Monday, October 13, 2008

What kids have taught me

The kids I teach never cease to amaze me. The things they say, the things they do, the way they behave, all of these things transcend language barriers and make me laugh, cry, and everything in between. Kids say the darndest things, to borrow the tired adage; and let me tell you this is true universally, not just for one particular ethnicity, or language group, or society, as I have learned from my experience teaching the creatures that inhabit my classes. Although the stories are numerous, I will stick to two that have happened within the last week.

My assignment to the class was simple: I will say a word, and, in your groups, you will spell that word with letters on a felt board and hold it in the air when you have finished. I asked if they understood and they nodded a sedated affirmative; good enough for me I decided. The game began as well as I could have hoped, with the kids creating each word in their groups after I said it, and holding something resembling that word in the air upon finishing. Then, I encountered one of those moments in which I had no idea what to do, a moment that left me dumbfounded and exasperated, having no idea if I should seem angry or just laugh, but certain that a couple of 10 year old kids had got the better of me. I called out the word, “door,” and the kids began to work furiously in their groups happily accomplishing the task I had set before them. After each group was holding their assembled word aloft, I surveyed the results: the first group had correctly assembled the word “door,” “good job!” I enthusiastically said, throwing two thumbs into the air. The next two groups had also correctly assembled the word “door” to which I swelled with pride; but the last group had assembled something quite different, something different entirely. They had written on their board, and I will edit this for my readers who are of a more delicate persuasion: “f***er man.” Where several 10-year-old kids learned this nonsensical phrase is anyone’s guess, but I was shocked. I probably would have laughed, had I not been so intent on the other students not seeing what they had written. I practically jumped on their board and, in a polite but firm voice and with a forced half-smile, told them that they had assembled the wrong word. The next time around the word was “pirate,” and I hoped beyond hope that my troublemaking kids had resolved to amend their vile ways and spell with the tenacity and competence which I knew they possessed. I was wrong. When I came around to reading what they had pain-stakingly spelled out, I read, again to my horror: “you die.” Needless to say I took this less as a death threat and more as a couple of kids messing around, doing something that I would have done had I been their age. So I chose to assume the best; these were just kids who had tried to spell the word pirate and become confused, instead making a benign threat on my life of which they hopefully had no plans of carrying to fruition. This time I chided them more severely, making sure they knew that what they had spelled was most certainly not “pirate.” I told them that I was disappointed with them, and they had better spell the next word right or else I would take away points. So I called out the last word, “boat.” Again, the first few groups spelled it correctly, but my mind was already looking ahead to what sort of terrible sentence had been discovered by the last team, no doubt another threat or curse word of an unknown variety. This time, however, I was pleasantly surprised because, although they didn’t spell the word boat, they had managed to spell out “love teacher.” Needless to say, that team lost the competition, but they certainly won in terms of creativity.

The second story I that stands out is a lesson I implemented last week, and remains one of my favorite lessons of the semester. The lesson was about story, and each group in the class was to assemble a series of 6 pictures in any order they pleased and write a sentence per picture telling a story, which they would then read to the class. The pictures were these:

Here are two of my favorite stories, copied verbatim from the hurriedly scrawled writing of my students:

1) “Boy is sleep. And boy is get up. Boy was dug in grownd. But dog is climb. So he was shouted. And dog is wait. He is find a treasure. So he has a money.” This one has a happy ending and also includes some excitement with the dog, which I much appreciated, and is fairly detailed in the discovery of the treasure. This team knew what was happening.

2) “John was saw treasure in his dream. John was dug ground for find treasure with shovel. Next hole soil was return pile. John was dug and gug. Finally John found bong.” I enjoy this one particularly because they know how to spell difficult words like treasure and soil and shovel, and yet cannot seem to spell bone right. Then again maybe they wanted John to find a bong. I also appreciate their inventing the phrase “dug and gug.” I don’t know what it means but I want to do it.

So although these kids are young they are teaching me about the nature of playfulness and creativity, and helping me to not take myself too seriously, and for that I am grateful.

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