New Adventures in Teaching

I had a couple of weird experiences at school this week. Probably something in the cafeteria food, except that the students don’t eat there if they can prevent it. Or maybe Helmers bakery – where the students are not supposed to go, but do anyway – put something into their Berliners.

This Thursday, for example, one of my seventh-graders was early for class. I had him wipe the board and the boy took the opportunity for an impromptu drawing (he’s a typical doodler). Then he asked me, “Do you know what that is, Ms. Buhlert?”

I said, “That’s a DNA double helix”, all the while wondering where he got that from, because genetics isn’t taught in biology class until much later.

The boy, quite amazed: “How do you know that?”

I say: “Hey, I had biology at school, too. But how do you know that? That’s not seventh grade biology, is it?”

It turned out that the kid had picked up the tidbit about the DNA structure from Jurassic Park, which is his favourite film. He then proceeded to demonstrate how he would splice dinosaur DNA with zebra DNA.

“Why not something a little closer to a dinosaur like a crocodile or another reptile?”

Boy (utterly scandalized): “But Ms. Buhlert, there are frogs in America who can mate and have babies with themselves. Then the dinosaur island would be overpopulated.”

You have to admire his line of thought, even if he gets reptiles and amphibians confused.

I always find it amazing how much information kids manage to retain from whatever pop culture phenomenon has captured their imagination. Lately, I had another seventh grader explain a plot point, namely the lstory of Lady Cassandra O’Brien and her many plastic surgeries, from a Doctor Who episode I had shown in class two weeks before to another student in great detail. I was stunned that the girl had not only understood all of that information, but that she had managed to retain it, when the same girl often has problems remembering irregular verbs or vocabulary from one day to the next.

I really wish there was a way to harness the power of pop culture for learning purposes. Because kids manage to retain huge amounts of information they are actually interested in, e.g. details of films, football scores, lengthy plots in 32 volume manga series, etc… And instead of lamenting “Woe, the sky is falling. The apocalypse is night. Cause kids these days prefer memorizing manga plots to memorizing Schiller’s Die Glocke” we should see how we can use the stuff the kids are interested in to get them to learn what we want them to learn. I try to incorporate pop culture on a limited scale, e.g. in my “Teach Yoda English” exercise, where the students have to correct Yoda’s offbeat syntax. But I really wish I could do more along those lines.


This week, a students asked me my bra size. Now the students regularly ask me personal questions. “How old are you? Are you married? Do you have children? Where do you live? When did you have your first boyfriend? Where did you buy whatever clothing article or possession of mine has intrigued them?”

I find those questions somewhat strange, because I was never interested in the personal lives of my teachers or in their fashion sense. But when I get those questions, I usually answer unless it gets too personal. But the bra size question really was a first. And from a boy, too, when it’s usually the girls who are overly curious. I suspect one of the other kids had dared him to ask that question.


Talking of kids trying to provoke, on Thursday I had a boy singing “Alles auf dem Rasen” (everything on the lawn), a Tote Hosen song infamous for describing in no vague terms just what can be done on the lawn.

As provocation attempts go, this one at least got points for originality. Usually, the attempts at teenage provocation involve saying “penis” over and over again or scrawling penises onto worksheets and the board.

So I said to the boy, “Wow, I haven’t heard that song in ages. I didn’t even know it was still in.”

The boy stares at me with goggly eyes, “You know that song?”

Me: “Yes, singing it out loud was a popular dare when I was your age.”

Boy: “And you know the lyrics? Really?”

I recite the chorus for him and say, “That’s it. I forgot the rest. Been a while.”

Whereupon the boy promptly recited the rest of the lyrics. He got them wrong, by the way. Or maybe generations of teenagers have changed them since my time.

I say, “Well, thank you. Now I at least remember the rest.”


While crossing the schoolyard, I noticed a gaggle of fifth or sixth graders playing combat, firing imaginary machine guns, throwing equally imaginary grenades, dropping down dead, that sort of thing. Since I had to walk straight through the line of fire, I said to them, “Wow, it’s like a war zone out here.”

Whereupon a boy proudly informed me, “We are playing World War II.”

I said, “Well, that’s cool, because it means that you learn about history, too” and continued my way across the schoolyard battlefield.

I still found it odd, because while we certainly played violent fantasy games, even though the adults in our lives did not want us to, it would never have occurred to me or anybody else at that age to play World War II. Because World War II was too real and too horrible to play. But playing the last Rambo film – or whatever the one kid who had been allowed to see it, or so he claimed, remembered of the plot – now that was fair game. Because we all knew that Rambo wasn’t real.

I suspect what we’re seeing here is the result of World War II moving to the edges of living memory. I and most people of my generation grew up with parents who had experienced World War II as children and had memories of bombings, nights spent in shelter and refugee treks. Our grandparents were the generation who fought in the war. And none of them, neither parents nor grandparents, would ever shut up about it. As a result, I was heartily sick of World War II by the time I hit my teens.

But those kids aged 10 to 12 grew up with parents born after World War II. In many cases, even the grandparents were born after the war or only have very dim memories. It’s unlikely that any of those kids have grandparents who actively participated in World War II, because even the youngest soldiers, teenaged boys drafted in the final months of the war, are in their 80s now. So to those kids, World War II is not that thing that the adults in your life won’t shut up about, it’s this vaguely intriguing event with lots of explosions that regularly shows up on TV.

