Updated: Jul 16
Editor’s note: This is the second in Trent DeJong’s series “Lessons Learned.” Check out the first post “4 Phases of Teaching” and stay tuned for “What I Learned About Learning in Grades 3 and 4,” “What I Learned About Learning: Whales,” and “What I Learned About Learning in Grades 5-7.”
Throughout my own education there have been episodes that I now realize taught me something important about teaching.
In kindergarten, I was supposed to bring cotton balls to school. I don’t know why. The trauma of forgetting them day after day has eclipsed my memory of the purpose of those cotton balls. My best guess is that they ended up being glued to blue construction paper in order to make a snowman. I’m not sure how many days in a row I forgot to bring cotton balls—I’m sure it was at least two, but it feels like it was more because the teacher was very frustrated with me.
I remember the feeling of shame. I remember the horror I felt that morning when I finally remembered after having already walked halfway to school. I ran all the way back home bawling. I was a good kid. I wanted to please my teacher. I wanted to bring the cotton balls. I didn’t want to be late for school. The rumour was that errant children were sent to the principal’s office where he wielded a 2×4 with a nail in it. My mother gave me a green Dippity-Do jar packed with cotton balls, and sent me on my way to school.
Why did I forget the cotton balls, day after day?
I think it’s because I didn’t care about cotton balls. I didn’t care about what could be done with them. These came from my mother’s side of the bathroom. A world completely alien to me. Ask me to bring razor blades to school and I’d have had them there the next day, intrigued by all the uses to which they might be put by my fellow 5-year-olds. But cotton balls?
Lesson Learned: Reflecting on this event, I learned a lesson about teaching and learning. First, as a teacher, never count on students to provide anything essential to the execution of my lesson.
But I also learned that things will better stick in a student’s head if they understand the relevance of what they are being asked to do, or if I can tap into, or create, an authentic sense of wonder or mystery—What will we do with these razorblades? So I try always to communicate relevance or generate a sense of wonder, or both.
I learned another important lesson that has stayed with me until this day, in Grade 1. (American translation: First Grade. Americans think Canadians are weird to call the first grade Grade 1. The reverse is also true. But both make perfect sense. We rank a lot of things with gradations. Something can be said to be of the First Grade or it can be designated Grade 1, or Grade A, as in beef or eggs.)
I remember getting an F. In Grade 1! Actually, it was an E. The worst you could do at my school was an E. I guess they didn’t want to screw up our young minds by having the grading system be out of proper sequence. Yeah, we don’t want to screw kids up.
It was on a worksheet, some kind of matching affair. But what stuck with me was the feeling of failure—I got an E in Grade 1!
Lesson learned: The lesson that I learned here is that you don’t mark everything—and you don’t assess everything the same way. It makes sense to only assess what has been taught and practiced. Clearly, even at the young age of six, I knew that rabbits went with carrots, and dogs with bones. Why give me an E for crying out loud?! And even if I didn’t know about matching—don’t give Fs in Grade 1.
Here’s another lesson: Back in Grade 1, the most significant event on the school calendar was not the first day of school or report card day. It was show and tell.
I’m not sure if everyone else was as excited about show and tell as I was. I thought about it for weeks. I counted the days for when it would be my turn. I could barely sleep the night before.
I remember one time I brought rocks. I had been down into a gypsum mine where I had picked up three rocks. Gypsum is a crystal and as far as I was concerned these were as precious as diamonds. Still, I they were just rocks.
The fact that I brought rocks to show and tell suggests that the subject of the showing and the telling was not nearly as important as the act of showing and telling.
Lesson Learned: I think what made the event so significant was that it was one of the rare times in the school year when I was significant as an individual. OK, that might be an exaggeration, but at this stage, I don’t remember there being too many opportunities for individual expression. Most of the time we all did the same worksheets, wrote on the same subject, took the same tests, sang the same song at the school program (It’s a Small World After All), and made the same construction paper flower to give to our mothers on the same day—Mother’s Day. Sometimes students need to be seen as individuals and have some opportunities for choice and individual expression. I now try to regularly and appropriately give students some manner of voice and choice in my classroom.
In Grade 2, I learned a lesson from my first experience with a textbook.
It was a significant moment, that opening of my very first textbook in the second grade. I was in elementary school in the United States, and the first chapter of our geography textbook was about Maine. I remember the picture of the lobster.
I remember the lobster because it was so alien, so absolutely beyond anything I had experienced before. I had learned a lot in school up to that point. I had only just begun to read, but I had always been aware of the existence of words and letters. I didn’t know all the shapes and colours, but the concepts were familiar to me as well. But lobsters!? My familiarity with beetles and squirrels and caterpillars did nothing to prepare me for the claws and the sinister, stalked eyeballs. How could such a thing exist on the same planet as the fish sticks we got at Meyer Thrifty Acres?
This picture fascinated me and I knew I was going to like school. This prophecy was true. I did like school when it delivered similar experiences. My interest in lobsters has shifted from the academic to the gastronomic, but that first encounter with them in that textbook promised that there were to be many more encounters with the unknown and the unimagined.
Lesson Learned: I no longer use textbooks in my class, and the reason has to do, in part, with the fact that they often don’t do what my first textbook did. School should be a place where students encounter the world with wonder. “What in the world is that, and why did God make such a thing!?” I have since discovered at least one reason why God created lobsters. And why he also created butter. Grace.