by Jessica Lahey
Some lessons take a while to germinate. I know that. I have been at this teaching thing for a while now – long enough that a few of my students have become teachers themselves – but I am still amazed by the long germination rates I’ve noted in some of my lessons. I generally follow the “Ten Year Rule” in my classroom: I aim to stress the material that will be important for my students to know ten years from now. Clearly, my teaching style self-selects for these protracted germination rates, but sometimes, just sometimes, I get lucky, and I actually get to witness the moment when the seeds bear fruit.
The first five minutes of my English and Latin classes class are dedicated to a “Cultural Literacy Tidbit” related to the class material. I try to select items that once heard, will begin to show up in the films, books, television, magazines, and music my students encounter. It has taken a while for the daily lessons to pay off, but this week, I scored a particularly fast-maturing group of lessons
When I arrived at school this Monday, the middle school was littered with comic strips. They were on my chair, desk, pinned to walls, taped to the white board…you get the idea. I assumed the decorations were all part of some class-on-class prank, eighth graders messing with the sixth grade or something. But then I noticed that the comic strips were all the same strip – Dennis the Menace. In the strip, Dennis’ mother discovers a broken vase. She asks Dennis if he’s responsible for the destruction, and he asks, “What happens if I say no?” His mother replies “I’ll put you in the corner for fibbing,” to which Dennis replies, “Then yes, I did.” When Dennis ends up in the corner anyway, he muses “Now I’m confused.” As his mother walks away, she tells him, “I’ll explain a Catch-22 to you in a few years.” It just so happens that I had explained Catch-22 to my students just the week before. I read the students the scene in chapter 5 where Doc Daneeka explains Catch-22 to Yossarian. The kids laughed, and the two students who had read the book encouraged the rest of the class to borrow it from the independent reading shelf. And that was that. Until the appearance of the comic strips, now pinned to my bulletin board en masse as a reminder that, if you know what to look for, Cultural Literacy Tidbits are everywhere.
The next day, I turned on the car radio as I pulled out of the school parking lot and tuned into an interview on NPR about Joseph Heller. I missed much of it (my drive home from school is blissfully short, good for the environment, bad for NPR), but by dinnertime, there were twelve messages from students piled up in my email inbox, all excitedly detailing what they had heard on the radio as they made their way home from school or to soccer practice.
And yesterday, the Supreme Court heard a case concerning warrantless GPS tracking of people suspected of a crime. Normally, the police have to get over the bar of “probable cause” in order to obtain a warrant from a judge to search for evidence, but the FBI had attached a tracking device to a suspected drug kingpin, and this case has made its way to the highest court in the land. The case turns on whether or not the FBI needs to obtain a warrant for continuous, 24-hour automobile tracking with a GPS device. When Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben suggested that no warrant was needed, Justice Stephen Breyer asserted, “if you win this case, then there is nothing to prevent the police or the government from monitoring 24 hours a day the public movements of every citizen in the United States,” a scenario that “sounds like 1984.” I made a mental note to play the NPR story in class tomorrow, as 1984 was my Cultural Literacy Tidbit two weeks ago, and the novel is our independent reading double-extra credit selection of the month.
Obviously, there are plenty of moments in my classroom when my students’ lack of background knowledge cause my jokes to fall flat. All teachers have these moments – when we refer to something well within our cultural experience only to look out at blank, uncomprehending faces. It happens far more often that I’d like, and often leads to an impromptu cultural literacy lesson. YouTube streaming has become an invaluable resource in my classroom. We’ve watched the chocolate factory scene from I Love Lucy, the “Singing in the Rain” dance sequence, the opening sequence from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Many of these moments arose out of test or homework questions that assume a baseline of common knowledge. Without that cultural literacy, the questions are nearly unanswerable despite the students’ knowledge of the concepts being tested. “In the long-running TV series I Love Lucy, the husband and wife enlivened their relationship with [insert appropriate vocabulary word here] wisecracks.” The answer is “astringent,” by the way, but the question is challenging if they have never heard Ricky’s drawn out, “Luuuuuuuuucyyyyy? What did you do?”
This week, my students will learn about W. B. Yeats, “Second Coming,” Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and “Ozymandias.” I will synthesize all of these topics at the end of the week, and with any luck, my students will catch a reference to a “widening gyre,” falconry, or The Second Coming in the next couple of weeks to cement the lesson. As my students already know the story of Oedipus Rex, I can only hope that with some leading hints, someone will point out the connection to the Sphinx in class tomorrow.
I can only wait, keep adding fertilizer, and see what takes hold.
Jessica Potts Lahey is a teacher of English, Latin, and composition at Crossroads Academy, an independent Core Knowledge K-8 school in Lyme, New Hampshire. Jessica’s blog on middle school education, Coming of Age in the Middle, can be found at http://jessicalahey.com.