When your teacher dresses up as Benjamin Franklin

When your teacher dresses up as Benjamin Franklin

As we established previously, I like to dress up. Whether it’s as Derek Zoolander for a friend’s fashion show  or Nacho Libre for the opening weekend of Sunset magazine’s move to Cornerstone I have no shame, plus the more we put ourselves in embarrassing situations, the less embarrassed we are.

Ben Franklin made a surprise visit to my classroom last summer. It was at the end of 25 days of teaching pre-American Revolution History. My class had journeyed across the Beringia land bridge, studied early native American tribes, learned how to build a ten-foot tall teepee, deconstructed slavery, gone on an expedition to the new world with the blessing and financing of Queen Isabella (the summer school principal), and lived in the early colonies under the oppressive rule of King George.

To end the adventurous unit, Ben Franklin came to the class to speak about his publications (Poor Richard’s Almanac, The Pennsylvania Gazette) his beliefs (abolitionist, free thinker) and his inventions (bifocals, the Franklin stove, the lightning rod, the odometer, public libraries, and fire departments).

When he arrived he launched straight into his personal history, how he was one of 17 children and had run away from his abusive uncle to work in a printing shop. How he had gone from printer to writer to inventor to patriot to politician. And how he helped draft the Declaration of Independence and negotiate the treaty of peace with Great Britain.

He had the students try to figure out what some of his quotes meant, such as, “The cat in gloves catches no mice.”

Answers varied from, “People who are lazy never win.” “Work or die.” “A cat without claws is useless.” And the favorite 14 year-old answer, “That’s stupid, there are no gloves small enough for cats.”

Next he had them respond to the quote, “The absent are never without fault.”

Students answered, “Meaning if you’re not there you can’t blame anyone else.” “You have to show up to count” and, “I’m never absent and I have no faults.”

Finally, he asked the meaning of, “There is no such thing as a little enemy.” To which they answered, “Never make a little person not like you.” “All enemies are bad no matter how small.” There is no small problem” and “If you are enemies then it is obviously something big.” Ben seemed impressed with the student insight.

Next, he ran the students through some of his inventions and had them come up with a few of their own. They came up with the TV set T-shirt, toilet seat warmers, the invisible sweater and invisible spray, plus the very popular time machine (although no one had any idea how to make this one work, they were sure of it’s importance).

He asked the students to think about inventions that would solve some of the global problems they are facing-energy, overpopulation, garbage, just as he had done when inventing the public library and the fire department.

Students learn by doing and having a guest speaker who can bring history to life makes learning fun. The final question Ben asked was, “What will you remember about Benjamin Franklin?”

Answers ranged from “How bifocals and the Franklin stove work.” to

“That you can go from nothing to being famous if you have good ideas.”

My favorite answer was from a quiet student who never really seemed too engaged with what was going on in the class, “I will remember my goofy History teacher dressing up and showing us why Benjamin Franklin is a better teacher than he is.”