By Teachers, For Teachers
We all know Benjamin Franklin as one of our favorite founding fathers. His face lights up the $100 bill, and the portrait of a cheerful, kite-flying, electricity-discovering man graces our historical legends. There is doubtlessly a lot to learn about life (and some teaching strategies) from a man like Benjamin Franklin. When we read Franklin’s autobiography and examine his approach to life, we see that not only is his story rife with examples of success, but also that we can use teaching strategies to help our students at any age learn from Franklin’s example. Let’s take a look at five significant teaching strategies we can use from this legendary American.
We live in a culture that shuns imitation. “Be yourself” and “Do you” are favorite mantras of modern America. Yet Franklin lived otherwise.
In the opening to his “Autobiography,” Franklin openly states that perhaps his life is “Fit to be imitated” by others. His thinking is that if he was successful in some ways, others who want to meet with success could imitate his actions.
Franklin himself learned early on that imitating others was a fast route to self-improvement. For example, when he wanted to improve his writing, he found someone else’s writing he thought was excellent ,“And wished, if possible, to imitate it.” Franklin examined the writer’s arguments, and a few days later would try to rewrite the argument without looking at the original. “Then I compared my writing with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.”
Franklin’s life is full of examples of being open to learning and ready to imitate the styles, habits, or strategies of others. Our students, too, should be encouraged to proudly imitate those whom have admirable qualities, so they have a positive example to guide their development.
Franklin did not sit on the sidelines and wish someone would bring him into the game. Rather, he believed in himself and his abilities to the extent that he was always searching for opportunities to jump in.
When he was just 15 years old, he tricked his older brother – the brother who owned a printing house and for whom Franklin apprenticed – into publishing his work. Franklin knew that his brother would never intentionally publish his work, so he submitted letters to the editor under the pseudonym Silence Dogood. After his brother and colleagues found it, “They read it, commented on it in my hearing, and I had the exquisite pleasure of finding it met with their approbation, and that, in their different guesses at the author, none were named but men of some character among us for learning and ingenuity.”
Franklin did not like to sit back and wait for the world to come to him. He excitedly sought opportunities to engage with the world. Later on he would run away from his brother and start his own printing business. He would go on to become a writer, philosopher, scientist, statesman, and inventor – all by believing in and applying himself.
Students often think lesser of themselves because of their youth and inexperience. But Franklin didn’t! Encourage students with his example; they’ll always have room for more learning and experience, but they’re never too young to engage with the world!
It’s no secret that Franklin loved to learn. While his formal education only lasted until about the age of 10, Franklin spent a great of time educating himself. He understood the importance of intentionally carving time into his schedule for study.
As an adult, he wrote down a formal schedule for each, which included time for study in the morning, noon, and evening. “Study” usually meant reading, and he was known to have a voracious appetite for books. But even in his youth, he made time for reading and considered it a great virtue to expand his mind. He even notes how he skipped attending church on Sundays, as it cut too much into his time for reading and studying.
Franklin tells us, “From a child I was fond of reading, and all the little money that came into my hands was ever laid out in books,” and that “Often I sat up in my room reading the greatest part of the night, when the book was borrowed in the evening and to be returned early in the morning, lest it should be missed or wanted.” Franklin’s curiosity was boundless, and he considered study so critical to his progress that he rarely missed an opportunity to engage in it.
We so easily engage in time-wasting activities, and the opportunities for mindless entertainment seem to expand every year. Franklin, while known to enjoy laughter, leisure, and entertainment, never let it get in the way of his personal growth.
One illustrative example from his young adult years involved Franklin’s avid chess playing. He was in the process of trying to learn another language, but he had a friend who loved to play chess with him. When chess began taking a lot of his time he could have used for studying, he proposed this productive solution: “Finding this took up too much of the time I had to spare for study, I at length refused to play any more, unless on this condition, that the victor in every game should have a right to impose a task, either in parts of the grammar to be got by heart, or in translations, etc., which tasks the vanquished was to perform upon honor, before our next meeting.”
Franklin didn’t entirely do away with entertainment, but he didn’t let it take over his time either. As our students grow and learn, they ought to understand the necessary balance between entertainment and productive growth, or how the two might be merged.
Perhaps more than anything else, Franklin is known for his ability to apply an intelligent, calculated rationale to nearly any circumstance. He sets a high precedent for students as he demonstrates throughout his life how much one can accomplish if they simple think.
Franklin regularly applies his ability to reason, and this leads to both self-improvement and societal improvement. When he had any question – even something as mundane as “How many people could a preacher speak to in an open field?” – Franklin applied a serious step-by-step approach to resolve the inquiry.
For his own improvement, Franklin wanted to achieve moral perfection. But he realized he couldn’t just wish himself to perfection: “I concluded, at length, that the mere speculative conviction that it was our interest to be completely virtuous, was not sufficient to prevent our slipping.” Instead, he derived a very specific daily method for self-improvement and reflection.
This same logic applies to his way of viewing society. He sets a goal or observes a problem, then follows a step-by-step logical progression to arrive at an improvement. For example, Franklin helped initiate Philadelphia’s first fire departments by writing “A Paper on the different accidents and carelessnesses by which houses were set on fire, with cautions against them, and means proposed of avoiding them.” From this first step, Franklin worked with many other interested individuals to slowly develop into a more formal anti-fire institution.
The point is that there’s no problem too big, no aspiration too lofty toward which our reason cannot be applied. All it takes is affording ourselves time to think it through rationally and then acting upon the logical conclusions our thinking yields. When students are taught to elevate their ability to think over their immediate emotional concerns or doubts, there is much they can accomplish.
As I mentioned, Franklin (somewhat proudly) tells readers that his life is filled with lessons that could be imitated. As we want our students to experience the growth, happiness, success, and comfort that Franklin enjoyed, then it may be worthwhile to point to his example. At the very least, they can observe the connection between the daily habits of excellence Franklin practiced and the legendary status he achieved. Every example students have counts for something, and “That guy on the $100 bill” must be pretty awesome and worth learning something from!
Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.