Op-Ed: Teaching Fifth Graders About Presidents Day. Always fun
Every year, just before Presidents Day, I did my best to assess my fifth graders’ knowledge of the holidays. And every year my educational services never failed to enlighten me. Most of what they thought they knew was wrong. Much of it was very entertaining. But this is the mortar and sticky glue of the fifth year.
First of all, most 10 year olds have absolutely no idea of historical chronological time. A few knew that George Washington was the first president, but that was about it. The year 1776 meant nothing. If my students knew anything about Washington and our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, more than one of them assumed they were best friends flying kites with Benjamin Franklin.
One year I asked my class to write on the board what they knew about Washington and Lincoln. And their final collective conclusion was a jumble of hash, log cabins, an axe, cherry trees and lies. A kid said he thought one of the presidents was a lawyer, so he probably lied. The class concluded that Washington probably chopped down cherry trees with an ax to make a cabin for Lincoln.
I did my best to straighten it all out, using timelines, and mentioned that some of the stories about presidents were myths, and then, of course, explained that a myth was a fable.
Then I tried to slip in a factual story: I pointed out that after the Americans barely won the Revolutionary War, George Washington was so popular that people wanted him to be King of America. And he said no, which was an incredibly honorable thing. He preferred to be president for a short period of time and then return home to lead a private life and organize elections throughout the country so that people could choose someone else. Unfortunately, slaves, women, indigenous peoples, non-landlords and fifth graders were unable to vote. But on that day, we would make up for these many slights by organizing a mock election.
A student, Jose, raised his hand. A wide frown covered his face. “Well, Professor, I don’t like Presidents Day this year. I hate that.”
This confused me. “I’m sorry to hear that. I mean we have a day off from school out of respect for these two presidents,” I said. “One of them was even assassinated – shot.”
“So,” I asked Jose, “why do you hate Presidents Day so much?” »
He buried his head in his arms. No words came from him. However, her best friend filled in the details.
“Professor,” his friend told us, “Jose got ripped off.”
The professor’s awkward and confused look must have crossed my face. “How is Jose,” I asked, “being cheated by Presidents Day? »
His friend said, “This year is also José’s birthday. And all the stores have pictures of the presidents but not of him. He thinks it’s not fair. Her sisters bother her about it.
Jose was right. How could he compete with a president?
“Hmm, that doesn’t seem fair at all,” I said. “I’ll tell you a secret about my birthday if you don’t tell anyone.”
Now I had their attention. Even José looked up from his desk.
“My birthday is September 1st,” I said. “So when I went to kindergarten in September, I was barely 5 years old. School started on my birthday. I was the shortest and youngest in the class. I ended up staying in first grade to catch up.
Their collective eyeballs deflated.
In shock, a child blurted out, “You can’t stay back, you’re the maestro!”
“Teachers can stay behind,” I replied.
Another child suggested, “I think maybe Professor Snider stayed behind too. I do not like him.
“No, Mr. Snider didn’t stay back,” I replied. (His name has been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty.)
Another child pointed at me and said: “You’re talking to a Pinocchio, professor!”
“I’m telling the truth. I repeated first grade and things aren’t always fair.
Heads were shaking in disbelief. I had shattered their educational world. Surely it would be discussed at dinner parties across Castroville later today.
“OK, OK,” I said, trying to bring them back before presenting what was always the highlight of the day – a mock election.
“You can vote for George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or even write on behalf of a candidate,” I said. And then I had to explain what this supposed.
We voted, we counted all the ballots, even the handful of writings. I was so hoping that Jose would beat Washington and Lincoln. He did not do it.
The result was about the same as every year. Professor Paul Karrer, chairman for the rest of the day, organizes Presidents’ Day my favorite day. Life is not fair.
Paul Karrer is a writer in Monterey, California. He taught fifth grade in Castroville for 27 years.