I just learned, through the magic of Facebook, that one of my favorite teachers from high school--or ever--has died. His name was Joe Katz, and he taught history at Roslyn High School.
I despised history as a subject in school. I found it dull, and I found its teachers duller. It was all content with no context. And the teachers, by and large, were grey and unwashed and uninteresting.
Strangely, though, I chose to take an honors history class as a senior. It was called "American Thought," and it was the first class I had ever taken that had no textbook. Instead, we had a packet of articles and essays that had been Xeroxed by the teacher. It also had no real syllabus, beyond, "let's talk about stuff."
The teacher, Joe Katz, chewed gum, had wild and untamed eyebrows, and was trying to corner the market on bicentennial-themed quarters (it was 1980 at the time). He didn't teach. Not any way I had been used to. He harassed. He cajoled. He challenged. It was my first seminar, and suddenly, I loved history.
I have forgotten almost everything that my high school teachers forced me to read, outside of novels and stories in English. But I remember the essays I read for Joe Katz--because he wasn't afraid of being controversial and confrontational. We were high school seniors, and we were expected to grapple with the world.
This was serious business for Joe Katz. He had been teaching for long enough, at that point, that he had sent students to Vietnam. The draft had gone away not so long ago. Being 18 was not, necessarily, a guaranteed joyride. In fact, when some of the kids in class came in wearing Hawaiian shirts and sitting in folding lawn chairs in honor of the first day of spring, Joe Katz lashed out at them for being superficial and foolish. "You want to make a statement?" he yelled. "Find something worth saying."
One essay I remember vividly was about a history teacher who secretly started a fascist youth group in his world history class in order to lure his clueless students into behaving thugishly--in response to their blithe criticisms of the Germans under Naziism, and how stupid they must have been to fall under Hitler's spell. Little by little, the teacher ratcheted up the outrageous demands on his new "club," until they were spying on their classmates, threatening them, and even wearing armbands. He then brought them into the auditorium to see a video link-up with the youth group's national convention, whereupon he showed them scenes from the NAzi Nuremburg rally. They got the point. They got the point so well that some of them had complete breakdowns and had to leave school. The teacher, needless to say, was fired, sued, and more.
But it was GREAT reading material. And OH, how we argued about it. For days. And it wasn't just opinionating. We had to defend our opinions with...all of that historical content we had learned and found so boring and useless in other classes.
I've carried that particular story around in my head ever since, and pulled it out on many occasions.
I've done a lot of teacher and curriculum-developer training sessions on "teaching for understanding." Joe Katz is the teacher who taught me what that means.
Rest in Peace, Joe. And if there is a heaven, may be you be arguing gloriously there, with the best and the brightest.