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.

14 comments on “Did your Schoolhouse Rock…or was it the House of Blues?

  1. Jessica S on

    Well, this is going to sound like tooting my own horn, but oh well: I recently wrote a mini-series on my blog about a Thanksgiving story. It was told from a first person point of view, and since that person was a teacher, many people who read the blog posts (althought at the top, it says it’s a mini-series and a STORY), thought I was a teacher. Anyway, the point is, I would love it if you took a look at it. They kept telling me to keep including that pedagogy into my teaching–well, I’m not a teacher, so I can’t. However, I thought maybe you would like it. 🙂

    Here are the links: Part 1: http://ow.ly/3czs7, Part 2: http://ow.ly/3cztC, Part 3: http://ow.ly/3czvg, Part 4: http://ow.ly/3czwm, and Part 5: http://ow.ly/3cTEF.

    Obviously, you don’t have to check them out if you don’t want to. I just thought in lieu of your post, maybe you’d find the idea interesting. 🙂

    • Margaret Reyes Dempsey on

      Hi Jessica,

      Just checked out your mini-series and left a comment. Setting the stage definitely enhances learning. It changes up the environment and gets noticed and makes kids wonder how it’s all connected to the lesson that day. Nothing like getting the juices flowing.

      Thanks for stopping by. Oh, and I loved that Edgar Allan Poe quote you posted in another blog: “Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.” Very true!

  2. Richard on

    Interesting question, and one I am supremely unqualified to answer since I spent the best part of my education paying attention to Art and little else. The other subjects may have been useful or otherwise, I just don’t remember. 🙂

    I do believe that exposure to a breadth of subjects could be very important in allowing a student to explore all the possibilities for future careers, but certainly agree that how a subject is taught is vital. I also agree that new technologies, certainly interactive media, should be better utilised in education.

    John Adams was excellent, by the way. I agree. 😉

    • Margaret Reyes Dempsey on

      I agree that studying a broad range of subjects is beneficial, especially in exploring possibilities for a career, but there’s time for that. In elementary school, I’d rather see kids develop a love of learning and not be bombarded with tons of information just so they can pass the standardized test at the end of the year.

  3. Alice Vernon on

    I’m just gonna go right ahead and say MATHS. I’m kidding, of course. 😀

    When I was little, my imagination was extremely overactive and I spend most of my time in Primary School filling in the blanks with my own ideas. This is why I’m still convinced that people turn into lizards when I’m not looking and the sinking of the Titanic involved lots of helicopters. These nuggets of information are far more important than any subject I studied at school, I believe.

    • Margaret Reyes Dempsey on

      Hmmm, I was wondering who added that account of the Titanic on Wikipedia. 😉

      Imagination is sooooooooo important. Kids definitely have it when they start out. So many adults don’t, and they’ll be the first ones to tell you. I think the practical demands of life sometimes squish it out of us like toothpaste from a tube.

  4. Roberto on

    Well – I am slightly older than you, and definitely pre-Sesame street (although I have to admit that I would watch it when I was with my younger cousins, no matter how uncool I thought it was. I was happy that I intrinsically knew that one of these things goes with the other, so there was no need for me to want to guess which one).

    When I started kindergarten in 1964 (there was no pre-k of which I was aware back then), they were fond of giving really cool cookies (and little containers of milk) to us just as much as they loved changing methodologies every month or so (so it seemed).

    For instance, in Kindergarten, we did not learn the regular English alphabet. We had to memorize an alphabet with, what seemed as, infinitely more letters and combination of letters. Some group of educators from England thought it brilliant to teach a phonetic alphabet to children – called ITA (Wikipedia it someday, and read about it so your head will explode too!).

    For example, you were taught to spell the word “You” as “Yoo” and “book” as “b?k.” Bizarro-world! Needless to say, many found it difficult to transition to the regular alphabet in first grade. (Fortunately, I was not one of them! I still know my kindergarten teacher who has always told me it messed so many kids up and they couldn’t make the transition.)

    Then of course, there was the “New Math” which caused my father, the math genius, to hemorrhage each time he helped me with my math homework. And, when I entered Catholic school in third grade, we had penmanship everyday which accounts for my beautiful (when writing carefully), girl’s handwriting. (While I was often taught by nuns, I never got hit by nuns, only repeatedly by the lay women teachers, who had a variety of techniques they must have learned when taking Education courses at the local colleges – but that’s another story for another day.)