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7 Responses to New Adventures in Teaching

  1. Estara says:

    That is one cool pupil and your Teach Yoda English is one cool exercise, more power to you! I agree with you about the power of pop culture – I remember being able to explain what satellites do because of information I had come across in the German-translated US superhero comics at the time – this was before they were picked up again by Dino Comics (I think?), when Green Lantern was Grüne Leuchte and Green Arrow was Grüner Pfeil. The editions that stopped in the early 80s – I was able to sell them to a comic shop, when I switched to the English originals.

    And what a great way of dealing with provocation ^^. I am lucky in one way with a part of street credibility which occasionally pupils come across again – I was rpg editor for an online electronic gaming magazine which still exists – (it’s basically the gaming pages of Freenet) – for roughly one and a half years. So that awey even the toughest boy for a bit, then they get disappointed when they realize I’m not enthusiastic about their favourite shooters and action games.

    Yes, the concept of World War II is somewhat changing. I am able to bring personal examples into my teaching because my mum was an East-Prussian fugitive at 13 and has told me stories, too, which I retell. Bavaria sends all its 9th-grade pupils (which is when we talk about WWII) to Dachau once, that also helps a lot to put the Holocaust into a not too distant perspective. Teaching in Donauwörth – formerly one of the homes of Messerschmitt, now the home of Eurocopter, bombed in April 1945 – I can also connect the many war prisoners working in the outlying camps for Dachau in the region to this time.

    Do you know how WW2 is taught in Bremen?

    • Cora says:

      I also learned a lot from books, comics, films, etc…, so I try to incorporate pop culture in my lessons. As a teenager, I could read comic books in four languages, only two of which I had been formally taught. And even the slower kids suddenly display astonishing knowledge, when they are interested. One of my Hauptschule students, a girl with learning difficulties, is trying to teach herself Japanese from a phrasebook, because she’s into manga.

      As for street cred, I’m sure that gaming knowledge helps a lot, especially with boys as almost all of them are into gaming. Knowing the films and TV shows they watch, the books they read (if they read at all) usually helps, too. IMO it’s also important to accept the students’ entertainment choices rather than condemn them. A lot of the teachers I had as a kid reflexively condemned any kind of pop culture, specifically American pop culture. I got a lot of watered down Adorno from my teachers before I ever came across the real thing.

      My school is actually in Niedersachsen, maybe two kilometers from the border. We used to have the KZ Obernheide, an Außenlager of Neuengamme directly in our community, so that’s a teaching opportunity right there. The Lager was forgotten and literally not a trace left – though a lot of older people still remembered and some of them even talked about the prisoners that would march through the fields – until a historian came across some documents at the Bremen Stadtarchiv in the late 1980s. There’s a monument there now and sometimes former inmates come to visit and talk at the local schools. There aren’t many left. The youngest prisoner was a 14 or 15 year old girl at the time, she only survived because she screamed that she wanted to stay with her older sister.

      Bremen also had aircraft industry in WWII, but those facilities are still in use, only they’re building Airbus parts and Ariana rockets there now. But we also have the U-Boot Bunker Valentin, a giant bunker intended for assembling submarines inside that was built by forced labour towards the end of WWII. A history teacher from my school, now retired, specialized in researching the bunker and even wrote a book about it, so we took our students there as well. She also interviewed some of the former Zwangsarbeiter and one of them would visit once a year to talk to students. Unfortunately, he died a few years ago.

      • Estara says:

        Nothing beats having actual eye witnesses, very true. I wish my mom would be willing to talk about this…

        • Cora says:

          It always depends. Some people are willing to talk about their experiences, some are not. In my family, we ended up with the ones who wanted to talk, though we’ll never know what they chose not to talk about or remember.

          Regarding the KZ Obernheide, I always found it amazing how the older people in the community who had lived their all their lives had somehow managed to completely avoid talking about it. I discussed this with a friend whose grandparents lived within walking distance of the camp and must have known/seen something. And she said that her grandmother had sometimes talked about prisoners marching through the fields and how the grandfather (who was long dead by that time) had disliked the way they were treated. But my friend had always assumed the prisoners were POWs, not KZ inmates. And her grandma completely neglected to mention that the prisoners were women.

  2. Kaz Augustin says:

    I homeschool my two, not because I’m a religious freak but because there’s nothing good close by. And the problem of how to make lessons interesting is a constant problem I deal with. It’s easier with The Wast (boy, 11) than with Little Dinosaur (girl, 9). But recently, while reading “The Cyberiad” by Lem, I got a brainstorm and decided to teach rounding using robots. Little Dinosaur LOVES robots! Of course I had to follow up, but the initial work was done thanks to Mr. Lem. 🙂 (The blog entry is here, if you’re interested.)

    • Cora says:

      That’s a lovely example for what I mean, using whatever the kids are interested in to teach concepts they have to learn. Of course, this works best with very small groups, where you can individually tailor the lesson to the students’ interests. Though there are some things which work for most classes. Football, fire brigade, Star Wars and Twilight almost always work. You always have football fans and usually a few players, you always have Star Wars and Twilight fans and at least in my semi-rural area you always have kids who are with the youth volunteer fire brigade.

      You’re in Malaysia, right? It’s been a long time since I’ve been there (I was at the same age your kids are now), but I’m not sure if I would trust their school system either.

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