Lessons in Life and Life-long Lessons
There are days when, despite what I believe is fairly competent planning and preparation for teaching English to sixth graders, I feel as though I could improve upon something.
Perhaps I could have used a different type of assessment. I might have called on a different kid in class to check for understanding. Maybe I could have added a technological component to a lesson.
However, one recent morning, when students in my class were learning to tie weaver's knots using yarn—we were studying the children's novel Lyddie, set in a Massachusetts textile mill during the Industrial Revolution—one female student mentioned something fairly startling for a sixth grader, something I hadn't planned for that morning: She did not know how to tie her shoes.
"You don't?" I asked.
"No," she said.
I looked down at her sneakers, black ¾-top Nikes; one was untied, its lace dangling on the floor.
"Who ties your shoes?" I asked.
"My brother," she replied.
The roomful of children, most of them 11 or 12 years old and certified experts in this area, was as quiet as I could remember. Clearly, they were awaiting my reaction.
But I did not have to think long about my response. Intrigued with this opportunity, I dropped to a knee and pronounced with certainty, "You're going to learn how to tie your shoes today!"
A broad smile broke out across her face as I showed her, step-by step, how I tie my shoes.
As I walked her through the process with her own sneaker… pull your laces up tight… cross them over…wrap one lace underneath…pull down tight again…make a loop… wrap the other one around it…pull the lace through the hole…grab both loops tightly…I began to wonder how often what I did in the classroom translated into something immediately useful for my students.
Since becoming a teacher 13 years ago, I'd helped students become better writers and readers, but what I was teaching this girl, on this day, would be something that she would do every day for the rest of her life.
And as I considered this, it struck me that what I was teaching her transcended common Grade 6 classroom practices. Perhaps accounting teachers feel the same way when they help students manage a checkbook. But this was even more basic; tying shoes is a life skill, like brushing one's teeth. This was like a preschool teacher telling students to cough into their elbow.
I studied the student's effort, which was sloppy but still successful on the first try. It was like watching a child riding a bike for the first time without training wheels. I made a few suggestions.
When the class was over, I told the girl to be sure to practice that night.
"It's the only way you're going to learn," I said.
She nodded and left the classroom.
The next morning, as students filed into my class in the fog of homeroom, the girl rushed in, the same broad smile spread across her face. "Mr. Polochanin, I can tie my shoes!" she exclaimed.
"Really? Untie them and show me," I said.
She knelt down, pulled one shoe's laces apart, and quickly tied a perfect knot. A beautiful knot.
I congratulated her, then gave her a high-five, proud that she had learned this new skill and feeling a sense of satisfaction that, on this particular lesson—albeit an unusual one for a middle school teacher—I made a small, but important, difference.
David Polochanin teaches English at Gideon Welles School in Glastonbury, Connecticut. E-mail: PolochaninD@GLASTONBURYUS.ORG