    Another fun little thing for reading was a series of mini-stories with subsequent quizzes. This was called “SRA” (or that’s what we called it; my guess is the company who made it was SRA, but I digress). The idea was self-directed learning, which would result in you advancing to various color groups. Nice concept in the sixties (so was marijuana as a social drug too), but should not have been thrust upon third graders (and the rest of middle school ages).

    SRA just caused problems (and some opportunities) for many kids I knew, including me. You see, because of SRA, you not only learned how to advance colors quite rapidly, you learned one of life’s more important lessons: how to repeatedly cheat, as all advancement to the next level was on your own – so you’d take the answer key to the next “test,” write down the answers, and go up again to get another story, and take the next answer key, and so on and so on. It was brilliant from a child’s point of view, and it always kept me formally marked as reading above average for my grade level. The reading part??? Kind of got lost for me. But I know my colors well, and I now knew how to cheat even better.

    It was fun as the educators constantly changed methods more than I was accustomed to changing my underwear in those days. But, overall, somehow I survived – and, actually thrived. But I suspect that was not everyone’s experience.

  5. Margaret Reyes Dempsey on


    You had me howling with laughter, trying not to wake up my son in the next room. I can totally relate to your post. Obviously, since I am slightly younger than you, I must have learned Newer Math. 🙂 And that ITA program you describe sounds very similar to one they introduced in my elementary school, thankfully after I had already learned how to read and write the regular way. I remember parents complaining that their kids couldn’t spell as a result of learning to read and write words phonetically.

    It makes you wonder if anyone really knows anything or if it’s all just one big experiment with each incoming class the new set of guinea pigs.

    Do you have a blog? Let me know. I’d love to read it.

  6. Richard Huttinger on

    After recently coming across all my report cards (my mother kept everything), this blog has much resonance. It was plain to see that the level of my “progress” was directly related to my feelings about the teachers. Some had the ability to make any subject interesting while others were easy to ignore, which gave my imagination full reign. I could be a straight A student or do a lot worse, though grades below C were rare. As with the other Richard, Art was my favorite subject. It was allotted only one hour a week when the classroom was visited by the Art teacher. The same for music, in which I had no interest until I got my first guitar at age 16. Then it took over my life.

    Math and Science were the subjects in which I was consistently most successful and which have best served me throughout life. There was no “New Math” in my education. The word phonics had no meaning to me and I learned the alphabet and how to read and write a bit before K. I have never been a fast reader, but I have good retention if the subject interests me. A good memory allowed me to do well at test time.

    I think that pleasing my teachers and parents was what motivated me most to do well in school. Displeasing them meant punishment and restrictions. For the most part, school was the House of Blues. Surrounded by people with whom I could only interact during recess and lunch seemed like a form of torture. I was not a sports person, so much of my after school time was spent in the woods communing with nature or in my room or the basement making art projects or learning about the world from old National Geographics, Life magazines and the World Book Encyclopedia. Images more than text were what interested me. Later, my older brother’s Playboys were very instructive.

    • Margaret Reyes Dempsey on

      Hutt! Thanks for stopping by.

      As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. 😉

      It sounds like your early education occurred before all the experimentation began. Lucky you. It’s interesting to see how the time allotted to subjects like art, music, and gym has changed over the years.

      Considering you received only one hour of art a week and weren’t much interested in music, how funny is it that you’ve now combined the two and make those gorgeous violins? 🙂

  7. Jackie Rosanio on

    Most recently I was helping my nine year old study for two tests, social studies and math. The social studies was pure memorization and the math, much to my dismay, was more word problems than just knowing your facts. Anyhow, as we were studying my daughter was focused more on the Social Studies and not the math. Eventually I lost it because in my mind at this age, math is more critical in your every day life ( it would be nice to be able to make change at a supermarket!) So I got into a rant complaining that she really needs to concentrate on math because learning the full definition of a “quarry” really only helps if you are Fred Flinstone! and I doubt very much she will be working in a quarry someday! She of course asked who Fred Flinstone was so now I have to go rent some DVDs!

    • Margaret Reyes Dempsey on

      Gasp! Is it possible the Flintstones are not being shown on one of the hundreds of cable channels?

      Interesting you bring up making change. It seems so much of math is taught with word problems these days. I wonder if kids will be able to make change in the real world with actual money in their hands. Can you picture a kid in his first job as cashier at the local fast-food chain, trying to make change, staring into the air, talking aloud to himself, “A man buys 3 quarter pounders with pickles, no onions for $1.45 each. He gives the cashier $10. How much change should he receive? 😉


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