What’s the Hypotenuse of a Love Triangle?

“I need three volunteers. You’re going to be Carly. You’re going to be Bo. And you’re going to be Lawrence.”

days of our lives love triangle
How is Lawrence even in the running? His Aunt Vivian buried Carly alive. Besides, look at Bo’s luscious 90’s mullet. Just what a girl wants to run her fingers through. And he’s got a boat (just ignore that it’s named after his ex).

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?”

Snookie and Star Wars: Teaching Our Kids to Be Culturally Literate

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 Know by 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 sands through the hourglass…”

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

My attempt at humor with the final act of Julius Caesar

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… 

A Lesson for a Teacher

A few nights ago I had dinner with a former student of mine. She had recently found me on Facebook, was coincidentally back in town, and she wanted to catch up. I was elated. It is always a treat to have these little versions of “What Are They Doing Now?” whenever my path crosses with an old student. As a teacher, I could not help but get invested in my “girls,” as I would call them (no, it is not that I ignored the boys…I taught at an all-girls Catholic high school). It is the nature of the craft.

I have gotten together to catch up with students before; some I even talk to on a fairly regular basis. Inevitably there are always kids you grow a little closer to: you taught them for multiple years, you helped them solve an important problem, and so on. I always seemed to strike up a deeper relationship with my Yearbook students since the nature of that class afforded us all to chat about our lives; therefore, I knew them all a little better. These were usually the kids that would shoot me an email when they were in town to grab some lunch and catch up.

But this time was a little different. This particular former student was in the very first class I taught as a fledgling teacher. They were a great class, and we all got along smashingly, her included. She was a good student, but art was her thing, not English. So after leaving my class, she became one of the many students who would still say hello to me in the hallways, and that became the course of our relationship until she graduated. I was just as proud to see her receive her diploma as I was of any of my students, but then I never saw her again. As far as I knew, she didn’t give me another thought. It happens.

But then we met up the other night, and it was wonderful to hear about where life had taken her. She is an amazing, and I mean AMAZING, artist, and it was beautiful to see how she has found the courage and strength to find what will make her feel happy and fulfilled. When I told her how delighted I was that she had contacted me, and how it is always a nice little surprise when students find me on Facebook, she replied, “Of course! Who wouldn’t want to ‘friend’ you on Facebook? We always had fun in your class!” Well, shucks. But seriously, that was a wonderful validation for me, even now that I am not teaching anymore. I know how much of myself I put into being a teacher; I know how much I racked my brain for ways to keep my students interested; I know how much I agonized when they were not working to their potentials, or when I just could not seem to get something across to them. But they did not know that. So it felt really good to hear that somehow it all came through, and even better to hear it from a student I would not have expected.

Photo via Karen Watson liscensed under CC BY 2.0
Photo via Karen Watson on The Graphics Fairy liscensed under CC BY 2.0

Now I sit here and think of all the teachers I had over the course of my education and wonder how many of them realized the impact they had on me. My grade school Music teacher Miss Mooney, who undoubtedly created the connection in my brain that music equals fun, and who taught me that everyone has the right to sing by giving me a solo in the spring concert…despite my lack of tone and pitch. My fifth grade teacher Mrs. Semsar, who taught me that some things in life are just “no big hairy deal.” My middle school Science teacher Mrs. Lonigro, who was so knowledgable and passionate that she made me love regenerating amoebas, and who probably taught me more about the written language with her strict grading policies than my middle school English teacher. My eighth grade History teacher Mr. Blackford, who was the first adult, nay person, to really and truly encourage my love for the Monkees by giving me his old Mike Nesmith-inspired wool hat. My high school Art teacher Ms. Ahrens, who taught me that you do not have to be the best, but you have to do your best. My high school English teacher Miss Wilson, who gave me my first B in the subject, pushing me to reach her expectations, and who told me that my dreams of being an English teacher were still achievable even if I did not completely understand Shakespeare at age fifteen. My high school Latin teacher Domina Creed, who, dare I say, made Latin fun, and who called me after I had four teeth pulled to make sure I was feeling okay. My university History professor who once lectured a whole class period in the character of a stockbroker who lost everything during the Crash of 1929. My university English professor Dr. Preussner, who opened my eyes to the fact that Hawthorne was kind of a “hottie” and who made discussing Melville kind of interesting (sue me, I am not a fan). And finally, my high school Math teacher Mr. Stein who blew my mind by using the current love triangle on Days of Our Lives to explain inductive and deductive reasoning, and who, more than anyone, made me want to be a teacher.

This list of ladies and gentlemen boasts an astounding amount of talent. And if in any way I had the same impact on my students that they had on me, I am truly humbled.