Rambo Teaches Social Studies (Part I)

Inspiration comes from the craziest places…

Part I: The WHY

(Today’s entry is part one in a three part series of posts. Subsequent installments will be added tomorrow and Wednesday morning. Mild NSFW advisory: Googling the video clip mentioned the scene detailed below will take you this awesome exchange from the film, but there is a pointed use of an “F” bomb immediately after the dialogue portion presented here — which is why we’ve skipped the embedding of it).

When I’m not teaching my two sections of American literature, I spend the bulk of my day working as our school’s Instructional Coach. As a coach, a big part of my job is to help teachers take a look at their lesson plans, curricula, essential questions, pedagogical approaches, and classroom presentation techniques — with the ultimate goal of help them try to figure out the best way to skin the proverbial cat to make sure that our students are receiving the highest quality education that we can provide them. And as a Catholic High School, we are constantly re-evaluating not just “the WHAT” of our curriculum that we teach in a given course — but the “WHY” behind the very nature of the course in the first place.

As Simon Sinek famously explains…

Image result for start with why

As Catholic school educators, we believe that there’s a fundamental difference in how we approach curriculum design. That’s not intended to sound egotistical or prideful, nor is it just a case of saying a prayer at the start of each class or hanging a crucifix on the wall of every classroom (though we do that, too). Rather, it’s a comprehensive attempt to align EVERY. SINGLE. CLASS. in our building and EVERY. SINGLE. LESSON. with the broader guiding “why” behind our school’s very reason for being in the first place. It’s equal parts mission alignment and a simple matter of good business: we’re a tuition-based Catholic school in one of the top performing public school systems in the country. And if we’re teaching the exact same thing in the exact same way that folks can get for free at the fantastic area public schools located just down the road — then what added value are kids even receiving from their “Catholic” education?

Our “why” challenges us to reflect on the very reason our school exists in the first place.  Because if we don’t, then there’s really no reason for our tuitions or our teachers to get paid. And so we simply see it as our job to think about our curriculum differently. We owe it to our students, their families, and the core teachings of our faith itself.

In just a few weeks, my principal will be stepping back into the classroom for a stretch and teaching a semester-long elective social studies course on The Developing World. And rather than just offering a crash course survey of endless lectures on a breakneck tour through 18 weeks of developing world countries selected largely at random, he wanted to see if we could cook up a radically different approach to the course that would be:

  1. Mission Aligned
  2. Cross curricular
  3. Student centered
  4. Project and Portfolio Based (with no “who is the President of [country x]?” tests)
  5. Lending itself seamlessly to authentic Christian service experiences

He dropped by my office to take a look at how he might consider approaching it and we got to talking. And before you know it, a full-blown semester’s worth of lesson plans and curriculum mapping actually started with a quote from the movie John Rambo.

Allow me to set the scene…

Somewhere in a remote fishing village in rural Thailand, a world-wearied Vietnam War hero named John Rambo (of 1980s action movie fame) now waits out the rest of his days in a self-imposed solitude, picking up odd jobs for local merchants and serving as the proprietor of a tiny river boat for hire service. That’s when a team of Church volunteers led by a Colorado missionary named Michael Burnett arrives.



BURNETT: I’m Michael Burnett. Do you have some time to talk? Won’t take long, I promise. I was told it might be possible to rent your boat. We’d like to do that. Is that possible? We need to get upriver.

RAMBO: Where you going?

BURNETT: Into Burma.

RAMBO: Burma’s a war zone.

BURNETT: Well, that’s what people call it, but it’s more like genocide than war. Anyway, this will be my fifth trip in, so we are aware of all the risks.

RAMBO: I don’t go that far north.

BURNETT: Let me explain our situation. Our church is part of a Pan-Asian ministry located in Colorado, and we’re all volunteers who around this time of year bring in medical supplies, medical attention, prayer books and support for the Karen tribes people. People say you know the river better than anyone.

RAMBO: Well, they lied.

BURNETT: So, what I’m asking is that we compensate you for a few hours of your time. It will help change people’s lives.

RAMBO: Are you bringing in any weapons?

BURNETT: Of course not.

RAMBO: You’re not changing anything.



If you’re not “bringing in any weapons, [then] you’re not changing anything.”

How’s THAT for the jumping off point for an essential question?

If the goal of a Catholic school like ours is to offer more than a simple survey course style narrative of who-started-what-problem-when, then we might have just found ourselves a storytelling hook onto which we could begin hanging the entire semester’s worth of study. And rather than forcing a teacher to spend 18 weeks lecturing to a room full of bleary-eyed students who simply couldn’t care less about what might otherwise seem like utterly forgettable string of dates, failed military coups, and hard-to-pronounce historical figures from foreign nations — we are literally throwing them into the world of this very real, very compelling story and asking them to consider enduring questions along the following lines:

Are weapons the only way to bring meaningful change to countries ravaged over generations by war, poverty, famine, and disease?

Who is the villain in the story of the Developing World?

Why are these people and their culture worth saving? 

Am I my brother’s keeper?

Why should I care enough to help? And more pragmatically, how can I use my understanding of these remote places to affect the greatest change for good?

If American novelist John Steinbeck is correct and the simple truth is that “there are no peaceful people” amongst those whose freedom has been taken away by force — and if we, as education professionals, seek to restore the very same freedoms of the learners in our classrooms as we design culturally responsive and student-centered classrooms for the 21st century — then how can we best approach a full semester’s study of the culture, politics, geography, and systems of government in The Developing World?

Tune in back here tomorrow for Part II: The How.

Author: John

John Meehan (@MeehanEDU) is an English teacher and school instructional coach at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia. He began his teaching career in 2010 as a career switcher through The New Teacher Project, after spending five years working in social media and event marketing. He is a 2017 ASCD Emerging Leader, and an alumnus of the 2016-2018 Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Teacher Advisory Council. In 2016, he was named one of Arlington, Virginia’s “40 Under 40” by the Leadership Center for Excellence. He is a past presenter and regular attendee at educational conferences throughout the United States, including the annual conference for National Catholic Education Association, ASCD Empower19, and the Play Like a Champion Today: Character Education Through Sports summer conference at the University of Notre Dame. He’s an avid runner who’s completed more than three dozen marathons, half marathons, long-distance road relays, mud runs, and obstacle course races. John lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

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