Monday, November 11, 2013

What we no longer teach

In the course of my teaching day on Friday, two things were bothersome.

The first occurred when I read a poem with my Honors freshmen.  It’s a prose poem by Jack Gilbert entitled “Waiting and Finding" which appeared in   the July, 2013 issue of The Sun.  In it, the poet mentions a memory from his early school days, and in order to set up the poem for my students, I asked if they’d had the experience in elementary school of a teacher pulling out a box of instruments and distributing them to kids in the class to play as an accompaniment to group singing. A roomful of faces stared back at me in wonderment.  I shared with them my own experience of having a song book in my classroom desk each year of elementary school. Once a week—because it was part of the curriculum—the teacher would tell us to “get out your song books,” and for a half an hour or so, we would sing American folk and patriotic songs like “America the Beautiful” and “This Land is Your Land” and “The ErieCanal” and “Tingalayo.”   (Click on the song titles to listen to them on YouTube.) As we sang, kids used a wide variety of percussion instruments like maracas and tom toms and tambourines and cymbals and castanets to keep time and punctuate the cacophonous music we made, and for a shy kid like me, it was a chance to sing along without fear of being heard.

“Why didn’t we get to do that in elementary school?” my modern day students asked, and I nearly choked up in answering them.

“Because your teachers were busy preparing you for those all-important state tests,” I told them.  And I also told them, as I often do, that they are the next in line to rule the world, and as future school board members or school superintendents or state senators or governors, they can change things.  They should change things.

And also on Friday, I asked each class period of freshmen if they knew why they weren’t coming to school on Monday.
“It’s some holiday,” I heard in reply.
“Labor Day?” someone asked.
They didn’t know.

Telling them “Veteran’s Day” didn’t help.  They didn’t understand what it was for.  So I explained.  And then I had them write a brief paragraph on what it means to be a soldier.  For once, no one complained.  No one tried to waste time with questions or stall tactics.  They all simply began writing.  Because they all know someone who is serving or has served in some branch of the military.  And they wrote these amazing paragraphs about what it means to sign up for a job that might kill you or maim you or at the very least, require you to leave your family and friends and reside on foreign soil for long periods of time in uncomfortable conditions.

So I guess, yeah, they do really know what the day is for.  They just needed a moment to muse on it.