Teach Like Lincoln

Prior to the presidential election of 1860 and the history altering affairs that soon followed, Abe Lincoln was a political failure.  He wasn't even a consideration for the Republican nomination.  Sure he was a great guy from humble beginnings with a decent law practice.  But an individual with the potential to run the country amist the most turbulant time in the nations history? Nah!!!!!

He was dismissed and people focused their attention on other political upcomers- Edward Bates, Salmon Chase, and  William Seward.

Until they heard Lincoln speak.

Captivating, intelligent, enthusiastic, and empathetic, Abe would mesmorize his audiences.

Further, he would TEACH them.  Though there are numerous theories surrounding the 1860 Republican nomination and the subsequent presidential election, I believe Abe was successful because he was a good TEACHER.

In other words, he won the trust of the people because he taught them his ideas.  He did so in three ways:

1.  Copius background research

Lack of knowledge for a subject is a sign of a weak individual.  Teaching something you don't know is not only wrong, but difficult.  An audience, and more-so, students, can see through someone trying to "fluff" their way through a speech or lesson.  Prior to addressing the public, Lincoln meticulously and thoroughly versed himself in the subject matter:

"Before speaking out against the Nebraska Act, Lincoln spent many hours in the State Library, studying present and past congressional debates so that he could reach back into the stream of American history and tell a clear, reasoned, and compelling tale.  He would express no opinion on anything, Herndon obeyed, until he know his subject 'inside and outside, upside-down and downside.' "
He mastered the content of his speech.  Teachers can learn from this, especially at the secondary level.

Knowledge of one's subject is translated and communicated to the students through an instructor's body language.  They expect you to be an expert of your content and address questions thoughtfully.  Further, they need to believe that they are learning from someone who, themselves, understands the material.

Work hard to continue learning what your subject has to teach.  Stay up to date with advances and delve into the history of your subject.  Assuming that you've conquered your content because you squeaked by your specialty exam on your way to certification is not enough.  Continue and learn with your students.

2.  Metaphors and analogies

Lincoln championed the use of metaphors and analogies to teach the public.  As communication tools, they accomplish the same thing: highlight a connection or relationship.  We've looked at the effectiveness of analogies as a teaching tool.  Analogies and metaphors make your content "sticky" and your students retain that information longer.  Connecting new ideas to established knowledge is at the heart of utilizing analogies and metaphors and, in general, learning.

Abe realized the powerful communication implications of analogies and metaphors and liberally used them while addressing the public:

"...Lincoln developed a new metaphor in Hartford to perfectly illustrate his distinction between accepting slavery where it already existed while doing everything possible to curtail its spread.  Testing his image in Hartford, he would refine it further in subsequent speeches.  'If I saw a venomous snake crawling into the road,' Lincoln began, 'any man would say I might seize the nearest stick and kill it; but if I found that snake in bed with my children, that would be another question.  I might hurt the children more than the snake, and it might bite them...But if there was a bed newly made up, to which the children were to be taken, and it was proposed to take a batch of young snakes and put them there with them, I take it it no man would say there was a any question how I ought to decide!... The new Territories are the newly make bed to which our children are to go, and it lies with the nation to say whether they wall have snakes mixed up with them or not.' "
Follow suit and do the same.  Construct and organize an analogy or metaphor.  Work through it slowly and facilitate the connection within your students.

3.  Stories

Narratives are an effective teaching tool because the listener immediately places themselves in the shoes of the main character.  When the narrative includes your content and a heavy dose of emotion, you have a seamless way to sneak your content into your students' mind.

Lincoln used stories for a variety of reasons and his passion for telling a tale is at the center of his personality.  A humorous story disarms an aggressive adversary.  A tale regarding a hard childhood lesson illustrates a core value.  A fictitious narrative can transform a complex concept into something simple and understandable.

A politician requires exquisite communication skills because they must navigate the hostile territory of public life and image.  A teacher must posses exemplary communication skills because they must teach content to students who do not want to be taught.  Stories give both the politician and teacher an advantage and if used appropriately, will win supporters and learners.

The task before a teacher is arguably must less treacherous but equally as important as the task Lincoln experienced.  Though we are not trying to prevent Union dissolution and American chaos, teachers are facing an uphill battle where everything is seemingly an obstacle.  If we take a lesson from Lincoln, we learn that that battle can be fought with metaphors, narratives, and content knowledge.

By the way, read Team Of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  You will not be disappointed and you'll be astonished to learn that it is a book about teaching.

Thanks for reading.

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