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.


  1. It's great that kids today understand the concept of Veteran's Day, and why it exists. It's also unfortunate that their knowlege has been gained in so intimate a way. As I learned in my day, from growing up during Vietnam. I suppose this has been repeated ad infinitum, since before the Peloponnesian War.

  2. I suppose this is true, Mark. Each generation wishes its youngsters would appreciate their history--and they do, but not until they're oldsters themselves... wishing the next litter of whippersnappers could see what their old eyes now behold.

  3. Kay,
    I always read your writing with appreciation, and usually with agreement. This time, not so much. It's way too facile to blame the "teach to the test" mentality as hurting education. Many teachers and many parents share your concern. I think that testing to discover what the kids have in fact learned is a good thing. Finding out also which teachers are most consistently succeeding in transferring that learning is also good. Personal opinion. And I'm pretty sure you are one of the successful ones.
    Second 'issue' is really more of surprise than true disagreement. I graduated from high school in 1963 and really knew almost nothing about Veterans' day. We had no military tradition in my family, and there were no kids anywhere in school with active duty parents. One of the consistent observations of my friends from that era who did subsequently serve is that one problem today with Iraq and Afghanistan is that too few Americans have the visceral experience of having a loved one involved. Maybe that is a false observation, but I've heard it more than once or twice.

  4. I reckon my point here, Bob, was not about whether standardized testing is good or bad. The point is that music used to be a valued part of the curriculum, considered necessary for an individual student's overall growth as a person. I think most educators and administrators would still agree that it is, but given the enormity of the material we need to cover from September to April (when testing occurs), there simply isn't time for a pleasant half hour spent singing songs.

  5. thank God for you good teachers,, ya'll have saved our society, many many times.. reckon?

    1. Glenn, my friend, thank you for your kind words. I had no idea when I began teaching 24 years ago that teachers could really have an impact on students. Turns out, we do. As for me personally, my #1 goal at the start of every school day is simply to love the kids genuinely and authentically. All the other stuff follows nicely behind that.