I had one of those special moments today in my first period class where a student’s question forced me to completely change gears. We are reading sections of Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation and focusing specifically on a chapter called "The Silence" which covers the 1790 debate in the House of Representatives over slavery and the slave trade. Even before we started one of my students asked why the book is called Founding Brothers instead of Founding Fathers. I absolutely love these moments. It was a wonderful question so I spent the next 20 minutes going around the class asking for their opinions on the matter. I was pleasantly surprised as most of the students had something to say. They tended to focus on the intention of the author to bridge the great divide that exists between the generations that followed and the awed reverence that we are taught to extend to these men. One of Ellis’s goals in the book is to describe these men as every inch a part of this world; they lived during extraordinary times, but they were men with the same weaknesses and agendas that drive leaders regardless of time and place. Students thought that describing them as brothers rather than fathers helped to make this point. This doesn’t mean that we should not respect their accomplishments; in fact it is this acknowledgment that helps place their accomplishments in sharper relief. Students pointed out that the idea of a father implies or demands respect and/or admiration. I should have known to begin this book with that very question, but it is nice to know that I can count on my students every once in a while to point out what I miss.
One of the things I’ve noticed this year in going textless is that more of my students are engaged in what they are reading. This can be seen clearly in the sophistication of their questions and the one discussed above is just one example.