This interview of educator John Hunter is re-posted from: the School Library Journal.
Karyn M. Peterson
If (and when) future generations succeed in saving the world, we may all have John Hunter to thank. The veteran teacher, educational consultant, and author has been inspiring creative and critical thinking, compassion, confidence, and pragmatic problem solving in kids for 35 years through his innovative World Peace Game, his unyielding positivity and optimism, and his intuitive understanding of what kids’ need to succeed.
At the start of a national tour to promote his new book about his experiences teaching the game, World Peace and Other 4th-Grade Achievements (Houghton Harcourt, 2013), Hunter addressed the crowd at SLJ’s recent Public Library Leadership Think Tank, then sat down to speak to us about unlocking kids’ infinite potential, his faith in kids to improve our world, and how he daily inspires (and is inspired by) his students.
At our Think Tank, you spoke about the lasting impact of even the smallest gestures. Can you tell us more about this concept?
We are completely interdependent; this is what I’ve come to understand and see. Everything I do is important to someone in that room or someone connected to them. So I’m obligated to do the best that I possibly can every moment. I constantly have to work at that every day so that I can be less of a barrier or an obstacle to their learning. My students have come back over decades now to let me know the range and effect of gestures I’ve made, of words I’ve said, of things we’ve done. And I’m sure every teacher has instances like this. So this circle of influence that you might have can be so broad.
What is it like for you to teach at Agnor-Hurt Elementary, and in the Albemarle County (VA) school district? Can you tell us more about your experiences there?
[It’s] one of the best I’ve ever taught in. Pam Moran is the superintendent, and my immediate principal is Michele Del Gallo Castner. They are visionaries, and this is what makes [it] a cutting-edge district. It’s 650 children from all different socioeconomic levels. We’ve got 23 different ethnic groups and languages in that school. And it’s like walking into a river of love every day. You plug into this current of energy that’s so positive, and it’s primarily due to visionary, trusting leadership.
At Agnor-Hurt, we start on the relationship when they come into preschool. So there’s a culture of acceptance, of caring, of compassion, and kindness. When you have that kind of culture, you have kids coming in and, wherever they turn, they’re going to have this kind of support. No matter what situation they get into or what teacher they go to, there’s a unity in the response. Michele is a fierce protector of children. That combination of kindness with that huge protective power and fire for taking care of kids is just what makes the situation just fly. There’s nothing you can’t do as a teacher in that school.
Pam Moran herself walks around taking pictures of all kinds of teachers’ projects and she shares them with all the other teachers in the district…for a superintendent to be doing that [is] rare and unusual. Pam always talks about what she calls ‘caves, watering holes, and campfires’—the places we gather to exchange ideas, and she’s a living example of that herself. She is a great supporter and inspiration.
The center of our school is [the library and librarian] Jamie Chapman and, like you would imagine, everybody passes through [the library], everybody uses it, everybody’s connected to it. That’s a beautiful understanding about schools and the central position libraries hold in them still.
How did your relationship with libraries begin?
Right at the time of integration in our regional area of Chesterfield County (VA), I discovered the public library. The summer before I was to attend my first integrated school—at the age of 12—I had a real hunger for things beyond the norm, I guess in some ways, for a kid from my situation. And I devoured the library; I tried to read every book about Native Americans and science fiction and Eastern philosophy. The library became kind of a refuge, a resourcing place for this great unknown…. It made me feel more a part of what I was going to go into. [It was] a public library and that meant white and black signs were not in the way. I could simply go in and use [it].
Did you always want to be a teacher?
Really, in some ways I’m an introvert who just happens to appear to be an extrovert. There was a moment in Japan—I’m sitting in this 500-year-old cypress wood meditation hall on a bamboo-covered mountainside near the Sea of Japan—and I thought, ‘You know, this is where I should be. I really don’t need to go anywhere else.’ But I had obligations; I had things to do in the world. Had I not been a teacher, I was very inclined to find a place like that and simply go into meditation.
So how do you summon your inner extrovert? Or embrace it?
The foundation was of course, I had a very happy life. My parents were both very sweet and loving, so it was a very quiet family life. And that calm safety that we had in the home made a comfort in the world. And so going out into it, I didn’t feel defensive or afraid.
How that transformed to be more of a performance art, like teaching? Well, it was called for. In a classroom…[you] really bring every tool that you have to the situation. You adapt and become whatever creature you must. You’re an academic and social amphibian; you grow gills when you have to and you drop fins when you have to, to help children be what they need to be. And playing in a band doesn’t hurt either! I had a studio practice for about 20 years, sound design, ambient music, Waveform Records. It’s still something I do in what little spare time I have.
Do you bring music into the classroom as well?
Absolutely! Some children like it to be quiet, so we’re quiet sometimes, but there may be some Miles Davis in the background, “Sketches of Spain,” something very open and spacious.
I take the children through different modalities of thinking using Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory, [with] eight different pieces of music, all within the space of an hour. It’s astounding what they do in that time [and] music is the springboard for that. I want them to have an expanded world, so I’m playing Indonesian gamelan or opera arias or glitchcore from Vladislav Delay, this Finnish DJ—something they’re not going to run into on the radio or around the house.
And the library was fundamental in that, too! In the Richmond Public Library when I was a young man, I would go and check out records. I listened to Turkish music, to music from the bauls of India. That library was instrumental in my becoming who I was musically.
How has your teaching shaped your vision of the future?
I’m completely optimistic. There is no doubt in my mind that high school students can save this planet completely, in every way. No doubt. They’re relentlessly compassionate. The more we empower those young people to be in charge…the better off we’ll be.
Is compassion the most important legacy of your World Peace game?
How else can we be if we’re going to survive? It’s our fundamental as human beings…preemptively going at things with kindness gives a little bit of ease to every difficult situation we face.
What’s your philosophy of teaching, your approach?
I’ve learned from my teachers, my mentors, that example is better than precept. If I want them to do, believe, think, or be anything at all, I’ve got to do that myself first. They hear a lot of words from adults, but who lives that way? Who can they see that walks the walk, and not just talks?
The second step is [from] my mentor, Ethel J. Banks: think about the line of least resistance. Find out what they love, spend some time finding out who they really are, what they really care about, and then respect it, and build curriculum to and around it. Once the children believe that you believe in them and that you respect what they actually like and are interested in, that’s a huge step. And from that point on, you’re friends for life. They’ll go anywhere with you.
In my classroom…before we even touch [a] subject, they’re so heavily involved and invested thinking that it’s their unit, that they’re in power to control it, their learning…that they feel they can do anything and, with your help, they can do even more than that.
In such a rich learning environment, how do you deal with standardized testing?
Our school has strategies to work with that. I’ve heard [my principal] make a speech to an entire room crammed full of teachers, looking at scores on a big PowerPoint: ‘I picked each one of you. I know you. I trust you. You are professionals, you know what to do. Let’s do it.’ And every year, the scores go way up through the roof. It’s amazing. It’s not a direct correlation; you can’t quantify love and affection and caring. But [the] power of that, for me, is what the transformative effect is at our school.
What inspires you in your life, and in your teaching?
I read ancient texts, all kinds of esoteric stuff that helps me think of things more deeply. And of course, music has always been helpful in doing that. And there’s my teenage daughter, who is better than I will ever be at everything; she’s a huge inspiration.
[Teaching is] a profession and a calling, really. But I think, walking into the building…there’s a shift in consciousness, there is a breaking of state with the outside world. We are in this place of infinite possibility and potential, and infinite possibility for happiness. And so that’s inspirational.
John Hunter’s World Peace Game website.