided to try it out. He would keep his focus on the skills he needed to teach—reading, writing, and thinking—and let the students decide what they would read, write, and think about. Nick's only criterion for a student's selecting a piece of literature was that it be or become personally meaningful to the student; the student must care about the work (top)
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because it expresses some truth about living as the student has experienced it. However, he didn't feel the students were prepared to make such a leap from the traditional classroom, in which the teacher chooses the content, to choosing for themselves, especially if the selections had to have some sort of personal meaning. So, he started slowly by asking all students to bring in something—an object, a song, a quote, anything—that meant something to them and share it with the class.
Once they became accustomed to talking about personal meaning, Nick provided books and lists of works that might resonate with them. Because some of his students already enjoyed reading outside of school, he didn't limit them to his lists. Instead, he suggested a process for selecting a work: read a few pages to see if it grabbed them. If it didn't, move on to another work. And so he proceeded from there through a crazy-quilt of the year's reading list—from Dante to V. C. Andrews. Sometimes, Nick ran his classes like a book club, with students taking turns selecting the poem, short story, play, or novel that everyone would read. Whoever selected the work would lead the discussions. At other times, he let them read whatever they wanted to read, so everyone was reading something different; in class, students focused on each other's writing issues—sharing personal and literary essays and discussing strategies for solving communication problems. [The selection of Dante's The Inferno reveals something about this population of students (motivated, college-bound) and suggests a reason that Nick's solution might be impossible or look very different in different circumstances—a different school with a different population. For example, the range of works suggested by the teacher would change in order to increase its likely appeal to that population of students.]