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Thirty Days Hath September

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 centers upon identifying the pertinent skills and the body of knowledge our students must learn to become successful citizens. The standards movement is firmly embedded in all states with each individual state forming its own specific set of standards.

When this issue comes up, specifically the identification of the knowledge and skills fundamental to educating students today, I always think back to one of my earliest teaching experiences.

High School – Applied Mathematics
The class is high school applied mathematics and the students range from ninth to twelfth grade. It is exceptionally difficult to get the attention of all twenty-five students at the same time. They all seem to hate math or school – or both. I am trying my very best to interest them in the class by making the subject relevant to them.

The lesson that day is on payment schedules; the first question is as basic as payment schedules can get. If you purchase a kitchen stove on March 15th and no payments are due for 90 days, when will the first payment be due?

The first question comes 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 my students might not know how many days there are in each month. I soon decide that this is not a real problem – I will be a good teacher.

I Can Handle This
“There’s a nursery rhyme you can learn, ” I start. “Thirty days hath September, April, June and …….”

I stop. The young lady 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 inform her that I had been trying to explain to her how she could figure this out.

“I can teach you how to remember,” I state.

She gives me a very 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 and turns up her nose as she glances at the other students in the room. The nods of her classmates 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.”

Of Calendars and Knowledge
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, this gentleman was intellectually my superior as well as a trusted confidante for sharing some of my educational frustrations with.

He simply smiled as I told him of this situation. He did not seem surprised by the young lady’s attitude at all, in fact he almost seemed sympathetic to her point.

“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 stated 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. However, he was on a roll and he didn’t hesitate to add the clincher.

“Course you can always look at a calendar,” he stated.

“Or ask someone who knows?” I interrupted.

It was his turn to smile.

What Knowledge is Deemed Worthy?

I have never forgotten our discussion that day and the powerful effect his example had on me. Those of us in the field of education have a very positive attitude towards 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 one honestly considers what should be required in order to become an educated person, the knowledge and skills necessary to reach that point are not quite as evident as we might initially think. 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 does not seem like practical or useful knowledge.

Of course, that is the exact point the young lady was making that day. In her eyes the specific knowledge I thought critical was not something she saw as useful.

In the era of the standards movement we must realize that reaching high expectations is attainable only when students believe the material is worth learning. Through this particular disenchanted student and the wisdom of a close friend, I learned that the greatest challenge lies in making the material relevant for my students.

Simply stated, what is important to us we pay attention to and we learn to remember. 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 us adults.

8 comments

1 Bill { 10.04.07 at 2:56 pm }

With a wife I need no calendar.

2 Pam { 06.13.08 at 7:48 am }

A very good story–but now what? Yes, students learn better when they feel the material has personal relevance. So how do we create that sense of relevance when the content doesn’t do it on its own?

3 Virtualis { 07.04.08 at 11:06 am }

If the girl knew the nursery rhyme, would the relevance/irrelevance be important? Rather we would be focussing on the financial maths question at hand.

4 Janelle { 09.08.08 at 8:41 pm }

Great article! I agree that students learn better when the information is relevant to their personal lives. We as educators need to realize that not all of the students in our class are not as willing to learn as we are. These are the students we need to find other ways to teach.

5 Beth { 10.14.08 at 9:16 pm }

You make a very valid point. Often times we as teachers are so focused on what we want to teach or what we have to teach, that we forget why we are teaching it. Our students need to learn things assuredly, but it certainly won’t hurt to think about explaining the why of things sometimes. If our students know why we are trying to teach them something, it will become much more meaningful and hopefully more desirable to them.

6 L. Smith { 10.24.08 at 4:08 am }

Yes, quality counts. But, we have paradigm paralysis! Why must we assume that the current approach for educating our children is the right one? So, “grading” is a topic that is inherent to this assumption.

What if we allowed for our children to learn at their own pace? Why would grades matter in this context?

Take a look at the interesting end-to-end treatment of the education problem, “Education in America — What’s to Be Done?” developed by Trigon-International. It’s the kind of revolutionary thinking that is in this report that really needs to be given a hard look.

7 Teach { 01.21.09 at 11:18 pm }

I see your point and your friend’s point, but your friend doesn’t encounter the day to day anguish of trying to teach students who care about nothing but themselves, putting each other down and video games. Has your friend ever put his heart and soul into trying to get across a new concept only to be insulted and dismissed? How can we teach students anything when they don’t care about anything? In a society where the media encourages young people to be rude to each other and show disdain for their teachers, parents and elders, the real issue isn’t what knowledge is deemed worthy, but what will happen to our society each succeeding generation continues to feel that education is useless and they are entitled to be rich without putting in any effort or having any kind of work ethic.

8 Deia { 03.10.09 at 3:56 pm }

Pam – if the content isn’t relevant, then quit wasting time teaching it. I could honestly live my entire life without knowing how to find the volume of a cylinder, but I need to know how credit cards work, how to change a tire, and how to do a mail merge. I learned these things (and many other useful things) outside of school because school wasted so much time teaching pointless stuff. (Wikihow is a beautiful thing.)

BTW, that rhyme has never helped me any because so many months rhyme with “ember.” I actually use my knuckles to figure it out: Index is January, it’s tall so it’s a long month; the dip between middle and index is February, it’s low so it’s a short month; middle knuckle is March, tall, long month, etc. When you get to your pinkie knuckle, you’ll be on July (tall month). Repeat for August (also tall) and go back the other way. February is really the only tricky part. This might be a better way to remember for people who are tactile and not verbal learners.

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