Teaching school after Memorial Day is like bailing out a sinking ship with a leaky bucket. Every day is a struggle just to hold the students’ attention. “Can’t we just watch movies and play games?” asked one of my students. For twelve days? No – the fact is, the moment I start to break routine, all is lost. I have to keep teaching, and even in the face of blue skies and soaring temperatures, I still see learning taking place.
Take poetry. At the beginning of the year, it was all I could do to get the students to interpret Carl Sandburg’s poem Fog. “The fog comes on little cat feet,” I read to them. “The poet is comparing fog to … what? Anybody? Anybody? Bueller?”
They’ve come a long way since then. This week, we read and discussed a Walt Whitman poem describing the Revolutionary War sea battle between the Bon Homme Richard and the Serapis. It was a struggle, but the students’ interest was engaged by the story. It seemed an appropriate one for the occasion. Not only were we studying the Revolutionary War, but sometimes it seemed that my June lessons, like the Bon Homme Richard, were on fire and sinking …
My students were determined to master the battle language of the poem – battery, powder-magazine, maintop, grape and canister. “What does it mean, ‘the captain lashed fast with his own hands?’” they asked. Thank heavens for Google. We learned that John Paul Jones grappled the two ships together in order to negate the British advantage of having a faster, more maneuverable ship. “The Black Stache did that in Peter and the Star Catchers!” one of the students cried making a connection to their reading group book. “Now it makes sense!”
Written responses from the students indicated just how much they got out of the poem – and how Whitman provided a window to the past, an opportunity for them to imagine the historic moment when, asked to strike his colors and surrender, the American captain replied, “We have not struck. We have only begun our part of the fighting.” One of my students wrote: “The speaker in the poem is honored to have John Paul Jones as a captain. He laughed that the other captain even asked them to surrender!” Another one explained, “He is proud of his captain and will follow him anywhere. It says, ‘His eyes gave more light to us than our battle-lanterns.’”
So, it’s June – and I’m still getting these kinds of responses from 5th graders. Some of the students asked if I would strike my colors and surrender, my teaching done for the year.
The answer is no.