Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Selective Memory

This is a piece I wrote for the Kern Valley Sun last year. I got quite a few comments from my students and other community members about it.

As a high school teacher, I have noticed that teenagers have an amazing capability for selective memory. They cannot remember when we have homework due, they cannot recollect where they should stack the books we have been stacking for an entire school year, and they cannot recall whether or not I allow gum in my classroom (I don’t). But if I even once mention that we might watch a movie, they will remember for weeks, possibly months later. If we play a fun game once in the entire school year for five minutes at the end of a class period, they bring this us up every single day thereafter.

“Mrs. Hughes,” they say eagerly, as if they have come up with the apotheosis of all ideas, “I don’t think we should do any work today. Instead, we should watch a movie or play that game!”

That’s when I will turn on the overhead, and say, “Maybe another time. Today, we’re going to review nouns!” Despite my peppy response, groans ensue.

Now, I know for a fact that these students’ elementary school teachers, starting in at least the Second Grade, taught them what a noun is. I know that their junior high teachers taught them what a noun is. We go over nouns in the 9th grade, too. Every student I know can exclaim clearly and confidently the litany that a noun is, say it with me now, “A person, place, thing, or idea.”

Yet when I point to the sentence on the board, “Lenny and George were running,” and ask a student to “find the nouns,” the students look at one another in confusion, and one will reply, “Is ‘running,” a noun?”

“Of course it’s not a noun!” My brain screams silently in response and I have to restrain the urge to shake them by the shoulders and yell in their faces. Instead I ask the class, with a smile, in a restrained voice, “Is ‘running’ a person, place, thing or idea in this sentence?”

“No…?” they state uncertainly.
“Then, no, running must not be used as a noun here.” I respond, gripping my pen so tightly that a faint creaking sound emanates from it. “‘Running’ is an action. What part of speech is an action?”

Their eyes light up and I begin to hope that somewhere in their collective brains, a neuron has fired. I start to believe that this little neuron is directing their consciousness to wherever their brain has stored the precious knowledge for which the State of California has spent so many billions of dollars. I wait, ready for their answer, ready to exult in the fact that they know something that I didn’t have to go over more than once.

“An adverb?” one student might risk innocently. I look at them and, because yelling or screaming won’t help them learn that a verb is an action word or help me keep my job, I squeeze my pen tightly and take a deep breath. I hide my now snapped in-half pen in the folds of my skirt so that the students will not become alarmed and after a few seconds, I smile, and I say,

“Well, you’re close. I think you mean a verb. That must be what you meant.” And I walk away quickly to the sink, because ink is now oozing all over my arm.

By the end of the year, I know we will have mastered nouns, verbs, and even adverbs. By the end of the year, most of them will remember where to stack the books, and not to chew gum in my class. I imagine that thirty years from now, when they think of my class, if they think of it at all, they will not remember those things. But they might remember the game we played once.


  1. Yeah, I remember trying to teach my college comp students the difference between nouns and verbs. I finally had to resort to "action" and "things".

    Kinda sad. But at the same time, a heck of a lot less confusing for all of us. All those terms (someone I know threw a gerund around today!).

  2. High school student, here.
    I enjoy games, but I also enjoy writing.

    P.S. - Interesting piece, and very true.

  3. Brandon,

    thanks for your comment. I hope your writing is successful. Please understand that the above piece is an exaggeration. Many of my students are excellent at grammar. It's just that some are not. Best of luck with your writing!