The Tragedy of Teaching To Kill A Mockingbird in Middle School

“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.

middle school and to kill a mockingbird by harper lee 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”

Five Reasons You Should Hug A Preschool Teacher

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”

Everything I Need to Know I Probably Didn’t Learn in Third Grade

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.

2014-05-13 07.33.08
Grace all dressed up to “teach.” She was very thorough in her research on how to look like an educator. She even asked me, “Mom, how did you wear your hair when you were a teacher?” In a spinster bun, naturally.

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.

cursive
Textese doesn’t look so lazy if you write it in cursive. (photo credit: fung.leo via photopin cc)

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:

Grace,

You need to know long division in case your computer or calculator is not working.

Papa

Boom. *drops mic and walks off stage*

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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?”

St. Louis Reads Because We Can

It is called vindication. And it reads like the sweet, smooth words of Jane Austen, the biting and truthful wit of Mark Twain, and the timeless universality of William Shakespeare. I should know, because I am from St. Louis: the eighth most literate city in America.

st. louis arch
By StLouisArchMultExpEV-4.72.JPG: Kevin McCoy StLouisArchMultExpEV-1.82.JPG: Kevin McCoy StLouisArchMultExpEV+1.51.JPG: Kevin McCoy StLouisArchMultExpEV+4.09.JPG: Kevin McCoy derivative work: Darxus [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
After ranting about a bogus report that St. Louis was the third most dangerous city in the world (see my post “Lock Your Doors: There Is Danger in The Lou“), I was a little over the moon this morning to hear that my beloved city finally fared well in one of these lists our society seems so enamored with making. And this one is actually legitimate, unlike the one that ranked us among world cities dominated by war and drug cartels. Apparently, a Central Connecticut State University study found St. Louis to rank among the top ten literate cities in America, according to a CNN article.

So we might shoot you, but at least we will be able to read the story when it makes in the papers the next day.

Every English teacher in the city should be proud right now. All those painful book reports we graded, all the groaning we let roll off our backs as we assigned homework chapters and summer reading, all those lessons in sentence diagramming, all the class discussions that resembled pulling teeth and exercises in non-sequitur thoughts more than literary dissection…they have all paid off.

It is nice to see our city rise to the occasion and succeed in an arena inspired by natives such as T.S. Eliot, Kate Chopin, Tennessee Williams, Eugene Field, Marianne Moore, William S. Burroughs, and Maya Angelou, instead of just being known as the home of rappers Nelly and Akon. That is a different kind of literacy, though I am sure we would probably rank pretty high on that list as well. I am going to say that makes us well-rounded.

Now if only we could figure out how to pronounce Gravois, mostaccioli, wash, and fork, I bet we would get bumped to #5 on the list.

We Read Because We Can

It is called vindication. And it reads like the sweet, smooth words of Jane Austen, the biting and truthful wit of Mark Twain, and the timeless universality of William Shakespeare. I should know, because I am from St. Louis: the eighth most literate city in America.

st. louis public library
We dig the library in The Lou

After ranting about a bogus report that St. Louis was the third most dangerous city in the world (see my post “Lock Your Doors: There Is Danger in The Lou“), I was a little over the moon this morning to hear that my beloved city finally fared well in one of these lists our society seems so enamored with making. And this one is actually legitimate, unlike the one that ranked us among world cities dominated by war and drug cartels. Apparently, a Central Connecticut State University study found St. Louis to rank among the top ten literate cities in America, according to a CNN article.

So we might shoot you, but at least we will be able to read the story when it makes in the papers the next day.

Every English teacher in the city should be proud right now. All those painful book reports we graded, all the groaning we let roll off our backs as we assigned homework chapters and summer reading, all those lessons in sentence diagramming, all the class discussions that resembled pulling teeth and exercises in non-sequitur thoughts more than literary dissection…they have all paid off.

It is nice to see our city rise to the occasion and succeed in an arena inspired by natives such as T.S. Eliot, Kate Chopin, Tennessee Williams, Eugene Field, Marianne Moore, William S. Burroughs, and Maya Angelou, instead of just being known as the home of rappers Nelly and Akon. That is a different kind of literacy, though I am sure we would probably rank pretty high on that list as well. I am going to say that makes us well-rounded.

Now if only we could figure out how to pronounce Gravois, mostaccioli, wash, and fork, I bet we would get bumped to #5 on the list.