Tag Archives: Classroom Management

“No, I Didn’t Know George Washington”: Answers to those “Dumb” Questions before School Starts

Whoever said “There are no stupid questions” never had a classroom full of them.

Especially at the elementary level, the post-summer amnesia produces a litany of questions that should seem obvious. 

In fact, you probably answered them all last year.  Guess what?  You’ll be answering them again this year, too. 

Over the years, I collected a lot of these questions, pored over them, wondered about their recurrent nature, and then drank myself into a stupor until the questions drowned in gin.  They’re tough little buggers.

In order to save me some time this year—as well as give some advice on how to handle these questions—I’ve come up with the most common questions that have arisen, along with the answers, so that at least we can be prepared once school starts:










“Who was the first slave?” – I get this one a lot, especially among kids who can trace their ancestry to enslaved persons down South and would like a more complete family tree.  We don’t know the name of the first slave, although in Paleolithic communication a slave could just as easily been anyone forced to do work, like a “husband” or “boyfriend.” (Just kidding.)










“Martin Luther King was President, right?” – Always occurring either around MLK’s mid-January break or during Black History Month in February.  Thanks to the other holidays around the same time, a lot of kids just assume that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a President simply because he’s famous for doing important things.  No, MLK was never President: would Barack Obama’s election have been such a big deal if he was?  Usually that deflates the issue right there.










“Did you know George Washington?” – a huge obstacle to overcome is a child’s lack of understanding of historical time, especially when you explain it a hundred times before.  It still doesn’t get into their heads: George Washington died in 1799.  I was born in 1977, which is almost 200 years after his death, therefore…(cue the confused look on the kid’s face.)  Oh well, you could just mess with the kid, “Sure I knew him…bought three slaves from him once, and what a bargain!” (Cue the parent calling the principal.)








“Did {insert dead white male here} die?” – this is slightly similar to the previous question.  Assume anyone within striking distance of Washington (Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, the three slaves I bought from Washington) are already dead.  Most of history’s bad guys, with the exception of Osama bin-Laden (or so we’re told), Fidel Castro (ditto) and Muammar Qadafi—dead.  For parochial school kids: saints and martyrs are dead (martyrs by definition), as well as every pope but the current one (again, by design).   For further point of reference, take any wall chart of the Presidents of the United States.  Now circle numbers 39, 41, 42, 43 and 44.  The rest are all dead. 










“What was the first war?” – As common and pointless a question as “Who was the first slave?”  Without a documented record of the event, the question is really meaningless.  Therefore, make up a plausible story: It was probably when Gak wanted more mammoth meat than Urg, so he hit him over the head with a club and took the rest of the carcass.  This explains pretty much all wars, from Gak and Urg to World War II (even Iraq, if you substitute mammoth meat for millions of barrels of sweet, sweet crude.)






“Did they have machine guns/bazookas/missiles in the {insert pre-20th century war}?” – ridiculous, but fun to think about.  Imagine the sight of British redcoats running for their lives at the sight of a minuteman raining fire with a Browning machine gun.  Obviously, this plays into the problem of historical time.  Timelines showing different stages of weapons development can help–good luck explaining that to the AP.  Or you can rationalize: do you think the Hundred Years’ War, the Thirty Years’ War, even the Seven Years’ War would’ve lasted so long with modern weapons?  One strafe of napalm over northern New York would’ve had the Iroquois running for the British lines in no time flat.

Now we’re really mostly kidding (mostly).  As teachers, it is in the best interests of a child to answer their questions as honestly and directly as possible–or at least direct them to where they can find the answer.  To whit, some of the questions mentioned today are, at least in a child’s mind, perfectly legitimate.  For example, it makes sense to figure out when humans decided to enslave other humans, or the first time people used homicidal violence to solve problems.

Yet sometimes the lesson has to go on.  These questions are, more often than not, used to waste your time.  Make sure to answer the question ONCE, then enforce some rules if they try it again.  Often, I find that the more sarcastic and convoluted the answer, the more confused the kid is.  He’ll never even think of asking that question again.

Even so, I know I’ll be getting these, so let’s be prepared.  If you have any other stories/tips about the questions you always get and always seem ridiculous, let us know.  We’d love to share them.

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The Perils of Classroom Discipline: or, Why The Superintendant took away my Hickory Switch

Sometimes fear, even perceived fear, is a powerful motivator.

Once in a while, when one of my classes gets particularly unruly, I like to pick up a pointer.  It is one of those old fashioned wooden jobs that makes a wonderful whistling sound when it hurtles toward someone’s backside.  I’d hold it, wield it, swing it here and there, and the children would stop and stare at me.  Some have a look of utter terror.  One child has the gumption to ask, “Mr. D, why do you love that pointer so much?”

