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Why are we Teaching Johnny Appleseed in an Ice Bucket Challenge World?

Why are we Teaching Johnny Appleseed in an Ice Bucket Challenge World?

Jimmy is a boy at my school. He’s seven years old, a little chubby, one eye crosses, and he wears the cutest round glasses. Jimmy struggles with reading, he is fidgety, and often isn’t favored by teachers. But Jimmy is smart. Every morning Jimmy is waiting by my classroom door. I open my room in the morning for students to come in and explore. I am creating my own version of a Maker Space on a shoestring budget. My principal was nice enough to purchase 30 Chrome bookIMG_0508 (1)s that students may use. I have also brought in various games, art supplies, and my daughter’s old felt boards. It is amazing how students of all ages gravitate toward the felt boards.

One day Jimmy was creating a design on a felt board. When he finished, he proudly called me over to show me what he had made. I looked at the felt guy with a pan on his head and I immediately said, “Oh you made Johnny Appleseed.” He looked at me perplexed and said, “No. That is a guy doing the Ice Bucket Challenge.” Then he proceeded to tell me about the rest of his picture. Of course his explanation of the Ice Bucket Challenge made much more sense than Johnny Appleseed would have. The guy was on a beach and Jimmy had all sorts of details to add about his picture. At that moment, I felt foolish. I had supposed something without giving Jimmy time to explain. Jimmy’s answer was much more interesting than the simplistic answer I had expected. The exchange with Jimmy affirmed three things:

1. All kids are smart. In his blog titled, “Focus on the ‘Learner,” George Couros states:

When we talk about our “smartest” kids, do we talk about our students who do the best academically?  If we focus on the “learner”, we realise that some of our “smartest” students are not the best at school. 

I love the reminder from George that some of the smartest students aren’t academically smart. Jimmy is a perfect example. He may struggle with decoding, math concepts, and putting his words into writing, but that boy is creative. Jimmy can recall an event from over a year ago, create an image of it on a felt board, and carry on a very detailed conversation about his creation. I hope Jimmy knows he’s smart. His grades don’t tell him he’s smart.  I hope the structure of school doesn’t defeat Jimmy. He needs educators to appreciate his abilities and allow him to express his ideas. He needs educators that value him and let him know his areas of strength.

2. Why do we keep teaching Johnny Appleseed in an Ice Bucket Challenge world? When Jimmy told me about his picture, I thought his response was wonderful!  It made sense that students would be more familiar with the Ice Bucket Challenge than Johnny Appleseed. The Ice Bucket Challenge was all over the media. Jimmy probably knew someone who participated in the challenge. The truth is, I have taught about Johnny Appleseed for 15 years, but I can’t even tell you why. Much of what we teach about Johnny Appleseed is fiction. We don’t even know if he wore a pan on his head, but we have students create construction paper pans and wear them home on “Johnny Appleseed Day.” Would it be more beneficial to teach about the Ice Bucket Challenge that was started by one man who suffered from ALS? That event went on to include people of all walks of life around the world and raised over 115 million dollars for research.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t teach about Johnny Appleseed or any other topic for that matter, but I do think we need to reexamine why we teach certain topics. Is is because we have taught it for 15 years or because it is truly meaningful to our students? Jimmy reminded me that even our youngest students are aware of current events and the world around us. Maybe we need to update some of our lessons to better connect with our learners.

3. Give students the opportunity to create and explain.  I felt foolish when I had supposed that Jimmy’s answer was Johnny Appleseed, but the exchange could have been worse: I could have not asked about his picture at all.  How often do we just look for the right or wrong answer without giving students time to explain? We’re often in a hurry and we are programed to teach to mastery and move on.  We forget to allow time for creating and explaining to occur in our classrooms. I learned so much about Jimmy in the few minutes that it took for him to create a felt picture and explain it to me. Imagine the stories we would hear, the creations we would observe, the collaborating we would witness, the thinking learners would demonstrate, and the real-life skills that would be gained if we allowed our students more time to create and explain.

I’m so thankful for my time with Jimmy. That boy taught me. I look forward to seeing his next felt board creation, but this time I will say, “Tell me about your picture.”