“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.”
As if on cue, eighteen or so sets of preteen eyes would turn and stare at me, sitting behind them at a desk with a small ballpoint tattoo on the bottom left corner. They were looking for the tears I had promised them. Pulling out a tissue as a white flag of sorts, I conceded, “Every time. I told you, every…single…time.” Satisfied, they all turned their heads back to the television screen and continued watching a story unfold of which they already knew the ending.
To Kill A Mockingbird was a staple of my second semester curriculum as an eighth grade English teacher, which was something I simultaneously loved and hated. The book, by far, was my favorite unit to teach because, you know, that whole “one of the greatest books of all time” thing. I never tired of rereading it, and the rich story and dynamic characters made it a veritable treasure trove for engaging lesson plans and assignments. However, I also felt a particular sadness that the real brilliance of the book was lost on the average eighth grade mind, and I mourned that so many people are probably introduced to this masterpiece way too early to really appreciate it. I mean, these were kids who never failed to derail a class discussion by relating to the most insignificant detail in a story and running with it. Continue reading “The Tragedy of Teaching To Kill A Mockingbird in Middle School”→
Currently, I am doing some part-time substitute teaching in a preschool classroom, which is a fairly new experience for me. Though I was a teacher once upon a time, I worked with high school and middle school students. So we are talking about pretty much the entire opposite end of the spectrum here. I always used to think I didn’t I have the special kind of patience required to be a preschool teacher. Older kids don’t need the same type of refined discipline and meticulously crafted rules as the little guys. I mean, that attention to detail is exhausting.
Yet now that I find myself in a preschool class a few days a week, I will admit I’m kind of loving it. Maybe being a mother has imbibed me with those particular survival skills I didn’t have during my earlier teaching days. Or maybe the fact that I know this is a temporary gig makes it easier for me to be charmed by the preschool life…similar to the way people make the argument that being a grandparent is better than being a parent. You get to eventually give them back to the person who is actually responsible for them: their real preschool teacher. Continue reading “Five Reasons You Should Hug A Preschool Teacher”→
The other day, my nine-year-old daughter, Grace, sent an email to my husband and I, as well as to her grandparents. Since she is just nine, those are the ONLY people with whom she is allowed to have email contact. Still, she is so enamored with having her own account that we are often treated to her random thoughts for the sake of her being able to send a message. This was one of the most recent:
I cant believe I’ve started long division so soon. In thierd grade I learned so much, like… science, multiplication, division, and now you know, long division. I won’t know if this is right or wrong until i’m older, but…WHAT ELSE IS THERE TO LEARN?????!!!!! I’ve already learned addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and long division. When do I use this stuff in my life anyway, besides school? But I geuss I should Know how to do this, just in case.
When do I use this stuff in my life anyway?
Every teacher everywhere has heard that question before. I actually just heard it from a fellow parent regarding the aforementioned long division as we chit-chatted during our sons’ baseball practice. Her daughter sat next to us, trying to trudge through two more homework problems before being allowed to play on the playground. Part of me sympathized with her frustration. My own daughter has been struggling with the demon that is known as long division, and homework time has dragged on with a lot more whining and overly-forceful erasing. And whining. Did I say whining? Because there is whining. And that can only lead to a passive-aggressive Facebook post from me:
Dear Long Division,
I did not like you much when I was a kid. I still don’t like you much as a parent. I’m starting to think “United we stand, divided we fall” was really an outcry against any homework focusing on you.
Love, English Nerd
It is sometimes hard to justify why learning certain things are important, especially when your child does not always see you using those specific skills in your everyday life. You, after all, are probably the first model your children look to as a barometer of what adulthood will be like. And hey, if you’re doing just fine without long division, why should they have to learn it? It also does not help matters when mom and dad can not quite seem to answer those “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” questions.
Just last week, I got to be Billy Madison. In case you don’t know who that is, he is a character played by Adam Sandler, who, as an adult, had to repeat grades one through twelve in order to take over his father’s business. I, on the other hand, only had to repeat third grade, and my teacher was none other than my daughter…and the rest of her class. “A Day In Third Grade” was a way for her and her friends to demonstrate to their parents what they have learned during this school year. And I was worried I would show my daughter on an even grander scale how much I do not remember from grade school, further demonstrating just how little retention of the the third grade curriculum is necessary for success later in life. I mean, we are talking about me, the woman who ran into some trouble helping Grace with her FIRST GRADE math homework.
