American Exceptionalism, Education, Religion, Veterans

Teaching Kids About America, a Beginning

In the “Taking Back our Schools” Department, we should have figured out by now we need to be more face-to-face about the changes we want to see returned to our public schools.

We’re outlining a teaching program at, “Vets in Class”, which focuses on how vets can connect with various age groups in trying to kindle, or rekindle, a love of America in kids. Clearly public schools aren’t doing it, in fact, many are intentionally driving kids in the other direction.

Teaching 11-12 years olds and 16-17 year olds is not the same.

My thinking is that younger kids should to be taught about America through Heroes, since I already know it works, while older kids, after years being immersed in the pop culture, are generally immune to such stories in the classroom. They need to be taught how “being American” is Relevant to the things important in their world, dots 4th graders can’t connect.

Different skill sets for teachers.

At 11 kids are generally blank slates. Sunday School teachers have known this for generations. This is a good thing although I didn’t know it as a young parent. True, some kids learn to read faster, or write more legibly, but in the things that go into defining children’s relationship with their country and government, and the shoulders they stand on…all the children are blank slates.

You see, what I didn’t know in 1956 is that while the lines between A, B and C-student were slowly being revealed in other subjects (Science, Math, Spelling and Grammar) in the classrooms we shared for eight years, there isn’t an A, B or C in respect for your county. And it never really shows up for many more years. Everyone stood and recited the Pledge of Allegiance and sang various patriotic songs. And we had a social studies bloc, with a text book we never had to read. Our 4th Grade teacher, Mrs Nolan, never told us to read a single page. She just held the textbook open to a chapter and walked up and down the aisles, telling the story about the “Hero” featured in that chapter; George Washington, Paul Revere, Ben Franklin, Patrick Henry, Betsy Ross, (yep, that Betsy Ross who designed our first flag, then had the design stolen by Nike for their sneakers) Dolly Madison, Andrew Jackson. All the way to Abraham Lincoln.

Took the whole year.

Mrs Nolan was a very good story-teller, which may have been why she got the 4th Grade assignment in the first place (in the 5th we had reading assignments, and there were tests). She was so good she captured the attention of the classmates a friend of mine (who went on to be a prominent judge) and I called “don’t give a damns” years later, in high school. Everyone knew who the “Luther Brocks” in our class were, always staring out the window, daydreaming about somewhere else they’d rather be. I was in class with those guys for eight straight years and their greatest prayer probably was that they’d never be called to the blackboard to do multiplications or answer a question about “there, their and they’re”.

What that “judge” and I didn’t know about all those daydreamers at the wise old age of 17 was that our school knew things about citizenship we didn’t know. Go figure. And it had less to do with reading than in forming images in your mind that stayed with you forever.

I doubt they trained Mrs Nolan extra for that job, and I’m sure they never paid her extra. But she was extraordinary.

(By the way, that’s how Sunday Schools did it for generations, unshakable images.)

In Mrs Nolan’s class there here were no A, B and C students in citizenship. It took me forty years to get my comeuppance about my untoward thoughts when I learned how many of those 4th Grade boys were also paying attention to Mrs Nolan’s stories, and had enlisted from 1965-1968 when the country called, while the judge and I were still lollygagging in college.

It was Mrs Nolan’s telling about George Washington and that cherry tree that set me on my road to being an avid reader of history, beginning with our school library.

What I wouldn’t know for many years was that the cherry tree story was an out and out lie. I found that out in freshman American History class from a disinterested graduate assistant instructor. Then it would be over forty years before I learned that the source of that lie was a book-hustler named Parson Mason Lock Weems, who wrote the first biography of Washington after he died in 1799. It was one of America’s first best sellers. And more than a biography, it was a morally instructive tale for the youth of our young nation.

I found that little tidbit out because, 45 years later, I ran across a biography of Washington by an editor at “National Review”, (my sole source of political opinion in those days) with whom I had corresponded after I came back from the USSR. I didn’t even know he was an historian, but Richard Brookhiser connected Weems’ book in his biography Founding Father, Rediscovering George Washington (1997) to his Founder’s Son, Abraham Lincoln (2014) where he made (for me) a major connection that despite its flim-flammery, Weem’s biography shaped a good portion of the early thinking of an 11 year-old gawky kid named Lincoln in a log cabin in Kentucky, who would later go onto to save the Union…thus proving the true worth of a 20-something school teacher’s ability to tell a story rather than tell the students to read Chapter 3 then go about doing her nails the next hour.

If you look for connections, sometimes they can be profound. Look in your own past and figure out how you came to love America. A combination of things, I’m sure. Then look at your children and grandchildren and try to figure out if they are finding their heroes as well, and if not, why not.

Teaching values to elementary kid in school is random, but Mrs Nolan’s approach had it down pat, with maximum effect. Of course, church and home-life reinforces it. Or maybe it’s the other way around? But that 1950’s, blank-slate, Heroes-approach found its mark more often than not, so I recommend it as a foundation for elementary “civics” education, should you ever decide to take back your schools.

Start there.

60 years ago there was a firm handshake between the schools and the several churches in a community, so collectively, that thinking represented the majority of values in the community.

But parents clearly has a more powerful say in how their children were taught in school 60 years ago. I recommend a return to that as well.

We’ll pick up on teaching “Relevance” to high schoolers, counteracting the Pop Culture and the value of church education in coming articles. Stay tuned.

I’ve found that teaching America to our youngest should begin of stories then let the random connections that Richard Brookhiser outlined take their natural course. Parson Weems only needed to touch one to shape American history, but it was a congregation of thousands more that his moralisms touched that began to shape America’s soul.


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