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Interview with Craig Derksen

Craig Derksen has taught overseas for nine years on many different continents. He is currently teaching history at Dharan Academy High School in Dharan, Saudi Arabia. He is also coordinating curriculum for the social studies and language arts departments, and acts as the school’s national honor society advisor.

1. When did you start teaching and where have you taught?

I have taught overseas for nine years, in three different continents. Currently, I am teaching at Dharan Academy High School, in Dharan, Saudi Arabia. I attended American international schools from first grade through high school and have spent 28 of my 36 years outside of North America. This background helps me relate easily to my students. Like me, they are global nomads!

2. What courses are you teaching? What are the biggest themes that you try to convey in your survey course?

We follow an American curriculum at our school. I teach AP U.S. history, 11th grade U.S. history (survey course), and 9th grade ancient world history. In the U.S. history survey course, I focus more on the role of the U.S. in world affairs (foreign policy and trade issues) and spend less time on solely domestic issues (such as progressivism) than a teacher in the U.S. would. In ancient world history, we follow a fairly standard curriculum. However, I have expanded the Arab/Islamic Civilizations unit in consideration of where our school is located.

3. How do you organize your Arabic/Islamic Civilizations unit? What are the most effective assignments you use in that unit?

I start by comparing the main tenants of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Many of my Muslim and Christian students are surprised by how much the three religions have in common. After studying Moorish Spain we prepare a banquet at the “Alhambra Palace,” which is located in Granada, the last Muslim kingdom in Spain, which fell in 1492. Each student takes on a role (ruler, artist, philosopher, historian, entertainer, dancer, musician, etc.) from the Arab world at that time, researches the character, and creates an appropriate costume to wear and a meal to bring to the banquet.

I use this project as a bridge to my Renaissance unit, showing how the Renaissance did not happen in a vacuum, but rather that it was heavily influenced by information and ideas that filtered into Europe from the Arab/Islamic world through Moorish Spain, Italy, and with returning crusaders.

4. What are your most important goals in teaching history?

The following quote sums up my teaching philosophy:

If I see the moon,
But you do not,
I will point at it.
First you will watch
My finger to see where it goes.
Eventually, however, you
Must take your eyes off my finger and find the moon
(From The Laughing Sutra by Mark Salzman.)

History has so many wonderful stories to tell and lessons to teach. As a student, however, I remember asking myself, “What is the point of memorizing these dates, definitions, and facts when I will forget them as soon as I turn in my test?” My own experiences as a teenager spur me on to bring history to life in my classes. How to do this in the face of curriculum and outcome requirements is often a challenge. However, the bottom line is that if I want my students to embrace history, they must find it both interesting and meaningful.

I believe that content must be chosen responsibly, leaving time for students to make sense of the information being covered, and to develop the analytical skills that will remain an invaluable tool throughout their school years and beyond.

Many of my students come from education systems that focus on memorization and acceptance of the “official version of history.” Therefore, it is extremely important to me that students learn to understand that almost anything they will read, including their textbook, contains bias. I have students compare what is written in the textbook or a children’s book about people and events with primary sources and the latest research in order to spot bias, incorrect and missing information. I also have students study political cartoons that show bias and then have them draw their own biased cartoons for current event items. At the end of my World War II unit, I have students divide into groups and create “Time Magazines” about the war.  Each group is assigned a country from whose perspective the magazine articles, political cartoons, and advertisement must be written. For example, different groups will be assigned the German, Japanese, British, and American perspectives. Students thus learn that there are different ways of looking at the same historical events—it teaches them to look at what they read more critically and analytically.

Taped to the top of my computer monitor is a simple yet powerful quote: “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.”

If we want students to understand the lessons of history, they must be turned on to history; it must be made relevant to their lives. This can be achieved by allowing students to become active participants in the learning process rather than passive recipients of information. There are numerous techniques for doing this: writing journal entries from various perspectives, debates, primary source and current event analysis, simulations, thematic fairs, cooperative learning activities, and incorporating a classroom-without-walls program, just to name a few.

This approach to teaching history takes some imagination, and the willingness to take risks. There is always the fear that, if I let go, if I let students take an active role in learning, things might not work out as planned. Luckily, they don’t. When students are truly empowered and motivated to learn, they almost always surpass my highest expectations!

5. What was your most memorable teaching experience?

Taking a group of students on a study trip down one of the Amazon’s tributaries in Bolivia. We were the guests of a Swiss family who have owned a Brazil-nut operation in the middle of the jungle for three generations. (They switched to Brazil nuts when the price of natural rubber dropped.) The trees are found scattered throughout the jungle so the collection process is staggering in scope. The family provided us with their old riverboat and crew and we spent a week plying the river, studying their operation, exploring the jungle, and sleeping in jungle camps. We also visited a ghost town which was built by one of the rubber barons. It included a massive iron vault, still locked despite attempts to blow it open with dynamite, and a movie theater with the old screen still hanging and velvet seats intact.

One of the great things about teaching overseas is the many opportunities to use the world as a living classroom. Every study trip I have been involved in, whether to a Model United Nations conference in Mexico City or a study trip into the mountains of Southern Saudi Arabia, has been an unbelievable learning experience which has touched the lives of the students involved.

Interview conducted by Kelly Schrum; completed in May 2002.