Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Take An Explorer to Dinner

School isn’t what it used to be. I say this because (hard to believe as it is) I went to, and graduated from, elementary school. Sometimes it seems like yesterday, and sometimes it seems like a month ago last Thursday. Now it’s time for my children to learn about Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic. Or so I thought...

When I went to school there was a curriculum. This formula was fairly straight forward, you either ‘got’ it, or you didn’t. The teachers expected us to be able to know certain things at the end of each year; and then tested us to make sure that the information had somehow sifted through the skull and into the brain. We reviewed Reading, Writing, Math, History, Science, and Gym on a regular basis (disclaimer: there may have been other subjects, but at my age, I’m lucky to remember to put socks on in the morning).

Before you start thinking that I’ve gone loopy with nostalgia, please understand that it wasn’t all completely wonderful in the 1960’s. When I was a kid we also learned to ‘Duck and Cover’. This, when done properly, would prevent you from being vaporized when (please understand, I do mean WHEN, and not “if”) the Russians decided that they could blow the world up more times with nuclear devices than we could (I guess somehow that made them the ‘Winner’?). “Remember kids, when you see the flash of light, climb under your desk and put your hands behind your head and remain that way until it is safe to come out (in about 79,800 years).”

I was amazed therefore to discover that there are other things not taught (besides ‘Duck and Cover’) anymore – like Phonics, handwriting, and grammar. Asking my kids to write a coherent paragraph is like asking my dog to do calculus (although she (the dog) does seem very happy when I ask her to do the calculus, wash the car, or fix the stereo). My kids on the other hand, would rather stick pins in their eyes than write a paragraph on their own. They are not comfortable with it, simply because they have not done enough of it.

I'd like to speak here a little bit about elementary education as a whole, and one of our experiences with it. I have three children ranging in ages from 13 to 18 years old. The benefit of having multiple children at different grade levels is that after the oldest child blazes through elementary school – you are prepared (sort of) for the others have yet to participate in the ‘robust learning experience’. If I was unlucky enough to have, say, triplets, I would have checked my sanity at the door years ago. This being said, let’s talk about Mr. Columbus. Before everyone pulls their kids out of New York schools over this, please be aware that the following 'learning experience' took place in St. Johns' County School District in St. Augustine, Florida.

My oldest son, who was in fifth grade at the time, brought an assignment home that amazes, puzzles, and frightens me to this day. The teacher sent home an assignment in which the student (let’s just call him ‘my son’ from here on out), needed to pick a historical figure and entertain him / her for the evening. The person could be living or deceased but they must have had major historical significance. I know that you’re probably wondering how you would go about inviting a ‘Dead Historical Figure’ to dinner, but all things will be made clear in short order -- trust me.

My son chose Christopher Columbus as our ‘guest du jour’ for the assignment. Certainly Mr. Columbus would meet the requirement as a major historical figure; and who knows, maybe my son would learn some vital historical information about the man who discovered the New World? Dare I dream? Oh no, not so fast. I must apologize for allowing you to read logic into this assignment; I am obliged to tell you the rest of the story.

Remember, the assignment was to have a historical figure over for dinner. It was never to LEARN about the historical figure, it was more an assignment of an assignment about menu planning, set decorating, and playing the role of a land-locked version of Julie, the Cruise Director. As part of the assignment, you needed to create a poster-board replica of your guest (life-size, of course!). Not that the indignity of creating and displaying a life-size replica of a long dead explorer was enough; my son was also instructed to take his guest out in public, and include photographic evidence of this post-mortem adventure.

You can imagine his (for you parents out there, you know that at this point you can use the word “our” in the place of "his" with reckless abandon) delight at the prospect of taking a five foot tall poster-board man (with construction paper clothing and yarn hair) into a public place and being photographed with his best new friend, “Mr. Columbus”. In keeping with the theme, we took Chris (I felt comfortable calling him ‘Chris’ at this point, having seen him naked earlier in the day) to the Castillo De San Marco located in St. Augustine, Florida. We figured that Mr. Columbus would appreciate being photographed at an old Spanish fort (circa 1695) located in the nation’s oldest city. Looking back now, he did seem to have a knowing ‘smirk’ at the end of the day at his revelation that his ‘New World’ actually ‘took’.

Photographs having been taken, with my son slinking off quietly by himself, we prepared for the second phase of the project, dinner at the Casa de Kane. My son had to create a menu that he imagined (‘imagined’ being the operative word for the entire project since as we all know Chris hadn’t had a meal in slightly over 500 years) that Mr. Columbus would enjoy. Don’t take this the wrong way, but after 500+ years, he ought to be happy to eat WHATEVER we rustled up for him, “Hey Chris, how about a dog hair and toenail sandwich with beetle larva and rancid mayo? Maybe goat-brains on rye with gym socks on wheat? Hey, buddy, you hungry?”

My son, who had a grade riding on this, decided to be more in keeping with Chris’s roots, decided on salad, garlic bread, and spaghetti with meatballs. Chris was a delightful dinner guest with impeccable table manners and a certain presence that you don’t find in many poster-board historically significant dead people. We dutifully photographed Chris at our dining room table as he spent quality time with our son.

For the record, my wife and I did most of the work (okay, my wife did almost all of it single-handedly, but I did drive the van to St. Augustine and laughed as I took the pictures). My son’s assignment was eagerly accepted by his teacher; who, it turns out, gave everyone an ‘A’ who even attempted to complete the project. This being the case, I can only assume, based upon past experience, that the kids that didn’t attempt completing the assignment probably received a ‘B’.

As referenced above, we lived in Florida at the time of the “Columbus Project”. Perhaps your child’s fifth grade experience will be totally different than my child’s was – but you never know. We are in New York State now and my youngest son is in Fifth grade this year. Just to be prepared, I’m thinking about taking Abraham Lincoln around Gettysburg for a victory lap and then back home for maybe some ham steaks, taters and corn on the cob. I wonder how the 16th President would feel about the evolution of education since he taught himself law by candlelight?

Give me the log cabin and one room schoolhouse any day; if it was good enough for Abe, it's good enough for our kids (and perhaps better than they have today). As for me, I’m off to the crafts store; Abe Lincoln was much taller than Christopher Columbus, and we’re out of Poster-Board – just in case...
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