“What Does ______ Mean?”

With the advertising simulation put safely behind us we have embarked on an analytical look at the news and current events. We are living in very interesting times. An election with historical impact, a global economic crisis, two land wars, a third of the country can’t get gas and Russia has decided to rattle their collective sword. All at the same time.

So I ask the students questions and they answer.

Q: Why are we at war with Iraq?

A: Because they attacked us on 9/11.

Oops. But something has given my students more political interest than they have had in their entire lives. The idea that, no matter which way the election goes, it will enter us into a whole new world. We will either elect the first black man to the highest office in the land or we will put the first woman ever in the office of the Vice-President. The informal polls in my classroom are overwhelmingly in favor of Barack Obama.

Current Events, Opinions and the Classroom.

In order to be good citizens, the people of the United States must be informed citizens. Right? So we have started looking at current events and how they are reported. Topics that the kids chose to talk about included the economy, teen pregnancy, gang violence and education. The discussions got pretty heated at times and hard to moderate but I felt that it was worth it.

Today I introduced editorials to the class. Rather than come up with a technical definition, I simply told them that an editorial is a persuasive essay that is published in the media. I then gave out a list of thirty questions to serve as an editorial essay. I didn’t write them. I found them on the Internet. Take a look at them if you want. The thirty questions are answered Yes or No without discussion and cover a broad range of topics from media violence and welfare to divorce and NASCAR. After everyone is done, we go question by question tallying the yeses and nos and one student is allowed to make a “yes” argument and another is chosen to give the “no” argument. I told the kids to work silently and to raise their hands to get clarification on a question. The clarifications are what brought me back to the blog today.

The Questions I Received.

  • What is capital punishment?
  • What does “abolished” mean?
  • What does “implement” mean?
  • What does “ethical” mean?
  • What does “moral” mean?
  • What is genetic engineering?
  • What do they mean by the insanity defense?
  • What’s a “salary cap?”
  • What is “euthanasia?”
  • What does it mean to “promote” something?
  • What is “death row?”
  • What’s an appeal?
  • What does “mandate” mean?
  • What do they mean when they say “pay for the cost of their own keep?”

Some of these questions I expected and had no problem with. Others troubled me a little.

Capital punishment? Do students really get to high school without discussing capital punishment? How can we expect our kids to behave in a moral or ethical manner when they don’t know what the words mean? Abolished? Implement? Mandate? Shouldn’t these words be a part of every high school student’s lexicon? Euthanasia I get because, while it might have been a hot issue a decade or so ago, we just don’t hear about it much any more. Salary Cap? It’s the business side of professional sports so I expected questions on that as well. Others I’m OK with are the insanity defense, genetic engineering and using the word “keep” instead of room and board or, even, clothing and food.

Should This Trouble Me?

So…why does this bother me? I think the answer is potentially complicated. Or I might just be saying that I have no idea. What really troubled me was the fact that a simple exercise, designed to fit into a single class, now has to be stretched into two days. The stop-and-start, ask-a-question breakdown coupled with WAY too many interruptions from the main office entirely diminished the effectiveness of the exercise. Seriously, our students should know what “mandate” means without having to ask.

What also troubles me is that somewhere along the line, we lost track of what we’re trying to do in our own schools. We have taken the kindergarten curriculum, thrown it away and replaced it with the first grade curriculum. But, by taking away things like blocks and finger painting and playing house and macaroni pictures, we have eliminated things like conflict resolution, working and playing well with others and respecting gender differences. In order to “graduate” kindergarten, all I was expected to do was count to 100, know what order the alphabet is in and write my name. What I thought was a bunch of simple activities that kept us busy were actually carefully controlled and well designed life lessons. Lessons we just don’t teach anymore. We are far too interested in testing and verifiable assessment. Life lessons may fit in a definition of citizenship but they just can’t be written into a multiple choice test.

