At Radnor High, celebrities help with the teaching

Teacher Paul Wright asks a question of science writer Jonah Lehrer, who replies via the conference-call device in foreground. Taking notes are students Sophia McPherson (right) and Maho Okumura.
Teacher Paul Wright asks a question of science writer Jonah Lehrer, who replies via the conference-call device in foreground. Taking notes are students Sophia McPherson (right) and Maho Okumura.
Posted: March 05, 2011

The voice came from a conference-call device in the center of a Radnor High School classroom.

From a hotel room in New Orleans, popular science writer Jonah Lehrer was answering a student's question about the crash of financial markets. He broke it down to the neurological.

"People can get swept away by ideas, and these neurons in the brain play a role whenever we see this irrational speculation," Lehrer said.

The phone call linking the brain's pleasure seekers to high finance is what teachers Paul Wright and Carl Rosin describe as their "back door" way of teaching the stock market crash of 1929.

The two teachers - good friends - have made the celebrity phone call and interview a part of the interdisciplinary history and literature curriculum for their 11th-grade Viewpoints on Modern America class.

Since 2007, the teachers have persuaded well-known writers and thinkers to call in to their class. The guests sit for an hour-long interview, during which the students ask questions related to their unit of study.

So far, Wright and Rosin have snagged Lehrer, a contributing editor to such magazines as Wired and Scientific American Mind; the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Levine; the behavioral economist Dan Ariely; the author Glen David Gold; and the financial journalist Michael Lewis (The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine).

"Kids don't like textbooks. They like dynamism," said Rosin, 43, an English teacher. "There's nothing more dynamic," he said, than getting to talk with someone one would never otherwise be able to. "They understand that they have control over making it a success - or not."

In the Viewpoints course, students study American history and literature. The interviews occur two or three times each year.

For the unit on the crash of 1929, the curriculum included The Great Gatsby, the movie Wall Street, and the interview with Lehrer.

Levine - whose poetry often centers on themes of labor and struggle - was part of the unit on the rise of labor and industry. Gold and his book, Carter Beats the Devil, were included in the class' study of President Warren G. Harding's administration. The book is a historical novel involving Harding's death while in office.

"Gold was the first one, and it went so well that we were like, 'Who else can we get?' " said Wright, 42, a social studies teacher and a finalist for this year's Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year award.

Students enrolled in the class in 2007 had read Carter Beats the Devil - about an illusionist who chops up Harding in a magic trick and then makes him whole; shockingly, Harding dies for real two hours later. The students were so engaged that the teachers thought it would be great to have Gold talk to the class.

An e-mail to Gold's agent led to Gold's personal e-mail address. Gold agreed to call in. Wright borrowed the conference-call device from the district's school board. (The teachers have since purchased their own with a $500 grant from the Radnor Educational Foundation.)

To snag other guests, little more than an e-mail exchange has been necessary. Speakers who otherwise earn in the tens of thousands for engagements have agreed to call in free, Wright said.

Lehrer, 29, called his interview "fun and an honor." The students asked "really smart questions," he said.

The writers Malcolm Gladwell and Tobias Wolff are the only invitees to have declined.

Before the interviews, students are assigned readings written by the guests and also blog about them to spur discussion. Students develop their own questions, which are reviewed by teachers before the big day.

Last month, Lehrer, author of How We Decide, discussed dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain responsible for the feel-good high that comes with eating a good meal - or making a lot of money in the stock market. The quest to retain that feeling leads to a willingness to participate in riskier behaviors, studies show.

Student Taylor Olson, 16, asked if dopamine played a role when someone decided to stop the behavior.

When dopamine receptors stop firing, it could be tied to the voice in the back of your head saying, "We were excited before, but now it's time to get out," Lehrer said.

Student Michael Staples, who has invested $2,000 he earned while working as a caddie, said the interview offered a new perspective about making decisions.

"You couldn't turn on the television and hear this. They'd be talking about profits and earnings," he said.

Next up is Jeff Shesol, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton who authored Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court, which chronicles Roosevelt's attempt to pack the court. Shesol is scheduled to call in this month.

Student Kim Sass and her classmates are looking forward to it.

"It's one thing to hear your teacher saying it," said Sass, 16, "but it's another to hear someone so respected in their field say it."

To see the Radnor students' blog, the syllabus for Viewpoints on Modern America, and more, visit

Contact staff writer Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or


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