Sure enough, my old nemesis long division reared its ugly head as one of the lessons, along with spelling, grammar (which I DOMINATED), a test on natural resources (on which my b.s. answer of “we would die” to the question “what would happen if we didn’t have trees?” was counted as correct), and an incredibly anxiety-inducing timed math game.
My daughter and her partner taught a lesson on cursive. Cursive? There are schools out there still teaching cursive? Doesn’t that seem a little archaic in this technological day and age? I know several schools in our area have done away with teaching cursive. But I am thrilled my daughter’s school still does. I’m even begrudgingly happy about the whole long division thing. And I will tell you why.
Educational standards are constantly coming under scrutiny in order to make sure our children are learning the skills they will need to succeed later in life. I have seen more and more emphasis on things like technology, which has pushed out many skills now viewed as passé, like cursive. Handwriting in general doesn’t seem all that important either, seeing as how so much of our daily communication happens electronically. And there is only so much time in the school day.
Yet I would argue that my children are receiving a gift by going to a school that still believes in teaching things like cursive. But not because I think cursive itself is that important. Heck, I don’t even use cursive anymore, in favor of printing. However, I worry that we are becoming a society who cares so much more about the product than the process. If the product itself is not crucial, then it can be easily tossed to the side. But the way I see it, even if we may not end up using the product, the process is still incredibly valuable. Things like teaching cursive help children master a skill. They learn to practice over and over to make perfection. All this technology we use automatically makes many things perfect for us. How is that good for developing brains? How does that encourage growth? How does that foster the idea of learning for learning’s sake? How does that contribute to future generations of culturally literate populations?
I may not use cursive anymore, but those hours at a desk with a freshly sharpened pencil and a sheet of lined paper, repeating the curves and bends and flows of letters, was the beginning of a realization that I could train my hand to do better. And every time I sit down to create an illustration, or pipe a decoration onto a cake, or create something for someone I love, I know how to control my movements. More importantly, I know it is not always going to be perfect the first time. If I want a desirable product, I have to pay attention to my process.
That is also what I console myself with when I sit with my daughter, helping her remember each and every God-forsaken step of long division. Even that little awkward mathematical outcast, the remainder.
And it is why I spent my day in third grade as an attentive and enthusiastic student. I wanted my daughter to feel like what she has been learning this year is valuable, even to someone who does not directly use all those lessons on a daily basis in her grown-up life. After all, it is much better to have a well-stocked reserve of information floating around in your brain, as Grace pointed out in her email, just in case.
Still, I am doing a happy dance that this is the last week of school before summer vacation. I need a homework break. Because you know fourth grade is going to pick up with fractions. Those little bastards are always ‘effing with me.
By the way, my dad was the first to reply to Grace’s email with one sentence. And as is my dad’s way, his response spoke a simple, no-nonsense truth that could not be negated by even the girl who once justified that, even though we live in the center of the country, her biggest fear was getting her arm bitten off by a shark because she might one day live in Hawaii:
You need to know long division in case your computer or calculator is not working.
Mlunch. Cheweez. Amana. Hosible. Uncle Donald’s. Flop Shoes. Bolo Daddy.
I have a running record of seemingly meaningless words like these on scraps of paper, tucked into baby books. Yet I knew exactly what each one meant when they would fall from the lips of my daughter or son. The ones I listed above can be translated into: lunch, Cheerios, banana, hospital, McDonald’s, flip-flops, and peanut butter, respectively. I don’t ever want to forget the ways in which my children claimed the English language all for their own as they were learning to talk and Continue reading “Help Them Find Their Words. Even The Gibberish Ones.”→
“I need three volunteers. You’re going to be Carly. You’re going to be Bo. And you’re going to be Lawrence.”
It was my first day in Mr. Stein’s sophomore Geometry class. And I had just been given a giant name tag that said Lawrence. What was going on here? I thought this was a Math class. And I hated Math. I mean, I was pretty sure it was a Math class. There was a poster of Einstein on Continue reading “What’s the Hypotenuse of a Love Triangle?”→
We all had teachers who stood out. Some were memorable because they inspired us or helped to change the course of our lives. Some we remember for the exact opposite reasons. And some remain etched into our brain because of their quirks, idiosyncrasies, or catch phrases.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
Michael started Kindergarten four days ago. It hasn’t been good. There has been crying. And pleading. And death grips. I know this is not out of the ordinary. I know starting Kindergarten can be overwhelming for a lot of kids. I know riding the bus can be downright scary for a little person who still needs me to wipe his rear after #2. I know. I just didn’t want it to Continue reading “A Tale of Two Kindergarteners”→
A few days ago, on the morning of May 4th to be exact, Grace emerged from her bedroom and greeted me with the phrase, “May the fourth be with you.” I must have looked at her a little strangely because she followed with the explanation, “It’s from this movie called Star Wars, in case you didn’t know.”
