Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Lies Elementary School Teachers Tell

About six months ago, my fifth-grade daughter came home from school concerned. Her teacher had told her class that "I" was a proper noun. Distressing as this was to me, my daughter, and the roughly 768 writer and teacher friends I shared it with, it was probably an honest mistake. It might even have been a sort of verbal typo. There's a big danger in those when they come from teachers, because most children won't recognize them as mistakes and won't think to share them with parents, and so will move forward throughout life with that misinformation planted firmly in their minds. You may be thinking that this will straighten itself out somewhere along the way, that during the next year or even the next lesson, these kids will get accurate information and question the conflict. But my experience preparing high school students for the ACT indicates that's just not true. We can't create a national force of elementary school teachers who never make a mistake, but perhaps we could create one that doesn't lie for convenience, and that would go a long way.

Some of my "favorite" elementary school lies:

1. Never start a sentence with "because". For example, "Because my third grade teacher told me never to start a sentence with 'because', I will erroneously deem this sentence incorrect when it appears on the ACT." You may be thinking, "Well, that's different--it's an introductory clause." EXACTLY. But the vast majority of students who passed through my classroom--college-bound students--had never learned "that's different". Instead, they'd been told in elementary school not to start sentences with "because", and they'd believed it, internalized it, and were still living it and getting wrong answers on the ACT because of it at 16 and 17.

2. A square is not a rectangle. A rectangle, of course, is a four-sided figure with opposite sides parallel and four 90 degree angles. A square, of course, shares all of those characteristics. But a surprising number of high school students in upper-level math reject the idea of a square as a rectangle. Why? I've heard tell that it's intentional. Apparently, if the legend is to be believed, some curriculum expect somewhere along the way decided it would be "confusing" to young students to be told that all squares were rectangles but not all rectangles were squares. Again, they were obviously expecting someone to explain later on, but no one did.

3. A prime number is a number that has only one and itself as factors. Close. SO close. So close that it's almost semantic. A prime number is a number that has exactly two factors. Even at the college level, even with adult returning students who are preparing for the GRE and GMAT, I often get a shrug in response, as if the distinction were merely one of expression. But there's a big difference: the number one, which is NOT a prime number, fits the first definition and not the second. Yeah, that's right. One is not a prime number.

I'm sure that when the second or third grade teacher makes a statement like, "Never start a sentence with 'because', she doesn't mean 'never'." I'm sure that it's shorthand for "don't talk in fragments" when a child says, for instance, "Because I want to." But the child doesn't get the distinction. It's the words that stick in his mind. And stick. And stick.

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