Stuck in a Moment

Sphere for Plaza Foundtain from the World Trade Center, now located in NYC's Battery Park; the photo was taken in early 2007...

Sphere for Plaza Fountain from the World Trade Center, now located in NYC’s Battery Park; the photo was taken in early 2007–interestingly enough, the Sphere is desired neither at the rebuilding WTC, nor in plans for refurbishing Battery Park.  Once a symbolic memorial for 9/11, now it’s seemingly become a burden.

Sometimes you find the teachable moment.  Other times the teachable moment finds you. Sometimes, it seems you need to duck.

I made good on my promise to start more regular recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance, except for yesterday.  Which meant that of all days, today wouldn’t necessarily be the best day to not have the kids recite the Pledge for a second consecutive day.  I was trying to mutter under my breath something to myself about 9/11, but a couple of the boys heard me nonetheless, and while 29 of their classmates stood politely, waiting for my cue to start the Pledge, the two boys began to pepper me with questions about 9/11.  We met our Ed. Code obligations, and I turned towards the front of the classroom to pull down my map.  I started formulating in my head, how best to explain 9/11.

Up to that moment, however, my earlier trip to the school’s office had had me find a printed list of my students’ collective birthdays.  The oldest of my students were born in 2002.  In many respects, trying to explain 9/11 to my kids seemed to me, at that instant, to be akin to explaining Vietnam.  While the adults and older siblings around them growing up might have some intrinsic understanding of the events of that day, it occurred to me how handicapped I was going to be, to try to build upon the student’s understanding of an event to which they had no context or background.

Osama bin Laden was merely the bad guy in Zero Dark Thirty, not much different than bad guy Loki in the Avengers, except that Loki wound up with way more screen time.

On the other hand, once I had opened up that can of worms, I sort of felt I had no choice but to deep-fry them and wolf them down.

This was not a teachable moment, this was that moment having a seizure.  I did my best trying to explain 9/11.  I was not going to merely dismiss the historical background as one in which we were attacked because “Americans are hated because of their freedom.”  Too much of that sentiment had gone down over the last decade, doing, in my opinion, a disservice to the proper teaching of America’s place in the International Community.  On top of that, teaching at a school that prides itself on a curriculum with an international focus, such an overly simple viewpoint was shortsightedly jingoistic.

As important as 9/11 happens to be, in terms of cultural and emotional touchstone for adults, for my kids, I honestly began to wonder how well they could emotionally connect and relate to something that did not occur within their living experience.  I thought back to the day itself, when I told the kids how myself and 3 colleagues watched the second tower fall on my classroom T.V. that morning.  I also shared a family friend’s experience teaching at a school site, essentially within the shadow of the Towers, that morning.  It still felt visceral to me, but reflecting back, 9/11 had to have been, for these kids, what the end of the Vietnam War in 1973-74 felt for me, when I was about the same age as these students are now.  I knew we had been fighting there, but I couldn’t tell anyone as to why we had been…

I also realized that the 5th graders who had been in my class later on, during that morning in 2001, were now in their early 20s.  An important milestone historically, yes.  But at what point does 9/11, in subsequent years, become even more removed from my students’ experiences?  Do we, as teachers, have to expect to address 9/11 every day on the anniversary?  I know I struggle enough each year trying to help my students differentiate between Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day, and that’s not even taking into account that many of my kids, having just come from our 4th grade, didn’t know that this past Monday, September 9th, was California’s Admission Day, nor could they likely tell me the meaning of December 7th, or even June 6th.

As I finished, having used up a half-an-hour of time this morning, I looked around the room, convinced I had lost a good chunk of my class.  I told my charges that history is never as complicated as it might appear, nor is it simplistically explained as many people would have us do.  In fact, I admitted that I felt that there was likely even more information about 9/11 that we are still learning, well beyond the practiced narrative that I had internalized over these past 12 years.  Instead, it was my job, I told them, to teach them well enough, so that, perhaps, one of them might grow up to be a historian, and one day be lucky enough to get access to the key missing information about that day, with the hopes that they could write the definitive accounting of the events  of 9/11.

If I could teach them how to pursue history, one day I might be lucky enough to have them come back and teach me something.


