Geometry and the Shape of the World

Came into first grade today, and it was clear that M. was not feeling well.  I knew the class had a substitute today, so I was  prepared for some silliness and disorder.  M. doesn’t always like a change to his routine.  Instead, I found him with his head down on his desk, using his big orange coat as a pillow.  The rest of the class sat on the rug.  The substitute approached and informed me that M. was not feeling well.  He would be heading home, she said, but no one could pick him up until 1:00.  It was 11:45.  

I sat down next to M. after trying to help the sub with the other kids who appeared to have contracted severe cases of the sillies and the disorderlies.  M., by contrast, was seriously mellow.  He had raised his head and was now ignoring the math lesson, concentrating instead on a winter-themed word search.  After first informing me that in “word searchers” you were only allowed to go in straight lines, he added that you could go on diagonals, but under no circumstances were you permitted to “turn a corner.”  I thanked him for the instruction but told him that I was actually familiar with the rules of a word search.  He then showed me his most recent find, the word he sounded out as “hib-ernate.”  Note:  He subsequently accessed his prior knowledge and corrected his pronunciation. 

After a few minutes, I was able to pry him away from the search and  turn his attention to the geometry lesson on the rug.  He didn’t feel up to sitting in the circle.  He turned his head, fixed his glassy eyes on the teacher, and at least appeared to be listening.  Unfortunately, the lesson part was just about over, and that meant it was time for some practice in the workbook, not M’s preferred mode of learning.  I tried to recreate the lesson, pointing out a cube in the room, and a  rectangular prism or two.  M. was incredulous when I pointed to the globe and told him that it was a sphere.  “A spear?!  That’s not a spear.”   I had donned my mask around the time that the sub informed me that M. would be heading home soon.  It wasn’t so easy for the masked me to help M. with the “f” sound that a “ph” digraph makes.

“No, not a spear, it’s a sphere.  It means a three-dimensional round shape, like a ball.”

“Oh. Okay.  But why do they call it a spear?  It doesn’t look like a spear.”


M. did a good job of reading the directions and drawing lines to connect the word with the picture of the corresponding shape.  When it came to coloring the cones yellow and the rectangular prisms red, though, M. began to get a little bored.  He stared toward the window, but didn’t comment about the snowflakes falling from the sky.  Miraculously, no one in the class mentioned them, and snowflakes have been very rare in Connecticut this winter.  Instead, M. looked at me and asked, “Did God make all of us?”

I was expecting something more along the lines of “Do I have to keep doing this page?” Or “Can I go to the bathroom?”  I wasn’t sure how to answer, so I tried the old answer-with-a-question routine.  “Is that what you think, M.?”

“Yeah,” he said.  But he wasn’t finished with this line of inquiry.  “Was God alive at one time, like here on earth, and he’s just not here anymore?”  This is the kind of question that you ask of someone who seems very old, and could conceivably have been around during those “God in the flesh” days.  A primary source.

“I’m not sure,” I said, suddenly losing my question-as-answer skills.

“Cuz, God did a really good job with the world.”  I was curious about this.  Frankly, as someone experienced with feedback and evaluation, I could see some areas for improvement, but I kept this as an inside thought and allowed M. to continue.  “I mean, he built it really sturdy.  It can hold a lot of houses.”  I had to give him that one.  It does hold a lot of houses.  “Like, there are at least 300 houses in Connecticut, right?”  

“At least,” I agreed.  “It’s one sturdy spear.”

A Casualty in the Reading War

It’s been a rough week for my righteously indignant self.  I won’t go too deeply into the disappointment of finding that the orange-haired devil wasn’t the only one who had classified documents end up on his private property.  I have rationalized and pointed out the significant distinctions in the two cases, but it’s no fun being on the defensive side.  

Today, I finally listened to “Sold a Story,” the podcast I’d been avoiding like a dentist visit.  It lived up to my dread.  I sat on my couch on a sunny but cold Monday.  I listened to five consecutive episodes, as the reporter pulled back the curtain on the reading and writing philosophy I’d lived with for my entire teaching career.  In my head, I talked back, I made excuses, I groped for rebuttals, looked for holes and evidence of bias.  I found plenty of fuel for all, but in the end, I had to admit a bottom line: I had bought into an approach that didn’t really have science behind it.

When it was over, my brain felt jumbled.  Images of kids flashed in my head.  Most had been really successful.  Whatever we were doing must have worked, right? But then some other faces floated into view, kids who struggled, who never grew to like reading.  Had I failed them?  I didn’t teach the grades where kids got their first opportunities to “crack the code,” but I certainly encountered some who hadn’t found that key yet.  What had I really done to help those kids?  I’d taught strategies that I thought made for a powerful reader:  accessing prior knowledge, asking questions, making predictions, forming images, inferring meaning.  Maybe, though, I had rejected a solution that just didn’t fit my own biases.  When George Bush backed “new” approaches to teaching reading, I dismissed them as that same “back to basics” mindset that tried to beat back any changes in our culture.  I was suspicious of anything that came from that sector of society or that end of the political spectrum.  He was backward on so many issues; he had to be backward on reading. 

Throughout the pandemic controversies and in every conversation about climate change, I’ve always said that I believe in science, evidence, data, and trusting the experts.  But in the early 2000s, when people were challenging the workshop approach to reading and suggesting that there was science to show that many students needed more phonics instruction, I was doubtful.   I thought they were trying to make us all into robotic teachers.  I thought they were taking all the art out of teaching.  I thought they were going to suck the life out of classrooms. Was I, in effect, a science denier?

Now I’m questioning my motives.  Did my ideology get in the way of my thinking?  Did I, as the reporter suggested of Lucy Calkins (and herself), come to the issue from a position of privilege?  One that put an idealized view of kids in love with literature and book club discussion above a more practical goal of universal literacy?  

I don’t know.

I have several colleagues who are listening to the same podcast.  Tomorrow I will seek them out.  We will talk.  I will listen.  I will try to figure out where I stand and how I should proceed. Today, I am at sea.