Wednesday, March 6, 2013


"I couldn't afford to learn it." said the Mock Turtle with a sigh. "I only took the regular course."

"What was that?" inquired Alice.

"Reeling and Writhing, of course, to begin with," the Mock Turtle replied; "and then the different branches of Arithmetic–Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision."

Today is Wednesday, March 6, 2013.

This morning I got up and headed for the local elementary school, where I led five local first-graders in their first "book club."  Today was our second session.  We are reading a Magic Tree House series book.  This one, the second in the series, is called The Knight at Dawn.  The book is what kids call a "chapter book," and is fairly advanced for first grade.  Most kids don't get into chapter books until they are in second grade.  The kids always seem quite proud of being at the "chapter book" level, since one hallmark of these books is that there are actually some pages without any pictures.  Very grown-up, you see.

This particular book is also advanced for first-graders in terms of content, because it deals with a historical period, the Middle Ages, that kids know very little about, despite the fact that they are familiar with kings, queens, castles, and even knights, mostly from fairy tales.  (Have you noticed how many of our fairy tales seem to be set in the Middle Ages?  Why is that, I wonder?)

The vocabulary is pretty advanced, too.  Although most of it is probably easy enough for these kids to sound out on their own, many of the words are specialized terms for things that are not in common use today.   There are terms for the castle structure, such as courtyard, moat, drawbridge, armory, and dungeon.  Then there were terms for knights' weapons, such as shield, sword, club, armor, etc.   Other terms deal with customs, such as feast and fanfare.   Even terms that we think we are familiar with are slightly different:  pies back then were not fruit pies, but meat pies, for example.  Some of the actual terms were not given.  Instead, the things or people were described in kid language.   For example, minstrels were mentioned as people walking around playing a funny guitar (mandolin), and instead of the word "rushes" for the plant material that they scattered on their floors, they simply mentioned flowers.  Fortunately I was able to find pictures of all these things to keep explanations at a minimum.  One picture is indeed worth a thousand words!   In the last few years that I taught, I was very grateful for the prevalence of photographs and images of all sorts of things that are easily found on the web.

The original deal was to read and talk about the book in three sessions, and I managed to do that for the fourth- and fifth-grade groups that I led, but since this book is so advanced for first graders, I have permission to take a bit longer, so I can spread it out a bit in four or five sessions.  The teachers are fine with this, because the kids in my first-grade group are their top readers, and they have their hands full trying to help the more reluctant readers in the class. 

It has been a joy to prepare and lead these "book club" lessons.  For me, this volunteer opportunity has been a wonderful reminder of all the things I love about teaching.  At the end of my career, I was often overwhelmed by the more negative aspects of public education.  When I retired, I absolutely did not miss grading papers, filling out report cards, keeping up with the required paperwork, endless staff meetings and teacher trainings, parent conferences, and dealing with student discipline.  Late in my career, I had some serious issues with some of the materials I was obligated to use, certain procedures that I was forced to implement in my classroom, and the increased amount of standardized testing I was required to subject my students to.   In the last couple of years, some of my former colleagues have made rather dark comments about requirements that have been imposed on them since I retired, always ending their comments with, "You got out at just the right time."

So what is it that I love about teaching?  I love interacting with the kids, introducing new things to them, or giving them more information about something they are already interested in.  I love the looks on kids' faces when they "get it," and the body language that says, "This is fun!"  I love answering the questions they ask.  I love hearing what they think.  

They say that the best way to learn something well is to be required to teach it to others, and I heartily agree.  I love learning for its own sake, and I have learned much.  Would I ever have looked up specific information on so many topics if I hadn't had to get my facts straight in order to teach it to kids?   Sadly, no.  My life has been enriched beyond expectation because of the wealth of information I have been privy to.  I love being able to impart that information to others.  I rejoice whenever a student is inspired to continue on his or her own to learn more about a given subject.  I love watching kids get lost in a good book.  These been among the most gratifying experiences of my life. 

So should I get back into teaching?  Should I sign up as a substitute?  No, I don't think so.  I'd rather be a volunteer who is there for kids for the sheer enjoyment of it, rather than someone who is paid to be there day after day.   I'm so grateful for this opportunity to spend time with kids doing something fun and interesting.  Education is no longer the meat and potatoes of my life.  Now it is the spice.  :-)

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