Tuesday, March 09, 2010


I am working a lot these days, not always for a lot of pay, but still running from one end of my week to the other most of the time. I'm learning a lot, and fast. I'm doing a practicum to learn how to be a literacy specialist, and I'm subbing when I can spare the time from my course work. Yesterday I was startled by something.

I was teaching a lesson to a group of second graders, as part of my practicum. I was asking them to read and then interpret this poem, by J. R. R. Tolkien:


The fat cat on the mat

may seem to dream

of nice mice that suffice

for him, or cream;

but he free, maybe,

walks in thought

unbowed, proud, where loud

roared and fought

his kin, lean and slim,

or deep in den

in the East feasted on beasts

and tender men.

The giant lion with iron

claws in paw,

and huge ruthless tooth

in gory jaw;

the pard dark-starred,

fleet upon feet,

that oft soft from aloft

leaps on his meat

where woods look in gloom—

far now they be,

fierce and free,

and tamed as he;

but fat cat on the mat

kept as a pet,

he does not forget.

I love this poem, and I wanted to share it, for some very particular reasons. I knew it would be a stretch for them, but I thought that with enough of an introduction, the kids would be able to appreciate the rich language and apprehend at least some of the meaning. I really wanted to offer the kids a window into what real literature sounds like and looks like. They don't see a lot of it; these kids are carefully fed a reading diet in which controlled text figures prominently. That means that they very rarely see a word in a book that hasn't been explicitly taught in a lesson.

Part of my introduction included the word contented. The classroom teacher jumped in right there, and asked the class if they knew what contented meant.

They didn't.

I probably should have guessed right there that the lesson I'd planned just wasn't going to fly. If kids don't know the word contented, how could I expect them to understand suffice, ruthless, and fleet, even with a lot of support, even with a rich introduction?

But I pressed on, reading the poem once, twice, stopping at the tricky words. As I gradually turned the lesson over to the kids, asking them to generate some ideas of their own about what Tolkien was trying to say with all his fancy language, the whole thing just ground to a halt.

Nobody was rude, nobody cried, but nobody had any idea what I was asking them to do, either. No clue. Deer caught in the headlights, all around the room. I shifted gears very quickly, and had them get out a pencil and notice the words that rhyme within the lines, then write sets of those words in their journals. Not what I'd planned, but still valuable. They engaged with the poem independently, reading the words to themselves in order to discover rhymes. They got an opportunity to notice that unbowed and proud rhyme, even though they are spelled differently. Fortunately, they were all well-equipped to be successful with the revised lesson. (Phew!)

I spoke to the classroom teacher about it after the kids went home yesterday, and she assumed (incorrectly) that most of my teaching experience had been with much older kids. We talked a little about how and why kids develop an ability to understand sophisticated language, and she said something that really stunned me.

It's because all these kids do is watch TV and play video games. Even parents who you think are really good parents, you ask the kids what they did over the weekend, and all they'll have to tell you is that they played a new video game or got to a new level.

This changes the way I think about kids, and the way I think about curriculum. If I'm making assumptions about kids and families that are way, way off, that means I have to change the way I think about the work I do with kids.

I really believe that my job as a teacher is to stretch kids out of their comfort zone in a million different ways, but if the comfort zone is miles away from where I think it is... well. I'm going to have to adjust.

But those kids I used to teach, some of whom had amazing oral vocabularies, are still out there. There's one or two in every classroom, a second grader who knows what contented means, and suffice and ruthless as well. A kid who is starving for something more, something not just exactly like what he did yesterday.

What happens to those kids?