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?


Genie of the Shell said...

I was one of those kids, because my mom taught me to read by the age of three. Anytime I wanted to learn something faster or read a book sooner than assigned, I was told no. When I showed my teacher that I had learned to write in cursive before it had been taught, she said, "Next time stay with the class."

It makes me so sad that my mom later said she "wasn't smart enough" to homeschool. When parents leave all the responsibility to educate their children to schools, the schools can only do so much.

I'm curious--Do you know of any stats showing that children learn slower and have more deficiencies now compared to 10, 20, or 50 years ago? It seems to me that with cultural shifts in our country, children have not only grown less physically healthy but less cognitively developed. I did some substitute teaching after college, and even in the schools that I attended myself as a child, it seemed that expectations of the students were unbelievably low.

elsie deluxe said...

I don't know of any statistical studies, but there's a lot of anecdotal evidence that our culture has changed in some ways that are bad for the intellectual development of children. Teachers have been saying that fewer and fewer kids are coming to kindergarten really ready to begin learning. That's part of why there's a push for more state funded pre-kindergarten classes.

I think for teachers, the challenge becomes learning how to provide a remedial education for the kids who struggle with school knowledge, at the same time that we're looking for ways to offer the gifted kids extensions to the regular classroom curriculum that is already easy for them.

JoVE said...

I don't know how you do it but the fact that they don't get read to at home, and thus don't know words like "contented" (omg, seriously?!) would make me think you have to figure out a way to get them there in school. Otherwise, what is the point?

If it was your own class, you could just take more time over that wonderful poem. Start with the rhyming, get them guessing about the meanings of hte words they don'T know, help them figure out that there are words out there that really help them say complex things.

I suspect that in the situation you described, they were scared to say the "wrong" thing. But in your own classroom you could make it safe to say stuff you weren't sure was the "right" answer.

Those kids need you.

elsie deluxe said...

Jo, I agree with you. In my own classroom I could have made that poem work, even with second graders. But: I suspect that some kind of intermediate step would have been needed, with the goal of getting to this poem only after we'd looked carefully at several others.

Mardi said...

Welcome to the 21st century. Kids watch, they don't read. When I grew up, in the Dark Ages, all i could do was read - TV was rationed, and of course there just was lots less of it. And no video anything, natch. not knowing a thing about teaching, I think your on-the-spot revision was great. But to my mind (again, I'm no educator), the kids who know what "contented" and "fleet" mean will be OK, they will find their own way, and they will be helped by their parents (who have been doing that already, clearly.) It's the others one really has to worry about, for their own sweet sakes, and because they are so much more numerous.

//end rant//

Sandy said...

I'm not at all surprised by children not knowing "content." There's a lot they don't know until we teach them.

And there have *always* been children who didn't read. We might not remember that because as students we maybe weren't paying attention to those children. The idea that the past was a great place where kids didn't watch video games is romanticizing a past where we didn't expect that everyone would graduate high school (or even middle school). Remember when old people didn't like rock and roll? Not so say there isn't cultural change. /end rant/

I know your question is really about what to do with the children on the tails who need a challenge (or extra help). I don't really have an answer to that. But what interests me about your experience is that as a literacy teacher, it is unlikely you'll have your own class. You'll always be pushing in or pulling out (right?). So the setting up that you could do if there were "your" students will be limited? Will you find that frustrating?

My education students today were so so frustrated at the limitations of working within a system that doesn't always make great decisions (oh, if education wasn't so political...) but I tried to be all cheery about fighting the good fight, making a difference for one child, taking someone from where they are to somewhere else, no matter what the starting point. Yada yada yada.

sorry, this isn't especially well- thought out, I'm just throwing down a bunch of ideas.

VoodooMama said...

I'll tell you what happened to *one* of "those" kids--he ended up in your classroom at TSS and he and his whole family thought we'd died and gone to heaven! Alas, it was not to last.

Keep up the good fight, Elsie. What Sandy says is really true--even if you end up making a real difference in just a few kids' lives, you have truly accomplished something.