Dr. Seuss Has It Right…But Do We?

My favorite unit to teach every year is invariably poetry.  And honestly, what poetry unit is complete without Dr. Seuss?  Last week I busted out an abridged version of “Oh the Places You’ll Go” and the smiles peeled across my high schoolers’ faces (side note: all high school kids, no matter how “cool” they think they are, are really just incognito elementary school kids).  My students asked me my favorite line of the poem and I replied, “And when you’re in a Slump, you’re not in for much fun.  Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.”

All of a sudden it hit me.  I shot back to my kids:  “How does Dr. Seuss’ message to children differ from the message of most adults?”  Immediately, they responded that most adults will tell children, “You want to be a _______ (fill in the blank with token childhood profession of choice: firefighter, veterinarian, Superman, etc.)?  Well, of course you will be!”   Now our man Dr. Seuss totes a similar overall message, but he also doesn’t shy away from the obvious and unavoidable ups and downs of life.  He doesn’t say, “You may get in a slump,” he rightly projects, “when you’re in a slump.”

Which begs a larger question:  Are we adequately preparing our students for life beyond high school?  The documentary film, Waiting for Superman, revealed that American teenagers rank low on the academic totem pole in nearly every subject.  When compared to 30 other developed nations, the U.S. ranks 25th in math and 21st in science.  But there is one category in which our teenagers lead the pack: self-confidence.  This factoid is sardonically followed with images of blatant teenage stupidity, such as trying to launch off a bike ramp and land on a roof (P.S. he didn’t make it).  Now, I’m all for fluffing our children’s feathers and giving them the confidence to go out and take the world by the reins, but if they do not have the adequate, or dare I say exemplary, skills with which to do so, we could be potentially setting them up for failure in the real world because they are pumped to the brim with BS.

Why as a culture have we begun to shy away from tough love?  Positive reinforcement, positive encouragement, and problem solving are all useful tactics, but sometimes kids just need to hear the way it is.  Kids appreciate when you are blunt and honest with them because they recognize you are speaking to them as young adults, not as children. Now of course we want to support our kids and make them feel good, but at what point does this PC attitude of positivity actually become a disservice to our students?  If they hand their boss a piece of garbage, do you think he’s going to sit them down, give them an “atta boy” pat on the shoulder followed by a pep talk encouraging them to do better next time?

So in the end, how do we find the balance between positive encouragement and candid feedback?  How much of either is too much?

To learn more check out the official website of the documentary, Waiting for Superman.

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4 comments on “Dr. Seuss Has It Right…But Do We?
  1. Boris says:

    Great food for thought here. I remember studying education at university and being quite disappointed looking around the lecture hall at my fellow students. Nowadays kids get more information online then they do in a classroom and perhaps we should start accepting that fact and trying to find ways to use this new medium. I have been in Europe for the past 13 years and kids here do seem generally much more informed that the kids I grew up with. Eagerly awaiting your next blog!

    • Kerri says:

      I agree, Boris. If we want to educate children to prepare them for the world they are going to be living in, we need to take a good honest look at what that means in terms of our teaching pedagogy. What worked 50 years ago is not necessarily going to work today. We need to embrace technology and work with it, rather than against it.

      Thank you for your reply, Boris!

  2. High school is a place for encouragement. We don’t really know WHAT anyone’s capable of accomplishing, at least at the higher end of his or her potential, at that age. I’m not disagreeing with you about the disservice we do when we blow sunshine up anyone’s behind, but even you concede that we want to support our children and make them feel good.

    We give them honest feedback because at least for now, we know they can do better when they deliver sub-par work, even if at times we’re not sure how much better that is. I’m sure you’ve never said to a student, “This is not very good, but hey. It’s the best you’re going to do.”

    What I’m saying is that even with tough love, there is the implication that you expect someone to do better, even if you’re not convinced they’ll do better, right? Because we know they won’t do better if we don’t tell them they can.

    You’re not so tough as you think you are! :)

    • Kerri says:

      Grouchy teacher-

      You’re completely right. I think what bothers me so much about teachers accepting/praising sub-par work is that it robs students of the chance to push themselves and reach their potential. I’m a firm believer that students will meet your expectations, regardless of how high or low they are. So if we set the bar high and sprinkle in some tough love, who knows what students could be capable of…

      Thank you for your perspective.

      P.S. You don’t sound like such a grouchy teacher to me!

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