Nostalgia in the Classroom; or, Making School Cool Again
(My high school headshot-2006)
Podcasts are my most prominent form of consumption. NPR’s Throughline is a constant in my rotation. While listening to their October 13th, 2021 episode, titled “The Nostalgia Bone,” I remember being riveted by its history of nostalgia. Once considered a disease for those who felt acute homesickness resulted in being put in isolation for fear of it being contagious. Today, we know that not to be true. We know nostalgia as a huge money-making tool for advertisers, entrepreneurs, and the people behind creating jukebox musicals. We have a near-unmatchable attachment to our own nostalgia, whether it is to the lasagna grandma used to make, the perfume your first crush wore, that one song that–just in the first few notes played--takes you back to the car ride where you first heard it on the radio. Nostalgia isn’t a contagious disease, but it’s most certainly a pedagogical tool one can use to make school cool again.
I tell my high school students that it is okay to like something and be unafraid to be a fan of what you like. Most agree with me that it is generally cooler to not like something and be real loud about how something is “cringe,” “weak,” or “mid.” But deep down we all have things we like; we all have things we are, sometimes secretly, deeply crazy about. I’m a Swiftie, I love surfing, I am a diehard football fan, and I love reading books. But I’m not secretive about those…anymore. I model to my students these passions and likes and you know what happens? They chuckle a bit, but then I see the eyes connecting to those who share the same passions. Students love what they love but hate what their friends hate. This isn’t to push aside students’ genuine preferences, because of course we all have those things that we detest to no end. I’m genuinely not a fan of Kanye West (even before the Taylor Swift debacle); I find running to be an atrocious form of exercise; I loathe Wuthering Heights (in any iteration), and I find watching baseball on television to be a mind-numbing chore. But focusing on what’s cool makes the ever-frustrating eye roll a bit more humorous rather than a consistent reaction.
As educators, consider your own feelings of nostalgia, but in the context of your role on campus. Theatre always ignites my nostalgia due to discovering my love of it in high school. I went from a high school three-sport jock who made fun of the thespians to, well, being a career Theatre teacher. That nostalgia seeps out of my pedagogical pores, not just because I have standards to teach and assessments to conduct, but because I find teaching theatre to be totally cool, bro!
I was never good at math, but I took math all four years of my high school career because my teacher, Mr. Jonnard, had a contagious amount of genuine enthusiasm for teaching math. He made it real, and helped students like me--who just didn’t connect to the material--by making his lessons a real-life study for us to relate to. Maybe the formulas weren’t favored, but his stories about figuring out math in real-life situations were. His style and easy-to-detect passion helped math come alive, which made my eyes glaze over less and twinkle more.
I have fellow educators at my high school who, when given the chance, will go right back to when they knew the content they’re teaching now became the content they wanted to teach then. The perfect book, the dynamite science experiment, the tech-savvy computer teacher. They’re all there! Our nostalgia is within, and it’s in our students, too. The moment they’re old enough to have memories, they are old enough to experience nostalgia. I remember being in 6th grade and already “missing the old days” from 1st grade when life was just easier, amiright? Well, to 6th grade Marc, it’s a perpetual missing of those days. Ten-years-from-now Marc will miss today, when times were just easier, amiright?
When students get the opportunity to connect your content to their nostalgia, you have them. It’s science! And I’m not even a science teacher. I took my physics class junior year of high school—a class I had no business taking due to my low-performing skills as a mathematician—purely because of my teacher's experiment and projects. And they were a blast! I still look back at that class, which I barely passed with a C-, with nothing but fondness because of the pumpkin launcher project, chemical-filled beakers, and the theme park field trip where we had calculations to complete based on which rollercoasters we rode.
My teachers’ enthusiasm and love for their subject made me see the value and enjoyment of their content, even if that content was difficult to grasp or something I knew I wouldn’t care about come summer break. Their enthusiasm came through and got me, like an infectious smile or laugh. And now those experiences serve as my nostalgia. It’s my hope that my students see how school can be cool, and that their ten-years-from-now version will look back on these years with pleasant nostalgia, when times were, perhaps, simpler. I guess nostalgia is contagious after all.