Phi Beta Cons

A Teachable Moment

I was spending some time with a good college friend of mine. We were screwing around, debating where to head that night after one of those unexpected, nearly unwelcome humid spring afternoons. I picked up a copy of a large book from the apartment table. World War II for Kids. My friend, an elementary-schoolteacher-in-training, had picked up the book for an assignment that dealt with how to teach the war to young students. 

I playfully launched in to a mock exam, using the small images of each of the war’s principals from the front cover. “Okay, who’s this?” I demanded, pointing to the visage of Winston Churchill. 

From my friend, silence. And a blank stare. ”Uh, alright,” I hesitated unevenly, “how about him?” I pointed to Stalin. 

“Oh, Franklin Roosevelt, I think,” offered my friend earnestly.

Mental panic was setting in. “And this?” I pointed to Hirohito.

“ . . . Gandhi?”

Our impromptu exam ended with howls of laughter from my chair, and a red face in the other.

You don’t need to be a history fanatic to recognize most of those men. And if you’re, say, an elementary-ed student expected to teach the subject, it’s helpful to know the subject, right? And preferably before you pick up a book on it . . . “for kids.”

But here’s the thing: my friend is smart. An “A” student, attending a respected university.

For all the talk about lesson planning, creative learning, compassionate engagement, etc., from the education reform crowd, how often is it asked: Do our teachers know their subjects?

If not, it’ll show. The students will immediately recognize it. No amount of lesson planning can succeed in engaging students on a subject when they notice that not even their teacher was curious enough to learn about it.

Lesson planning and presentation are a core focus of the elementary-ed instruction my college friend receives, all while the specific names — and here, literally, the faces — of the subject are neglected.

Rarely has the vituperative slur ”style over substance” been made so real.

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