Cameron Ederveen, Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain & Education

I think I had written about the thousandth, “Sentence fragment!!!!” comment of my teaching career on a stack of papers I’d been grading when I sat back, folded my hands, and thought to myself, “How will these kids survive in the world if they can’t even follow directions?”…

As a teacher, I think of my job as being very valuable. We are teaching these kids way more than our content, and mostly about life, right? Its supposed to be that we create this lessons and teach our content so that we can also teach the skills and build the habits to make them successful in the world outside of these walls. We pride ourselves in teaching life skills–to meet deadlines, to organize, make schedules, and organize their tasks, to take personal responsibility, clean up after themselves, be conscientious participants in their world. WE do all of this–within the four walls of our classrooms.

So, when students don’t seem to be learning these life skills we are so prideful about teaching, we get angry when they don’t turn their papers in on time, and we think to ourselves, “If they can’t even do THAT, how will they meet deadlines in their jobs?”. We get frustrated when they “forgot” to write down their homework assignment, and we say to ourselves, “If they can’t even keep a planner, how will they know when to schedule doctor’s appointments?”. We feel annoyed when they leave their lunch boxes, winter jackets, binders, tissues, erasers, socks, fidget spinners, homecoming flowers, etc. (but never their cell phones) on our classroom floors, and we think to ourselves, “If they can’t even keep track of their stuff here, what do their rooms look like?”

If you have ever had the pleasure of being in a school environment with Cameron Ederveen, you will probably be very thankful (and very surprised) to read the following update on him: Cameron, despite his abilities to turn in his assignments in class, to write in his planner in school, and to actually get himself into the physical school building in his adolescent years, is now working on his contractor’s license, is building decks and fences, is saving money, setting goals for himself, using calculations and algebra and geometry and people skills, which requires him to complete tasks on time, to write in a planner to schedule projects, and to pick up his tools and materials upon completion of his job.

A few months ago, I happened to pop into Cameron’s room, and saw a copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn sitting on his bed–apparently, he ALSO has the ability to read (which he also refused to do in school), and he mentioned that this is one of his favorite books. I recently re-read Huck Finn, and initially, I thought to myself, “this is Cameron’s favorite book because he identifies with Huck Finn as a character”–to which, I then proceeded to be re-introduced to Tom Sawyer, and I realized that Cameron is not Huck Finn (Huck Finn is passive and is in observance of the actions in the book–Huck does not usually instigate the action but rather tells us about what other people are instigating on the raft); and I realized that Cameron is not Huck Finn–Cameron is Tom Sawyer: the one with a wild imagination, who creates romantic fantasies, who skips school because he feels learning should happen outside–and I wonder how many other Tom Sawyer’s sit in my classroom everyday…

Mark Twain writes this brilliant scene in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in which Tom decides to play hooky from school for the day (nothing unusual); his punishment is to white wash the fence, and Tom, instead of doing it himself, learns the value of supply and demand as he persuades his friends to do his work in exchange for small treasures. When Tom escapes to the island with Huck and Joe Harper, rather than learning how to read, about geometric proofs, or the Revolutionary War, the boys learn how to survive in ‘the wild’–how to start a fire, how to look for food, how to use the patterns of the weather to detect time, how to navigate themselves back home. But, perhaps the greater learning experience for Tom Sawyer throughout the entire novel is when Tom and company witness the murder of Dr. Robinson and has to testify in trial.

I think Mark Twain would laugh at our education system. I think he would walk into our classrooms–with white walls, florescent lights, industrial grade carpet–where we create fake categories, draw upon unrealistic situations, teach dry, stale, monotonous lessons–and look at the students sitting, staring at a lecture board–how we attempt to teach students to be “moral” humans through little quotes and passages from fictional characters and Pinterest boards, how we project little diagrams and charts and run little experiments in our simulated biology labs about how fires starts, how we have students sit in their desks all day, and how we, as teachers, babble all day about ‘life lessons’ and ‘the real world’–and I think Mark Twain would grab his fishing pole and go down to the creek.

Sometimes, as a teacher, I often wonder how much students see the translation between what (I think) I am teaching them, and how that applies to the real world. In my head, setting deadlines for papers, keeping track of homework assignments, taking notes teaches responsibility. I think that learning to ask questions, advocating for yourself, balancing many tasks builds positive habits. And, I think that giving presentations, participating in group discussions, interacting with your peer teaches valuable social skills.

…but maybe the students DON’T see that connection between what we do in school, and what they do in the real world?….just because they don’t showcase the skills in the classroom does not mean they don’t have them? maybe they actually see their school-worlds as isolated from their real-worlds, and that actually, my job as ‘teaching life skills’ is not quite as important as I make myself out to be?

…because, maybe they are Cameron Ederveen’s, Tom Sawyer’s, Mark Twain’s–they need to be under the stars, rafting down the Mississippi, white-washing fences.

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