EMinNM

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Mar 08 2012

Hits a little close to home.

My reading group is reading Holes by Louis Sachar, which, if you haven’t read it, you should go read right now. But in case you’re not going to do that, brief summary: poor, chubby, but generally nice boy Stanley is in the wrong place at the wrong time and gets sent to Camp Green Lake, a juvenile detention facility where boys dig holes to “build character.”  But then it turns out that there’s a whole secret mission behind all the digging, a story that goes all the way back to Stanley’s no-good, dirty-rotten, pig-stealing great-great-grandfather.

This is an awesome book, and also a really nice book to start to think about things like writing style (the story jumps back and forth between a few different stories and times, which is interesting and frustrating by turns) and point of view (even though Stanley isn’t our narrator, the story is mostly told from his point of view, so we have to pay attention to how the narrator says things). I’m loving it, they’re loving it, and like six of my kids have checked it out from the library just so they can have their “own” copy to read during reading group (even though I have 26 copies of the book for them to use…go figure).

But sometimes things hit a little close to home.  When we read something funny and they don’t laugh, we have to stop and find the disconnect, because that means there is something blocking their comprehension. Kids who understand what they are reading laugh at the jokes, kids who are pretending don’t.

There’s a character named Zero who everyone (including narrator/Stanley) thinks is worthless and stupid. At one point, Stanley tells him a joke and he doesn’t laugh because he is so deprived of real-world experience that he has never even heard of the nursery rhyme that is the premise of the joke. It’s supposed to drive home that Zero comes from a very different life than Stanley does, or than 80% of kids who read the book do. His was a childhood where no one told him nursery rhymes, and he never watched Sesame Street, and no one ever taught him to read or write. He’s not worthless, he’s not stupid, but he hasn’t had the chance to learn the things Stanley has.

I’m sure you can see where this is going. None of my kids laughed at the joke, which was a legitimately funny one about how the little old lady who lived in a shoe must have had to put up with a lot of foot odor. But none of them laughed, because, just like Zero, none of them had ever heard the nursery rhyme before.

5 Responses

  1. Not gonna lie, I had also never heard the rhyme (nor most others) when we read that book in elementary school. I still remember being appalled when my third grade teacher started talking about an old lady swallowing a fly. Traditional Asian upbringing for the win/lose.

    • parus

      Me either. Those rhymes are a pretty culturally specific thing.

      • eminnm

        I agree that they’re culturally specific, and there’s nothing wrong with not having heard them :-) For me it wasn’t the rhymes so much as what they stood for. My kids haven’t heard of nursery rhymes, but that is just one in a long list of things they have no experience with that block their understanding and learning. We build background knowledge in any way we can, but the world is just so darn big that there’s always some tiny thing you never even thought of being confusing that throws up a road block. I’m learning, though, to anticipate every tiny thing :-) I think it was the parallel to the character in the book, who is eventually seen to be a worthwhile, interesting, and perfectly real person, but who is initially assumed by so many to be nothing but a Zero, that got me.

        • parus

          At the risk of overstepping, I would say that I think one thing you should be asking yourself – and your district and school should be asking – is whether the things that are “blocking their understanding and learning” are inherent to becoming educated, or are just inherent to Anglocentric schooling. I am not saying you are insensitive to your students or anything, but I do get the impression from this and some other posts in your blog that there is a “deficit model” of the kids’ knowledge and thinking in play here.

          I don’t know how things are in the Southwest but up here there is a big push in many communities to change the way public schools in Native communities operate. Not just token stuff but actual changes. Basically, you know how in the schools you grew up in, you probably studied other cultures and got information from them (e.g. scientific discoveries made by people from other backgrounds) in your classes, but you did it in the context of Anglo-American schooling (the way the classroom was set up, the texts you used, the day’s schedule, the way lessons were structured, grade levels, grading, etc. etc.)? The push is to switch it so that’s the way participating schools in Native communities here look at Western things, basically. So the kids will have the knowledge of the US and its practices they need to succeed if they go Outside or work with Outside people and organizations, but not by giving up one’s own practices for 8 hours a day. There are challenges like language loss from imperialism and from elders having died without passing knowledge on, but with a healthy focus on working toward building school cultures that are both Native and modern is can be done.

          • eminnm

            That’s actually a question I ask myself all the time, and it’s a very interesting thing to think about. My favorite example is that we are required to teach and evaluate kids’ ability to sequence stories, when storytelling and thought patterns don’t necessarily follow in a sequential straight-line order in traditional Native culture. At the same time, stories and thoughts told in circular patterns make just as much sense and are just as worthwhile, so what’s the point of being able to tell me what happened first, next, last? Not a lot, really.

            But the other part to this is that the district and state tests, as well as the curriculum that my kids will be evaluated based upon, DO require these skills, Anglocentric or not. I know that the system is sucky at times and out-and-out racist at others, and I know that there is so much more of value than what is on the NMSBA. But there’s a tough balance between trying to be culturally sensitive (which is really difficult when you are very much at the beginning of learning things about that culture) and also being real about what will be expected of kids in our current school system, and trying to set your students up to be successful in that model. I wish it were different, and I really wish someone who knew more about it and had more than two and a half seconds of experience with education and Native kids could help change it. But even the excellent Native teachers I know are still stuck inside this model that we have. Where is “up here” that you are?

            I also really hope I’m not coming across as disparaging of my kids or what they bring to the table. I think the world of them and the enthusiasm and excitement they bring to the classroom. My kids are smart, hard-working, interesting little people, and I am lucky to have them. My favorite days are the ones where I get to learn from them, be it about rodeo, traditional ceremonies, Southwest desert plants or animals, slang words I’ve never heard of…the list goes on and on. I’m still just scratching the surface of all the stuff there is to learn about this enormous job I find myself in, and this blog tends to be me thinking out loud, as it were. So if it comes across as negative or ignorant or flat-out dumb, please 1. remember that I’m learning and no one knows more than me that I’ve got a long way to go and 2. call me on it, like just now. I may not always agree, but I’ll always love to think about it.

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About this Blog

In which I muse about New Mexico, teaching, and life in general.

Region
New Mexico
Grade
Elementary School
Subject
Elementary Education

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