My response: “Because it reminds me of a time when it was legal to beat you.”

Now, I would never hit a child, of course.   My students also know I won’t hit them, but it’s never far from their minds that one day…just one day…Mr. D could finally lose it and wallop someone into oblivion.   Perceptions of fear, violence, and even insanity have become cornerstones of my discipline–well, that and a good ear for the mood of the class.  Almost the entire school is convinced that I’m insane, or at least neurotic.  It could be because of my obsession with historical minutia and the need to look at details to get the bigger picture.  Or it could be my habit of talking to myself at times, which is often necessary to get my thoughts in order.  Whatever the case, it keeps students in check, and actually gets them to do work…although most probably finish assignments “just so that nutjob can get off our backs!”

Let’s face it, the days of Sister Mary Margaret wielding her Yardstick of Righteousness are over.  Classroom discipline, or “classroom management” as the educational establishment likes to call it, is a whole new universe of approachs, studies and strategies designed to encourage (not shame) children towards acceptable behavior.  Even instilling fear has become a no-no, although neither my kids, nor their parents, seem to mind it from me.  New approaches today focus on self-motivation–allowing students to figure out for themselves what is acceptable and what is not.

A recent Wall Street Journal article discusses these new techniques in early childhood classrooms.  According to the article, discipline problems in children are not only rising, they are also starting at a younger age.  The causes of this are varied, including “pressure on teachers to stress math and reading over emotional skills; family instability; a decline in playtime; heavy use of child care; or a rise in learning problems such as attention-deficit disorder.” 

In view of this dilemma, some classrooms have, according to the WSJ, resorted to a two-prong approach: an increase in time for dramatic or pretend play, coupled with lessons on self-control allotted through the curriculum.  Dramatic play lets children play out roles in society for various amounts of time, allowing them to figure out for themselves where the behavioral limits lie.  Using assigned roles in working groups for math and reading lessons helps children understand limits and appreciate respect for their peers. 

For younger children, especially in preschool, the PATHS approach is gaining in popularity.  While most students today are encouraged to verbalize their emotions, younger children who are just learning to communicate need different skills.  According to the article, “children are encouraged when upset to emulate Twiggle the turtle, a green puppet who pulls into his shell: They stop, cross their arms over their chests, take a deep breath and give a name to their emotions.”  As always, good behavior should always be encouraged and rewarded.

Dramatic play is a very good tool for discipline in that, like critical thinking, it allows students to gain ownership over behavioral issues.  A bald, fat know-it-all (like me) or a dictator dressed like a penguin (like Sister Mary Margaret) have often used discipline in an authoritative fashion, imposing our will on others whether they like it or not–and they usually don’t.  Playing out roles or scenarios allows children to make their own codes of behavior from an early age.  Thus, their behavior will not only improve, but those lessons will last longer into their schooling.

The other approaches, such as behavioral lessons in curricular workshops, or emotional workshops such as PATHS, are also effective, particularly in younger children.  They also allow children to figure out acceptable behavior with as little adult interference as possible.  Children often lash out because of a sense of no control, and these programs help to give that control.

My worry about these approaches is twofold.  First, these strategies have to be implemented at an early age or they won’t work.  With older children, dramatic play and emotional gestures just will not yield the same results.  While the results of these approaches will be seen in the future, there are plenty of discipline problems in the here and now.  Many children from ages 8-12 have already been hardwired to behave in certain ways based on a myriad of factors, including their home life and their neighborhood.  Are there no discipline approaches for these children, short of an extreme regression therapy?  I say this because it is my demographic, and I have to deal with these students–hence the insanity.

Furthermore, and I hate sounding like a union rep, but these strategies leave out the important role of good parenting.  Why must teachers essentially “mommy” other children when parents are, in essence, the ultimate arbiters of discipline?  It doesn’t matter which approach or strategy is used on a child: if it isn’t followed through in the home, it is a waste of time.  Unfortunately, many parents, especially in struggling communities, are simply overgrown children themselves–though there are many exceptions.  If we cannot trust adults to behave as such, there is little more we can expect from the children.    Don’t believe me?  I refer you to a previous post in the Neighborhood about a foul-mouthed toddler.  Enough said.

If you are a fellow teacher, you know that discipline is the hardest thing to master.  Even the best teachers are often saddled with classes forged by Lucifer–I’m familiar with a few this year.  The best advice I can give?  Keep the door closed, keep the kids busy, do what works–and if all else fails, ask for help.  There is no shame in asking to send Johnny for a time-out in another classroom.

Or just act as if you’re batshit insane.  It works for me.


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