Conference Calls with Authors Fit the Common Core

By Paul Wright, Carl Rosin, and Allison Zmuda

Have you ever been asked that hypothetical question:

If you could have a dinner-table conversation with anyone, who would it be and why?

Dan Pink
Dan Pink

We turned that dream into a reality, one phone call at a time. Even though there is a full-house in the classroom, it is eerily quiet for the sound check. And then the conference call begins. “Dan? Viewpoints on Modern America calling from Philadelphia. Thanks for joining us. How are you?”

These types of conversations bring outside authors and experts into the classroom to share their ruminations on a whole series of topics. Our hope with these annual calls is to break down the walls of the classroom and hear from experts in their field. The students always find them enjoyable, especially as they have most of the questions and have done background research to be ready for that call’s guest. As marvelous as history and literature are, we find them to be enlivened dramatically when they draw new maps in front of our students’ eyes. The students get to ask questions of people who are active practitioners. Notable guests have included:

  • Carter Beats the Devil author Glen David Gold,
  • Former U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine,
  • Liar’s Poker, The Big Short, and Moneyball author Michael Lewis,
  • Vanity Fair contributor and All the Devils Are Here co-author Bethany McLean,
  • How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist author Jonah Lehrer,
  • Crime novelist Lee Child,
  • Professor and Predictably Irrational author Dan Ariely,
  • Newspaper and television commentator Michael Smerconish, and
  • Supreme Power author Jeff Shesol.
Bethany McLean
Bethany McLean

Not one call has happened where kids weren’t absolutely buzzing after. After Bethany McLean last year (in her apartment, with a cold, and two baby daughters, and a dog, analyzing incentivization and derivatives and telling stories of how she became a writer), one of our girls talked about how “inspirational” the call had been (her word), that this person could have accomplished so much and been so adept at displaying it. Glen David Gold has had the place in stitches each time we’ve spoken with him. Michael Lewis was in his Berkeley study at 6 a.m. after a 1 a.m. flight in from New Orleans, the night after the movie based on his book The Blind Side had won the Oscar. He offered to talk about anything. Jeff Shesol said that our kids were more engaged and asked better questions that the satellite college class he had just finished teaching. We always share that feedback too.

Take Dan Pink, best-selling author of Drive and the upcoming To Sell Is Human, our most recent guest. Why is important to study a 19th-century philosophy or the effect of the Progressive Movement? When Dan Pink talks about a search for transcendence or a re-envisioning of the relationship between Labor and Industry, our students have the opportunity to put these in modern-day context. The search for individual worth and the struggle for equality and the desire to make business a more efficient engine of an optimized society — all of these are part of ongoing American movements, and meeting a person like Dan Pink will help our kids feel that they’re on the forefront … and that they understand it down to its bones.

Pink’s conversation with our class ranged widely, from the Industrial Revolution to Henry David Thoreau to high school grading to free will to spirituality to Angela Duckworth’s research on “grit.” The business guru boils down human drives towards people’s interest in seeking Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. His commentary about instrumental (extrinsic) versus fundamental (intrinsic) motivation — for laborers, students, all of us — spoke to us both about historical cases and our own personal situations, as the students grilled him, and both we and he made connections. History, literature, and business writing, after all, share an interest in uncovering the essence of what makes humans tick.

Michael Lewis
Michael Lewis

When the students debriefed in writing after the conference call, Kelsey remembered Pink’s comment that “Software is doing to our brains what factories did to our backs centuries ago.” Several students found his praise for ambiguity, despite most people’s distaste for it, to be most compelling; Ioana encapsulated many of these views: “What really piqued my interest is his idea of how people want to transcend and achieve a higher purpose, but ambiguity causes them to retreat back to the status quo.” Heather, a swimmer, noted his mention of the study of “the excellence of mundanity,” because her “coach always says we need to work on the mundane things to get better in the long run.”

The insights were personal as well as general. Shefain was interested to find that Pink’s story of his own path to his present position “contained more than a few ‘downs’,” while Alexa “felt comforted by his story of twists and turns, which showed that I don’t need to have a set, determined straight-line path.” Colin took it to heart: “Pink’s thoughts on grit paired with carving your own way will affect my mindset throughout the rest of the year.”

In terms of the tone and structure of the conversation, Katie appreciated the author’s ability to be both casual and scholarly, and how he “didn’t [make us feel] like high schoolers, but related to us.” Tommy was also impressed by how he engaged the class: “Not only did he listen and respond to our questions but he also posed for students questions he himself wanted answered.” Phoebe and Jon praised their classmates for coming up with engaging connections and questions, with Cat commenting on the insights developed on all sides to form a “discussion that tied in nicely to what we’re learning in class.”

“Wow,” concluded Maureen, echoing many of her classmates, “I thought he was fantastic.” Will added, “My parents are gonna be sooo jealous.”

Want to take this idea out for a test drive in your own classroom?

Here is the basic blueprint for how to meaningfully integrate a speakers’ program in your classroom:

  • Identify the dream author/expert that is connected to larger theme(s) and topic(s) in the course. This is not a “show and tell conversation” or a “career speaker” — it is grounded in research, reflection, and inquiry. Students research both the topic and the guest speaker to frame appropriate questions. Email has usually been the first avenue of approach; finding an email address may take some digging.
  • Talk with the author/expert to co-create a recommended reading list for students prior to the call. Students work through the materials to grow background knowledge and continue to frame questions.
  • After brief introductions and modeling one or two questions to establish context, we turn the responsibility for posing questions over to our students creating a dynamic interaction between author/expert and our class. We ask our class to submit potential questions in advance; we screen the questions to gather trends in topics, see what the kids are thinking, and organize a sequence so we can try to keep a good conversation rolling—this is a particular challenge we enjoy during the real-time of the call.
  • Provide opportunities for students to thank author/speaker as well as share what they got out of the experience (both research and classroom interview).

Bonus! How it connects to the Common Core

Our speakers program was in existence long before the Common Core was adopted, but it also aligns quite nicely with several anchor standards (see notations down below). Required skills include:

  • Research a topic to gain background knowledge – ability to select pertinent information (Reading Anchor Standards #1, #2, #9)
  • Analyze range of sources/points of view (interview subject) to identify bias, logic in order to develop informed opinion (Reading Anchor Standards #1, #6, #8, #9; Writing Anchor Standards #7, #8)
  • Ability to pose pointed questions (Writing Anchor Standards #6, #7, #8)
  • Conduct oneself in a professional, intelligent manner: etiquette, appropriate language, technical vocabulary (Writing Anchor Standards #6, Speaking and Listening Anchor Standards #1)
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