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
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.