The best-laid plans of mice and men

gerbil

 

A story about language, learning, and the differing perspectives teachers and students may bring to the classroom.

 

Many years ago, I completed a master’s degree program focused on literacy instruction. I had become well versed in some of the best thinking of the day from professors who were experts in their fields. I was quite impressed with my accomplishment. Until then, I had been teaching 4th grade, but given my newly gained expertise in early reading and language development, I thought it would be more appropriate to work with five- and six-year-olds. So, I requested reassignment to 1st grade.

As the opening of the new school year drew close, I turned to Russell Stauffer’s (1970) ideas about launching a language development program. I was drawn, in particular, to an example he shared of a teacher who introduced a white mouse to her students on the first day of class. She positioned the mouse in a central location in her classroom so the children could see the little creature as soon as they entered. Stauffer offered this as an example of how to begin an effective language development program. Kids would enter the room, get excited when they saw the mouse, and want to talk about what they saw. I thought this was a great idea. So, off to my local pet store I went.

Now, at this point in the story I should note that while I was eager to work with this age group, I hadn’t actually spent much time around five- and six-year-olds since I was their age. Maybe that’s why the primary teachers just smiled at me when they found out I’d signed on to teach 1st grade.

When I arrived at the pet store and took a look at the white mice on display, I found myself a little creeped out by their pink tails, white fur, and translucent eyes staring out into space. In the cage next door, however, were a pair of gerbils. With their brown fur and nonstop action on the exercise wheel, they seemed to be having much more fun than their neighbors. I gathered them up, kicked in for a wheel, some cedar chips, and a water bottle and then went back to the school to finish my preparations.

The adventure begins

Finally, the big day came. In my classroom, I had pushed all the desks to the side walls and had put the gerbils center stage in a cage on a round table. The children would enter the room, see the gerbils, become excited, and start asking all sorts of questions. What better way to begin developing our vocabulary skills? I headed down the hallway to retrieve my class.

When I got back to the classroom with my students, I stopped them outside the doorway and gave a little speech to set the tone for the year: “Just as your parents went off to work today, you, too, are about to go to work. Your workplace is through that door. When you enter, I want you to look around and take in the scenery. Once we are all gathered inside, we will talk about what you found and what was most interesting to you.”

I didn’t realize at the time that most experienced primary teachers straddle the doorway when their students enter the classroom so that they will have a view of both the hallway and the inside of the room. I didn’t know that, so I stood in the hallway until all of my young protégés had entered.

Have you ever seen a horror movie where the director uses slow motion for the scary scenes? Well, when I heard the children screaming, “He killed it! He killed it!” and I peered into the room, time all but stopped. Panicked children seemed to run in place, as if moving through molasses. There in the cage, unmoving, was one of the gerbils, on its back, paws and legs straight out, very dead.

My career flashed before me. I envisioned my students going home that afternoon, eager parents waiting to greet them at the bus stops. “How was your first day of school?” they would ask. Tears would flow. “Someone was killed in our classroom today!” (Would these early learners know to say it was a gerbil, not a human?)

I made my way to a guilty-looking student and glanced at the name tag I had earlier pinned to his shirt. It was little Billy Smurdley (not his real name; apologies to any Smurdleys who happen to be reading). “Billy,” I said. “Why did you kill our gerbil?” At which point one of the little witnesses to the horror yelled out, “He just grabbed it by the tail and kept whacking it against the side of the cage until it was dead!”

Billy looked up at me and down at the dead gerbil and said, “Gerbil? That’s a rat. My dad says when you see a rat you kill it!” As I looked at the dead gerbil again, I thought, “You know it does look a little like a rat.”

What I learned

Like many of the kids in that 1st-grade class, Billy lived in an impoverished neighborhood. His home was in a rat-infested apartment building, and as someone who knew all about rats (but nothing about gerbils), he probably thought he was just helping out. That’s not something I had anticipated as I made my plans for the opening day of school.

Billy’s observation reminded me that while information and knowledge can be the gateways to understanding, things don’t always happen the way we might expect. Real experiences are also necessary because they help us use our information and knowledge to shape our perspectives and drive the way we use words and phrases when we communicate with each other. They are our personal windows into how we view the past and present to predict the future. Billy and I had different experiences and, as a result, different perspectives leading up to the moment we encountered the gerbils. Our prior knowledge caused us to reach different conclusions.

That year, I learned that we are all experts in something, and our classrooms should embrace and reflect such expertise. Billy was an expert at killing rats. There was nothing wrong with him. We just needed to try to understand his point of view and how he came to be where he was at that precise moment in time.

Later, I asked Billy to take care of the remaining gerbil. I wanted to show him that things that could be a danger to us in one situation could also give us comfort and pleasure in another. As the year progressed, I learned a powerful lesson from him, too, about how our experiences are critical to revising our perspectives. They help us develop a deeper understanding of the words we encounter beyond the surface structure upon which they are often first presented to us. It is only this deeper understanding, or structure, that allows us to better interpret what we experience.

A few weeks into the school year, Billy asked if I would like him to catch a gerbil at home to replace the one he had killed. I didn’t see that one coming! It underscored, however, how our perceptions change, and it signaled to me that Billy was trying to process information from his time in the classroom and connect it to his life outside school. He was starting to make inferences about how they were similar and different. His perspective was evolving.

Billy went on to have a productive school year. Well, except for the time he got a macaroni noodle stuck in his ear, and we had to take him to the emergency room to get it removed. He told me it just “jumped” into his ear. Who knew?

Reference

Stauffer, R. (1970). The language-experience approach to the teaching of reading. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

 

 

GERALD L. FOWLER (glfowl@ship.edu) is an emeritus professor of educational leadership at Shippensburg University, in Shippensburg, Penn. He has served as a teacher, principal, reading supervisor, superintendent, and associate professor in a public education career spanning more than four decades.

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