I Pledge a Lesson

In every public elementary school each day during the school year at the beginning of the first regularly scheduled class or activity period at which the majority of the pupils of the school normally begin the schoolday, there shall be conducted appropriate patriotic exercises. The giving of the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America shall satisfy the requirements of this section.  — CAL. EDC. CODE § 52720 : California Code – Section 52720

Normally, I am one of those teachers least likely to be quoting the state’s Ed Code, unless, of course, my old colleague and I were complaining to our principal at my old school about another teacher, who used to leave her students running amok on the recess playground without credentialed adult supervision.

But given that this was a new school year, I had to admit that I wanted, and needed, a fresh start to go with it.

An iconic Dorothea Lange image, and my favorite. I have this hanging from the wall of my office at home.

An iconic Dorothea Lange image, and my favorite. I have this hanging from the wall of my office at home.

I had been lax in following through on doing this “appropriate patriotic exercise” over the years, although, as a 5th grade teacher, I did make sure that my kids learned about, as well as understood, the meaning of American symbols.  Still, at whatever school I find myself at, I quickly find myself as the resident “Pinko” on the staff.  For instance, the years up to, and immediately after the Iraq War, had, at my old school, led to a stratification amongst my colleagues, between those who supported the military action, and those of us who questioned it.  Naturally, in the early days, somehow disagreeing with a government that legally had to defend our rights to free speech, still, nonetheless, made us, somehow, unpatriotic.

Unpatriotic.  Yup.  Even though one of my signature lessons was my annual look at the historical basis for Longfellow’s Midnight Ride of Paul of Revere.

I guess teaching about William Dawes makes one hate America.

But in trying something new this year, I pledged to pledge.  But first, before we did anything, I told myself that I would, at least, give them some historical background on the POA’s history.  At least the idea was that my students would then realize what it was they were doing and why.  How this manifested in their own patriotic feelings going forward was up to them.

It was instructive for myself, as well, as I learned about things I didn’t even realize about the pledge…like this.

Thinking back upon my own nascent upbringing as a young American, I doubt that my own grade school teachers intended to teach patriotic lessons designed to turn their kids into raging liberals, but in understanding the history and meaning behind American symbols, they somehow allowed me to internalize the understanding that the phrase “more perfect” in the Constitution’s Preamble meant that America was, and needed to always be, a work in progress.  In many respects, my decision to finally become a teacher was part of long process where I, at last, understood that my love for my own country was birthed in a public school classroom by teachers who took the time to explain what it truly meant to be an American.  America’s great progress for me, then, was to try to replicate the same sort of patriotic instruction that I had received.

As an aside, however, it’s worth noting, even in passing, that the past several weeks of debate, involving possible American military involvement in the Syrian Civil War, certainly gives one the clear understanding of what such progress has come to mean.

Still, my goal was to put the background information about the POA out there for my kids, as unfettered and unbiased as I could, explaining the do’s and don’ts of respect for the process, and the expectations I had for them during the morning recital (i.e., hands over the proper side of the chest, hats off, etc…).

How they developed their American citizenship over the course of the upcoming school year will be entirely upon them.  But we did cover Jackie Robinson in class yesterday, and next week, we begin studying the Native Americans.  If nothing else, the latter subject has got to be understood as more than just the only misfire in Schoolhouse Rock‘s repertoire, “Elbow Room”.

For now, however, my students have engaged in their appropriate patriotic exercise this week.

I have no doubt, that there has to be a few of them, who, undoubtedly, feel like Shirley Temple Wong in Bette Bao Lord’s The Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson (a book we’ll read later on this year…):

“I pledge a lesson to the frog of the United States of America, and to the wee puppet for witches’ hands. One Asian, in the vestibule, with little tea and just rice for all.”

Trust me, there are other ways it likely gets fractured as well.

We will be working on that.

Change of Plans



“I personally believe we developed language because of our deep inner need to complain.”  — Jane Wagner

In some respects, the need to blog fits this idea above about language.  Specifically, why wouldn’t one blog, unless they needed to get something off of their chests?  Or, for that matter, if they couldn’t find the language, where would the blog posts come from?

And sometimes, life happens so fast, that finding the time to reflect upon them becomes as scarce as the time it takes to blog those thoughts that arise from the reflection.

That’s kind of what happened.

As John Lennon expressed: Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.  

But plans have changed.  I can’t even begin to explain why, or how.

We are back.  Today I have to introduce my newest crop of 5th Graders to their Writer’s Notebooks for the year.  Part of the deal is that I have to share mine.  My “notebook” hasn’t had anything put in it since my last post in April.

It’s a good enough excuse to post something this morning then.  

Welcome back!