Meet Bruce Freeberg, the college professor who found joy teaching middle school

Bruce Freeberg has a doctorate in philosophy and a dozen years of teaching experience at the college level. But now he teaches history in a middle school classroom at Crossroads Academy -- and loves it.

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Ask a question in a college classroom, Freeberg said, and you’re often answered with hesitation. For many college students, the passion for learning has faded. Their goal is a grade. They’re reluctant to make mistakes.

Ask fifth-graders a question and eight hands shoot skyward. “They might not be quite as articulate in their elaboration,” Freeberg said, “but they arrive at many of the same insights that college students do." 

Freeberg owes this invigorating career change to his son Caleb’s dismay with first grade. Caleb had a nice teacher and a nice class, but within months he was bored to tears. He called school a “prison” and begged to leave. He was learning basic skills but only that, and his natural curiosity flickered. 

“My son’s sense of wonder was one of my favorite things about him,” Freeberg said. “I couldn’t give that up without a fight.”

Freeberg and his wife Amanda, now the senior pastor at The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College, brought Caleb home, where Bruce taught him for second grade. He had no background in early education, but he knew what engaged his son. “I determined that, along with all the hard work on spelling and times tables, Caleb would encounter something that fascinated him every day.” 

Scholar that he is, Freeberg began to study early education. That led him to the writings of E.D. Hirsch, an educational reformer who argued that American primary schools aren’t teaching what children need to promote broad reading comprehension and to build a foundation for continued learning in high school and beyond. Effective primary education, Hirsch wrote, embeds the skills kids need to master in rich content: history, literature, geography, math, the arts and science.

Before long, father and son both found their way to Crossroads Academy in Lyme, the first independent school in the country to base its approach on Hirsch’s writings. At Crossroads, the curriculum is carefully sequenced from year to year and built around two concepts: Core Knowledge and Core Virtues. The first fosters cultural literacy, the second good character.

As a history teacher in his 11th year at Crossroads, Freeberg guides students from the Renaissance in fifth grade straight through to the Cold War in eighth. “They’re encountering the grand narrative of the human story, which a lot of people never get,” he said.

Caleb is now a recent college graduate, a talented musician with an interest in writing. Freeberg remains a student. He spent much of last summer’s vacation reading deeply on the Gilded Age and Progressivism, the better to keep up with his energized -- and energizing -- middle-schoolers.

“It’s really exciting to see the progress over time,” Freeberg said, “and know you’ve had a part in it.” 

(The Working Lives blog is the product of Story Kitchen Creative.)

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