My first instinct was to say sarcastically, “Thanks. Of course I know that’s a play off of Star Wars…EVERYONE knows that.” But then I realized why I must have looked at her strangely in the first place: because SHE wouldn’t know that phrase was a play off of Star Wars. She is a seven-year-old little girl who has never seen the movie, so she obviously learned “May the fourth be with you” from someone at school. And since she didn’t know why it was a cleverly funny phrase, she assumed I wouldn’t know either.
I think sometimes we parents take for granted that our kids know about things that seem obvious to us, things that are part of our everyday social fabric. It is something called cultural literacy, a body of general and collective knowledge that we expect everyone to be familiar with. Like Star Wars, for example. One would assume that at the mention of that movie, every person within listening distance would know what was being discussed. But we are not born knowing this stuff, and part of our job as parents is to raise kids who have a good fundamental literacy of our culture…which means yes, we do have to answer all those seemingly endless stupid questions that flow from their mouths in a steady current of mind-numbing frequency. Thankfully, our exasperated answers are really helping to build our children’s ties to society’s collective knowledge so they are less likely to always be that person figuratively just climbing out from under a rock.
When I was in college I read the book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Knowby E.D. Hirsch, Jr. In it, Hirsch takes the position that children are not learning what they need in order to become culturally literate members of society, and he also includes what he believes are necessary pieces of information that every American should know. It is no secret that many believe Americans are getting “dumber” with each new generation. Jay Leno has his popular “Jaywalking” bit that proves the average American can struggle with information that SHOULD be a no-brainer. I am not so sure that we are really dumber than we used to be, but I would argue that what is considered to be “common knowledge” has been changing.
And it changes quickly. What seems to be something everyone in a certain age set knows can be completely unknown to another age set, even just a few years younger. As a new teacher, I figured I had an advantage in being able to identify with the culture of my high school students who were sometimes less than ten years younger than me. I would often compare literary characters to celebrities in modern culture to make things more relevant. This usually worked, but there were a few occasions where what I thought would be hysterical and helpful just fell completely flat.
Like the time I spent hours creating a lesson plan where I compared each of the Greek gods and goddesses to characters on “Days of Our Lives” (mythology really WAS the first soap opera), only to find out that pretty much none of my students had ever watched the show. WHAT???? Didn’t they grow up with the afternoon drama of Bo and Hope as the background soundtrack as they played Barbies and their moms ironed clothes? Didn’t they try to arrange their high school class schedules so they had last period free and could watch “Days” in the senior lounge like I did? No, apparently they did not. And then there was the time I thought I was SO funny when I recreated the last act of Julius
Caesar as a movie storyboard to help my students keep all the events of the final battle straight. After listing out the “starring” cast of characters from the play, I playfully added “and DON KNOTTS as The Messenger.” Funny, right? Except that none of my students knew who Don Knotts was. Part of me wanted to tell them to watch some “Nick at Night” for homework. As far as I was concerned, that was a failure of cultural literacy.
But I guess that begs the question is cultural literacy a static concept? Obviously, it can’t be. As time marches on, there are more people, events, concepts, books, movies, etc. that inspire and change our culture, and therefore should become part of our common literacy. But once something is considered part of our collective knowledge, must it always maintain that status for future generations? Snookie has certainly become a person of reference known to the masses, but if the average person on Jaywalking in the year 2112 fails to know who the orange-tinted guidette on “Jersey Shore” is (or what a “guidette” is for that matter), should the American public be appalled? I am going to say no on that one. I would argue that there are two types of cultural literacy: generational (to which Ms. Snookie would belong) and trans-generational (to which George Washington would belong).
Considering that the “may the fourth be with you” joke has clearly amused a new young generation of fans, I’m guessing Star Wars has safely retained its spot in trans-generational cultural literacy. But I’m wondering, what will remain common knowledge to my children’s generation? What will fall by the wayside? And I’m interested to know what YOU think should be taught to today’s children to ensure a society of a culturally literate public. As Linda Richman of Coffee Talk used to say: I’ll give you a topic. Cultural Literacy. It’s both cultural and literate. Discuss…