Gadhafi and the teachable moment

It’s a reflex: When a big international story breaks, local media go looking for the local angle. Now that Moammar Gadhafi has been killed, my colleague Paul Tosto remembered this local connection: In 1986, Gadhafi sent a letter to second-grade students at Maxfield Magnet School in St. Paul. The kids had written to the Libyan dictator as part of a class project, and Gadhafi’s people apparently saw a PR opportunity.

The children sent Gadhafi questions about dispute resolution, and he answered as though they were taking his side. (You can read Kristin Tillotson’s piece in the Star Tribune here, and David Brauer’s take in Minnpost here.) What’s compelling to me is that a second-grade teacher, Jill Swanson, saw an opportunity to explore a topic as complicated as propaganda, and took it:

“These were 7- and 8-year-olds sharing their thoughts really well, and then his response had a tone of ‘thank you for supporting me.’ When I read it to them, the kids were looking at me like, ‘That’s not what we said.’ It was confusing to them, but it gave us a great opportunity to discuss what propaganda is, and how to spot it.”

Now, that’s teaching. A quarter-century later, those kids remember Swanson and the effect she had on their lives. The story fits nicely with today’s commentary about Perry Mann, another teacher who made the world different for his students. So, with what we used to call MEA weekend upon us, let’s take a moment to thank Ms. Swanson, Mr. Mann and all those others who made a difference in our lives. For me, it’s Dann Peterson. Who is it for you?

  • Jessie

    Great stories. For me, it’s Mike Holm, English teacher at Eden Prairie HS – treated a bunch of 17 year-olds as peers reading their way through the classics. Kind of teacher you didn’t want to disappoint.

  • Erica

    That is a cool story, Eric!

    For me, it was Mrs. Pofahl, Hastings Middle School Algebra. She was a great teacher. The coolest part is that I met her again as an adult at our local fitness center, and had the opportunity to get to know her on a more personal level. Awesome!

  • Bonnie

    great question. Makes one think.

    I would say that I had some really “bad” teachers along the way that taught me some really important things…I won’t name them. But the stuff I learned from them directly, or just as a consequence of having them as a teacher are priceless.

    I’ll call out one Richard P. Scherer of Fairmont High School…formerly U.S. Marines…as having a big impact on my life as a GREAT educator as well as extremely talented musician.

  • Leslie

    I was in Mrs. Swanson’s second grade class that year. I remember the letter he wrote to us calling Reagan a baby-killer. We were so young, but Mrs. Swanson made us feel smart and important, and opened our eyes to something very important. She was a great teacher.