I was always an excellent speller, missing only one or two on a typical test, and often getting perfect scores, but one time the teacher dumped a wowser on us in the weekly list: “arithmetic.” Ten letters, with a tricky vowel sound – the whole class groaned. Nonsense, she said, and wrote out, on the blackboard, “A rat in the house may eat the ice cream.”
Thus began my first exposure to the mnemonic device, or memory trick. Remember the sentence and you could remember how to spell “arithmetic,” by using the first letter of each word. Colors in the light spectrum? Roy G. Biv. Notes on the musical staff? “Every good boy does fine” for the lines, “face” for the spaces, and the good boy “deserves favour” if you’re British. The Great Lakes? “Homes.” And of course, we all know the planets in the solar system, in order, because we all know “My very educated mother just served us nine pickles.” I’m sure that’s been reworked since the demotion of Pluto, and will be reworked again if the new ninth planet delivers on its promise.
Ask me how to spell Cincinnati, and I’ll answer “one, two, one,” because that’s how I finally mastered the tricky interior consonants – one N, then two Ns, then one T. I still see Cincinnati misspelled in books and in national publications, less so since spell-check.
Anyway, I’m a big believer in mnemonics. This year I’ve been volunteering as a homework tutor in an after-school program one day a week, and Tuesday I worked with a boy studying for his religion test. I never went to Catholic school, but I took CCD classes one day a week after heathen public school, so my knowledge of basic doctrine is there. We did a sample test together: Which two sacraments can only be received once? Four pairs followed. I taught him the first rule of multiple-choice testing: First, eliminate the obvious wrong-os, i.e., the ones with Eucharist or Reconciliation as one of the choices, because Catholics receive those over and over. I got the feeling no one had ever taught this third-grader about the process of elimination in test-taking.
This is when I feel the most despair, and see an opportunity to actually teach something. These kids are wonderful but, as you’d expect in Detroit, disproportionately disadvantaged, in so many ways. They know the words to crappy songs on the radio, but don’t hear the rhythms of the written word, because few have been consistently read to. They’re tested all the time, but lack test-taking skills. Worst of all, learning is accompanied by rote rituals that strip all the pleasure out of it. It’s not enough to answer “Who wrote most of the Declaration of Independence?” with “Thomas Jefferson.” Rather, grasp your pencil in your fist and write, “The Declaration of Independence was written by Thomas Jefferson.” (Or, worse, “The person who wrote the Declaration of Independence was Thomas Jefferson.”)
I see the need to get students accustomed to writing in complete sentences, but when a writing assignment asks a high-school student, “What do you think of X?” and the automatic first line of the answer is, “I think X is…” we’re doing it wrong. The other day a bright high-schooler and I talked about Eleanor Roosevelt. The study guide asked students to explain why the first lady was controversial, and she dived back into the chapter for the facts she’d need to marshall for her answer. I told her to put the book down and we talked a little about Hillary Clinton and the things people say about her – that she rode her husband’s coattails to power, that she meddled in affairs she had no business in, etc. I told her people had said these things about Nancy Reagan, Michelle Obama and pretty much every first lady in my lifetime. I asked whether this said anything about those women as individuals, or about women in general, and about Eleanor Roosevelt in particular. You could see understanding dawning over her face, and people? That is a wonderful thing to see. She went back into the chapter for her facts, but now she understood not just what she was looking for, but why.
I am not a teacher, I have no skills in teaching. I’m not always a very good explainer. I’m not creative about dreaming up new ways to impart knowledge. But when I read Mother Goose and A.A. Milne and Beatrix Potter to little Kate, I held her on my lap and jiggled my leg in time to James James / Morrison Morrison / Weatherby George Dupree / Took great care of his mother / though he was only three. And today? She plays a rhythm instrument. Coincidence? I THINK NOT.
After we settled on the correct answer to the religion question (Baptism and Confirmation), we matched details of various rituals to their symbolism and significance. Why do converts put on white garments? Why do priests baptize with water? He knew most of them, but was having a hard time with the laying on of hands. It signifies the power of Christ, the book said. Hmm…the kid’s dad is a boxing trainer, so I told him to connect the power of Christ with the power of a punch, delivered? Through the hands. Mnemonics!
Even though Jesus wasn’t much of a brawler, even when he was kicking the money-changers out of the Temple.
On to the bloggage.
Speaking of people who didn’t learn well in school, an atrocious rewrite of a TV script, featuring the fun neologism “rigamortis.”
I guess my old newspaper’s new letters policy is that they’ll run any old crap that comes over the transom.
My local Trader Joe’s is nothing like this. Is yours?
Skating into week’s end, I am. We all are. Happy Thursday.