I teach a general methods and science methods course to prospective elementary. I’d like to share an anecdote from a recent class. During this session I was leading students through an activity in which we compare how many drops of water vs. rubbing alcohol we can fit on a penny. It’s a surprisingly large number and a nice activity to teach properties of water such as surface tension, cohesion, adhesion and so on.
I also stress the importance of thematic, inquiry-based lessons that are part of a larger interdisciplinary curriculum. See, learning random facts in isolation is usually ephemeral. As Paul Simon sang, “I think back on all the crap I learned in high school.” Actually, that’s hard to do, because we’ve forgotten most of what was taught in isolated silos with no connection to meaningful lived experiences. Learning within a meaningful context, allowing students to connect it to authentic prior experience, knowledge or emotions, has a much higher rate of retention. We teach a lot of (from the students’ perspective) random crap. They might be fantastic lessons, like fitting 50 drops of water on a penny, but if disconnected from anything meaningful, then it is “random-craptastic.” I’ve copyrighted that and proud that is my contribution to education literature.
As I completed this penny activity with my students, we began discussing how this activity could fit into, or be a springboard for broader connections and explorations of topics of interest to students. What questions might they ask while doing this that could lead to further inquiry?
One student suggested they might ask about why it says “In God we trust” on money. Before we could talk any further about how that would look, what aspects of social studies might that bring in, and so on, another student spoke up and said, “we can’t talk about that right? We can’t even mention God.”
This is what we’ve done. We’ve got teachers so fearful of doing something wrong and facing the wrath of angry parents and community they believe they cannot even discuss the existence of the word “God” on a penny. You people need to back off and let teachers do their jobs with some humanity and some creativity. We’re getting them so scared that eventually education will become a dry recitation of facts by the teacher with no time for students to ask questions, conduct inquiry, explore, for fear of what they might ask or do. This will lead to students that are completely disengaged from school and retain next to nothing.
By the way, it is absolutely acceptable to talk about why U.S. money says “In God We Trust” on it and explore why this was added to our money, the context of that decision, the impact of that decision, and even the constitutionality of that decision*. It isn’t okay for a public-school teacher to promote a particular religion or any religion. All teachers know this and those that do not follow this shouldn’t be in the classroom. We’ve got them so scared now that many fear the questions students may ask. We all know that when you are operating from a place of fear of failure you will not take any risks, try new ideas, and let your creativity flow. Teachers that do that however are exactly the kinds of teachers most parents say they want their children to have. So again, back off.
*July 11, 1955 H.R. 619 was signed into law by President Eisenhower. The first dollar bills bearing this inscription entered circulation in 1957. Shortly thereafter, “In God We Trust” was made the official national motto by an act of Congress.