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Commander of the Faithful as Added Value for Educators

Comments by Bonnie James* on the occasion of the 4th annual Abdelkader essay prize awards in Elkader, Iowa May 5, 2012)

My interest in the Abd el-Kader project focuses on the work I do in curriculum development in the US and internationally. I consult to school districts, often classroom teachers and department chairs, sometimes principals and superintendents, and rarely, a Department of Education for a country. Most of my consulting is for a part of the Harvard Graduate School of Education called Project Zero. Project Zero focuses on cognitive development as it is nurtured by a curriculum design called Teaching for Understanding. Though Project Zero has its foundation in the relationship of cognitive development to the Arts, its research looks at the broad spectrum of disciplines as they relate to the value of structuring academic work with the strongest possible design to promote cognitive development, which is the same as saying intellectual growth.

In my work I often search for materials that offer more than a limited view for academic pursuits, something that you might call “value added.” And this is what I think Commander of the Faithful has to offer our students.

There are two take-aways I’d like you to hold onto from my comments.

The first is finding something relevant that is important to know about, and that has a rivetingly interesting appeal. So much of what we offer our students is didactic and boring, maybe important, but its importance diminishes if there is nothing to sustain the “hook” that is valuable in learning, understanding, and sustaining what has been learned. We can’t remember a lot of what we learned in school. However, we can all give examples of curriculum that continues to be part of our intellectual package; perhaps it’s Huckleberry Finn, the relationship of geography to political success, or the boiling point of water. These kinds of things create the building blocks of intellect. They are the things that you have found relevant and important and thus you retain them. And you use these building blocks to tease out the things you don’t understand. They connect you to new learning and understanding.

The second take-away is the importance of developing deep understanding of the “stuff” that is learned. Learning something is fine, but understanding something goes far beyond the multiple choices of benchmark testing. To truly understand something (and there are degrees of understanding—but that’s a different topic altogether), you can use that information to inform further concepts you may pursue. It is imperative that teachers seek to develop understanding of what they teach to ensure that time spent in academic pursuits is time well spent.

Commander of the Faithful is a very good story written in an engaging style—it is not an easy read but it is not beyond the ability of a solid student. It is also a book that is engaging in many disciplines and this is an aspect of the book that I find particularly appealing in the work I do. It has geography, history, the social sciences, physiology, philosophy, religion, linguistics, and more. Commander of the Faithful offers many pathways of curriculum, offered in a rich context. In searching for academic works that encourage deeper understanding, we should be looking for something that provides an almost transformative experience. This transformative experience takes our students into a realm of understanding beyond what is often conventionally offered.

Combining these two take-aways, 1) something that is relevant and riveting—or can be made so with a little coaching, and 2) something that is compelling for constructing deeper understanding, Commander of the Faithful offers multiple avenues for excellent curriculum. And I will enumerate three that I find compelling, but there are several others as well:

First, the concept of Colonialism. This is a big ticket concept for understanding the history of our various cultures as well as the economic colonialism that is active today. The emir’s Algerian society was a French colony. El-Kader has been dubbed the George Washington of Algeria—a powerful connection for the U.S. student reading Commander. This is equally powerful for students from countries whose nation may have been the empire that oversaw colonies. The book is written from an on-the-ground perspective that captivates the reader’s interest and pulls the reader into the pathos of what it means to live under a colonial power.

Second, the concepts of culture and faith. Islam, like Christianity, has multiple, attractive and unattractive faces. The simple labels of “Muslim” or “Christian” are not lightly used in the book. Rather, tribes, sects, denominations and other nuances that tease out the mish-mash of cultures are explicated in the text itself and also in the footenotes and the chapter notes. The book’s structure offers a teacher the opportunity to examine how a writer presents an excellent story but also offers the scholarly evidence that sufficient research has taken place to offer a story that one can trust as being reliable to its history.

Third, the concept of character. We each have a unique relationship to character development in that we are evidence of our own. Commander of the Faithful is a chronology of a man shaped by his circumstances, but he was also a character who seemed to work to understand himself and his relationship to all around him. The book is fraught with examples of his character development, often informed by the decisions he made. Here are two particular examples: On page 47 the author states, “Anarchy gave birth to his power and anarchy constantly developed in him.” What a rich sentence for launching a discussion of every word in this sentence.

The second, on the next page, is an example of the emir’s emerging character, exhibiting humility and perspective when the author writes that abd el-Kader becomes “Commander of the Faithful” because he turns down the title, Sultan. Again, the concept of character is powerfully presented.

A good book, or any good piece of scholarship or research, can provide the metaphor for much of what needs to be learned in shaping one’s academic or intellectual construct. Used thoughtfully, a good piece of scholarship or research can also engage the student in ways that create deeper understandings of the concepts that are vital to understand. For most of us, and we are all students in one form or another, new challenges will arise and we will be compelled to find solutions or strategies. By engaging deeply in a good piece of work, intellectual connections are formed which is the basis for extended cognitive growth—and that’s what education should be all about.

*Bonnie Bickel James is a consultant in educational leadership and curriculum. She consults at the Project Zero Summer Institute, Harvard Graduate School of Education and WIDE, an on-line platform at the Harvard Graduate School of Education that specializes in professional development for educators. She also speaks at professional development seminars for WIDE in the U.S. and internationally, recently in Beijing, China. Previously, Ms. James was Lower School Principal at Milton Academy, Milton, MA; Lower School Director, National Cathedral School for Girls, Washington DC; and chair of the History/Social Studies department at The Foote School, New Haven, CT, where she taught for fifteen years.