[k3] Something to think about

I received this in another mail list to which I belong -- it made me stop and 
think - I hope you will find the time to read it and stop and think too! 
Feel free to share your thoughts with me (glovely@xxxxxxx) or with the list 
by replying.

Gail Lovely
www.GailLovely.com

May 2004
Rhyme or Reason 
Thomas J. Hanson
Teacher Magazine 

Now, more than ever, relevance trumps rote memorization. 

A great deal of time today is spent on the issue of standards in 
education. The key point of debate in the discussion of 
standards, under way in virtually every state, centers upon 
identifying the skills and the body of knowledge our students 
must learn to become successful citizens.

When this issue, and specifically the identification of the 
knowledge and skills fundamental to educating students today, 
comes up, I always think back to one of my earliest teaching 
experiences: The class is high school applied mathematics, and 
the students range from 9th to 12th graders. It is exceptionally 
difficult to get the attention of 25 students at the same time. They 
all seem to hate math or schoolâ??or both. I am trying my very 
best to interest them in the class by making the subject relevant 
to them.

The lesson today is on payment schedules. The first question is 
as basic as payment schedules get: If you purchase a kitchen 
stove on March 15 and no payments are due for 90 days, when 
is the first payment due? That prompts this response from a 
young lady in the back row: "How many days are there in March?"

I try to hide my surprise, first because of her lack of knowledge 
and then my own for not realizing these students might not know 
how many days there are in each month. I soon decide that this 
is not a real problemâ??I will be a good teacher. 

"There's a nursery rhyme you can learn," I start. "Thirty days
hath 
September, April, June, and..."

I stop. The student is no longer looking at me. Twisting around, 
craning her neck, she is scanning the walls, muttering, "There's 
gotta be a calendar in here somewhere."

Trying not to get angry, I call out her name and tell her that I had 
been trying to explain to her how she could figure out the 
problem. "I can teach you how to remember," I say.

She gives me a pained look. "I don't want to learn no stupid 
nursery rhyme!" she growls. "Geez." 

I try again as she crosses her arms and leans back in her chair. 
"Well, if you don't learn the rhyme, how will you ever know how 
many days there are in each month?" She rolls her eyes as she 
glances at the other students. Their nods confirm that they are 
with her and not with me. Reassured, she emphatically makes 
her final point.

"You can either look at a calendar," she says, "or you can just 
ask someone who knows."

A month or two later, shortly after Easter had come and gone, I 
related this story to a good friend of mine. As an engineer at the 
local shipyard, he was intellectually my superior as well as a 
trusted confidante for sharing some of my educational 
frustrations. He simply smiled as I told him what had happened. 
He did not seem surprised by the student's attitude at all. In
fact, 
he almost seemed sympathetic.

"Let me ask you a question," he said. "What day and month will 
Easter fall on next year?"

I shrugged, initially puzzled by his query. "I don't know," I 
responded.

He immediately recited the month and the date, then added, "I 
can teach you how to figure it out if you'd like."

I smiled, now following his line of thought. My friend was on a 
roll, however, and didn't hesitate to add the clincher.

"'Course, you can always look at a calendar," he said.

"Or ask someone who knows?" I added.

It was his turn to smile.

I have never forgotten our discussion that day or the powerful 
effect his example had on me. Those of us in education have a 
positive attitude toward learning new things, especially if we find 
them useful to our everyday lives. That, of course, is the very 
reason we are in the field. But when honestly considering what 
material and knowledge should be required to become an 
educated person, the answers are not quite as clear as we 
might think initially. Though I could never imagine not knowing 
how many days there are in any given month, I can't see myself 
learning how to predict a calendar date a year in advance for a 
holiday that varies annually. It doesn't seem like practical or 
useful knowledge. Of course, that was the exact point the young 
lady was making that day. In her eyes, the specific bit of 
knowledge I thought critical was not something she saw as 
useful. 

Simply stated, we pay attention to and learn to remember what is 
important to us; what is not so important, we ignore or learn to 
discard. As teachers, we need to realize that this fundamental of 
education is as true for our students as it is for adults. In the era 
of the standards movement, we must realize that reaching high 
expectations is possible only when students believe the material 
is worth learning. Through a disenchanted student and the 
wisdom of a close friend, I learned that the greatest challenge 
lies in making the material relevant for my students.

Thomas J. Hanson is superintendent of the Maine School 
Administrative District 52. He lives in Winthrop, Maine.


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