'Faculty Focus' series opens with Ian Lear-Nickum, History Faculty

King introduces our new 'Faculty Focus' series that profiles our exceptional faculty and how they personalize the work they do with our students. First installment: Q & A with Ian Lear-Nickum, History Faculty and Grade 10 Dean:


What does Personalized Approach mean to you and how do you incorporate the method into your teaching?

My version of personalization goes beyond pedagogy, proficiency, or growth. While all those aspects of personalized teaching are incredibly important, personalizing relationships with each student is equally vital. In other words, there are two levels to personalization.

The first level is understanding how students process information differently and knowing which students in my classroom have achieved certain levels of proficiency in any given area. For example, 'Carl' might have trouble following a mini-lecture and organizing his notes while 'Brenda' can absorb every word of that mini-lecture while being able to synthesize the significance of that lecture. However, Carl is much more adept at analyzing and comparing primary documents, while Brenda struggles to see consistent or conflicting themes within those same documents. Knowing each student at this level of detail not only helps me plan my lessons with greater awareness and intention, but also it remains true that if I fail to know these students in these ways - if I forget to remind myself of where that given student is in his/her progression - then I can't get to that second level of personalization: the relationship of trust between teacher and student that leads to profound growth. Getting to that second level is everything: the only way I can do this is by teaching at a school like King. Because of our small class sizes, it's impossible to forget that 'Jack' is at this level for this task or that 'Sophie' is at this level for that task. Over the course of a year, we build that trust: they know that I know where they are proficiency-wise, and this allows them to buy into the process of growth. Only then is there a real personalized and professional scholarly relationship: camaraderie of learning where the student feels valued, confident, and safe.

How do your personal passions influence your teaching? And how do you help students articulate their perspectives and develop their 'voice'?

As my wife and young kids will tell you, I discuss history and politics with literally anyone who will listen - it's incessant. I'm always analyzing, comparing, contextualizing, and taking multiple perspectives. My son Jamie has had to say, "Dad, please stop talking about this" on more than one occasion. Aside from the occasional conversation about sports or music - or in the case of my kids, Legos, princesses, and diaper changes, respectively - I am constantly talking about or thinking about current events and how the past informs and shapes the present. This energy bleeds into my teaching: if something happens in the world tonight, we know about it immediately thanks to technology, and I immediately seize that moment to help students realize how immediate the past is in relation to the present moment. My students see this, and then they start doing it, too: "Hey, Mr. Lear-Nickum, did you see what happened last night?" These are the magical moments, because unless the teacher genuinely cares what adolescents have to say about any given topic, their voice could be stifled or ultimately silenced. These are the kids that are going to be inheriting our long term problems: don't we need them to start formulating cogent opinions based on evidence now as opposed to later? Don't we owe it to them to teach them how to see issues from every angle?

The rules of engagement in my classroom are pretty simple: use evidence, use respectful language, utilize reason, and be willing to see things from multiple perspectives. In class and during debate practice, I let them go at it while I referee: the discussions they get into are creative, exploratory, envelope pushing, and real. As long as they feel like their words are heard and valued, the energy is contagious.

How do you create a personal and meaningful learning experience for your students?

I think the trick here is to always relate whatever we are discussing to their own lives: in what ways have you, the student, felt this way before? In what ways have you walked a mile in this historical figure's shoes? You have to make it relatable to the group and to the individual, which is difficult sometimes because these are adolescents of varying experiences, interests, and backgrounds. However, in politics and history the constant theme is power. Adolescents have tremendous experience with power: they live it every day - parents, teachers, friends, the school, and the government. They are acutely aware of what powers they have and what powers escape them. It also helps to bring kids to a decision-making moment: get them to the point where they are literally playing the role of Bismarck as he is deciding whether or not to besiege Paris during the Franco-Prussian War. Would you, the student, do what Bismarck did? This teaches them about more than history: it teaches contingency - that life does not unfold without accidents, systems, and choices; personal responsibility - that your decisions have consequences that you may or may not intend, and you always have to live with those decisions for ill or for good; and character - you may think you'd make the "right" decision, but how do you know that you would unless you're put in that position? The student has to buy-in to the fact that they themselves might one day be in the exact same situation.