Sometimes I feel as if we have taken away our students ability to think for themselves. Want to freak out a high school student? Tell them to write you a three page, double-spaced research paper. First question asked? “On what?” Now, answer that question with, “I don’t care. You decide.” Now sit back and watch the fear and confusion rise in their faces. My theory is that we have stopped the learning and started the memorizing. Teaching to the test is a very real problem. I have seen math classes that are really just about calculator keystrokes rather than learning concepts and problem solving. I have students who can’t tell time without a digital watch. My own children weren’t taught the multiplication tables. But they were told how to input the problems on a TI-30XIIS calculator. Great. But all math can be broken down into addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Learn your basics and know your basics and the rest is just using them in different formulae.

No. School isn’t about memorizing and it isn’t about exit tests. It is about learning to think and it’s about becoming a productive member of society. And I wonder if we’re doing that.


About ex8404

I used to do the news but Journalism is dead. Now I teach. And teaching is dead. For the right amount of money, I will come and kill your career field as well. View all posts by ex8404

One response to ““What Does ______ Mean?”

  • goldstrike

    Sorry to barge in and comment on your blog, but, I can’t help myself : P

    As a home/unschooler, I seek out input about learning from a variety of sources (lists, conferences, etc.), and your writing is a great addition to that. Because we are unschoolers and taking a radically different approach to learning, I am constantly evaluating and re-evaluating my thoughts on what the “right” learning environment might be. All of this happens while I’m washing dishes, head wrestling with my 4yo, playing iTunes selections for a Barbie concert created by the girls, or maybe knocking off some stumps with my dagger, lol. As a homeschooler, I want to be careful to say that I am not “anti-school.” In fact, there are times when we hear about some great school experience one of the childrens’ peers has had, and I momentarily wonder if we’ve made the right choice, since we are not offering that particular experience. So far, though, the results appear to be good, and while my 10yo doesn’t know the definition of the word “mandate” today, or possibly most of the definitions your students missed, I am sure that she probably will by the time she is their age, or at least know to go to an online dictionary or wikipedia or something else at that point to figure it out (and who knows, she may even try old mom for the answer too).

    So, with that background, I guess I wanted to say that I totally hear what you are saying. I think that a lot of people have the same concern, including universities, employers, other teachers, etc.

    I feel two things for you. First is a sense of empathy because you are handed children with many years of conditioning and external reinforcement of certain learning habits, so to some degree, you might feel like there is not a lot you can do about the situation. But one of the things that I’ve learned over the past decade, is that it is never, ever too late to start learning and being in a different way, so the other thing I feel is a great sense of excitement that you are given these young individuals right at the time that their sense of adult identity might be beginning to truly emerge.

    Lots of other thoughts are swirling around in my head (about educational methods, the history of formalized education and questions about whether it is, in fact even reasonable to assume that we can force standardized education on a massive population effectively, etc, etc, etc), but I will just throw out a few other things.

    Have you ever read Frank Smith? The Book of Learning and Forgetting? That book really might fit your thoughts at this time, and he is wonderfully low-key and brilliant at the same time. If you haven’t read it, you must add it to the pile. If you have read it, I would love to know your opinion.

    If you asked your students how THEY would solve the problem of not understanding words in the exercise, what would the answer be? The answer to this, and how you proceed to “teach” them about solving that problem, might be more important than the actual lesson about editorial analysis, imo.

    I have two teacher friends that might be interested in your writing, one of them in a troubled school system in Philly, one a history teacher in Iowa (my brother in law). Mind if I forward your blog info to them? And on that note, have you joined educator blog rings with this blog? I can’t help but think that it would be well-received.

    There was something else that had some connection to a comment made by my trolley driver in DC, but now I can’t remember, hee hee. Honestly, that guy was a wealth of great information and critical thinking, I wish I would have taped his tour, lol. If I remember it, I’ll re-comment.

    Anyway, thanks again for just being there, and doing this, it’s great food for thought and followup.


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