Did your Schoolhouse Rock…or was it the House of Blues?

Have you ever considered…Which school subjects were valuable in your adult life and career? Which subjects were nice to know but not critical to future achievement? Were any a waste of time? Which subjects do you wish had been stressed more because as an adult you realize how useful they are in your life?

Lately, my thoughts have turned to my early school experience, no doubt the result of observing my 11-year-old son in his studies. School is a lot different these days. Kids are exposed to topics in elementary school that didn’t come my way until junior high school. I can’t help but feel we’re rushing in, bombarding our kids with tons of material, before the 3 Rs—Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic—have taken hold in their adorable little brains.

A few years ago, a teacher confided that new material is presented too frequently for the students to become proficient. After a day or two they move on to the next topic, resulting in lots of breadth and not much depth. Each topic is like a toothpicked morsel on a butler-carried tray, quickly consumed and followed by the next. Shouldn’t subjects that are the basis for all other learning be more like a sit down meal that you linger over? The following year, many of the same topics are repeated for the same short periods of time. Because no foundation has been laid, it’s like learning it anew.

All of this had me pondering what in my schooling I felt was valuable. The first thing that popped into my head was exposure to books and storytelling, which led to a passion for reading. My third grade teacher, Mrs. Heller, held a regular story time. She was an entertaining reader, using different voices for each character. For a moment each day, I was in that crowded bed with Charlie’s quirky grandparents, or standing in a barn gazing up at a lovely arachnid marketer who spun messages in support of “some pig.” I tasted the sweet pulp of a giant peach while visiting James and his insect friends. Needless to say, I couldn’t wait for story time, and when we were told to read on our own, I ran to select a book.

Mrs. Heller didn’t make it to the end of the school year. Maternity leave beckoned and our substitute for the rest of third grade was Mrs. Zuckerman, an Argentinian, who decided to teach us Spanish at a time when foreign language study did not begin until seventh grade. She must have known that language is more easily acquired before the age of 12. When Spanish was finally officially taught in junior high, there was already a comfort level and an enjoyment. I took it every year thereafter, eventually majoring in Spanish Language and Literature in college, along with studying Italian and Russian. We become more and more global every day, and the internet allows us to talk to people all over the world, provided we speak each other’s language. Moreover, vacations are so much more enjoyable when you can immerse yourself in the culture and speak the language of the natives. But learning a foreign language was important for another reason. It helped me “back into” English grammar since in the 1970s in my part of town knowing the parts of speech had been deemed an unnecessary skill. (And “old math” was frowned upon. 😉 )

Another source of pleasure in elementary school was music. In addition to a music class and participation in the glee club, I had a fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Nannarone, who brought in her daughter’s John Denver album to share with us. She clearly loved this album as much as her daughter did and her enthusiasm showed. My favorite song back then was Grandma’s Feather Bed. Come on, it was nine feet high and six feet wide. You gotta love that. 😀 But there was more than music at play here; we were listening, evaluating lyrics, and discussing Denver’s stories. It was a lesson in comprehension and so many other things.

Sigh. All these great memories and then…SOCIAL STUDIES. It’s not that the study of history isn’t valuable. It was the way it was taught that rendered it dull, quickly forgotten, and avoided at all costs. Do you remember memorizing timelines? Did you enjoy it? Has your life ever depended on knowing the exact day that Columbus discovered America or that the Constitution was adopted? Would knowledge of the general time period have served you just as well? I think so. I also think that social studies textbooks should be banned from elementary school. There, I said it. They are the absolute worst way to get a child interested in history. In this day of multimedia, why are we not using more of it to engage our children. I grew to love history as an adult when I began to experience it in the form of biographies, vacations to historic sites with engaging tour guides, and TV programs and movies, such as the recent John Adams on HBO, which had me running to other sources to research more. A textbook never had that effect on me. I do not know as much as I should about history, politics, geography, or other topics taught with that cursed social studies textbook, and yet I was a straight A student. That’s because your brain can memorize facts for a test and forget them immediately afterward. What good did that do me? Huh? Huh? [Note to Self: Breathe deeply and wipe froth from mouth.]

So, what do you think? Which subjects or events from your early school years made an impact, either positive or negative? Which do you think served you well into your adulthood and career? Which do you think were a grand waste of time? Which subjects would you have school children learn to make them most effective in their futures? I’d really like to know your opinion.