Teaching Commentary

Zoe’s Poster

By Mildred Alpern — January 10, 2006 4 min read

For 30 years, I was an advanced-placement high school history teacher. So it came as a bit of a surprise to be completely undone by my 6th grade granddaughter’s history assignment.

I was flattered when my granddaughter, Zoe, asked me to help her with her history project. And, of course, I leapt at the chance. After all, I’d spent most of my adult life teaching students how to do research. Some may remember when research meant threading microfilm spools on machine axles and hoping to catch your article as it sped by. Zoe would be spared all that. With this generation’s push-button access to worlds of information, the project would be a romp. Besides, we had a week.

The instructions were: In sets of three, find U.S. and global headlines published on your birthdate and famous persons (both living and dead) and historical events sharing your birthday. Note how life was different in your birth year. Include explanatory text and illustrations on a 2-by-3-foot poster. Careful research, neatness, organization, and imagery count.

In preparation for our study date, I scouted the Web to make our time together as fruitful as possible. Not helpful were search engines such as Ask Jeeves and Ask Jeeves for Kids. In fact, it took several hits and misses to finally pop up the headlines in The New York Times select archives, free only to home subscribers.

Immediately, I sensed trouble. What struck me was the abstruseness of these events to an 11-year-old. Macy’s bankruptcy protection, Clinton’s welfare-reform bills, a corked-bat baseball incident. As for international events, was Zoe really meant to reckon with ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia, and the massacres in Rwanda? Apart from the horrific violence of these events, weren’t they completely disconnected from any frame of reference she might have? I began to wonder what I was thinking. Was I expecting headlines on a Disney theme park or a Pokémon video? The first World Trade Center attack was sadly something she could relate to, or even the East Coast blackout, but these events had not occurred on her birthdate.

The Wikipedia widget turned up needed information, the people and events that shared her birthday. But whom would she recognize as famous? Iris Murdoch, Jesse Ventura, Arianna Huffington, maybe Rembrandt? As for U.S. events on her birthday, granted Zoe could understand the significance of the first flight of a Boeing passenger jet, but even I wasn’t sure of Jimmy’s Carter’s “malaise” speech in 1979.

Where to go? On foot, I searched bookstores and found a children’s encyclopedia of American history, replete with big, colorful pictures and clear text, “written to appeal to children ages 8 and up.” Yes, Zoe needed visuals. But who, she wanted to know, was this woman hugging the president?

I began to question whether this was a doable assignment for Zoe, unaided. What preparation and experience enabled her to tackle the headline subjects? As for visuals, where could she find them? Without decade-old issues of popular magazines, wouldn’t she be at a loss? Whose assignment was this anyway, hers or mine? Were other children’s parents and relatives lending a helping hand, and more? Did the teacher expect them to? Could I let her down? I was bewildered.

Should an assignment clarify specific parental roles, and provide surrogates when necessary? Should evaluations take these into account?

Resolute, I purchased posters. I photographed and printed pictures—a Rembrandt painting, maps of Africa and the former Yugoslavia. In a mini-teach-in, I explained the horrors of genocide and ethnic cleansing, tying them to the global conflicts. On the African map, she found Rwanda, so tiny that she had to circle it to distinguish it. For “differences in her birth year,” she found cutting-edge items in a high-tech catalogue. Her selection of the Magellan Global Positioning System was a good one. But she missed the iPod.

We worked solidly for two afternoons. Directed, she jumped right in and clicked buttons and printed materials. We found pictures of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tiger Woods, the Clintons, famous people familiar to her (Schwarzenegger from his movies, not his governorship). She cut out headlines and typed up text to go with them. She arranged and pasted everything neatly on a big orange poster. Her artistic talents shone through. The project was completed with time to spare. Waves of relief washed over me, a throwback to the days when I feared being unprepared in class.

Still, I am unsettled, wondering how other adults managed, including single moms and two working parents beset by equally needy siblings. Did their homes have broadband, digital cameras, photo printers? Were they able to squeeze out money and time to shop art-supply stores and bookstores? Did they have the educational background to guide and explain the materials?

Other questions arise. What is the line between helping and doing? Where does one end and the other begin? Should an assignment clarify specific parental roles, and provide surrogates when necessary? Should evaluations take these into account? I shudder to think of Zoe and her classmates struggling with this project on their own.

I had fun with granddaughter. We both profited by sharing the completion of this project. Yet the assignment was beyond her immediate reach. It calls for high school students with global and U.S. history under their belts, a higher reading level, and an awareness of current events beyond their local worlds. Not now, but in a few more years, Zoe and her classmates will be at an age and stage to figure out sites to search, libraries to investigate, materials to include. They will be prepared to reflect upon what is significant, unusual, intriguing, even special about their birthdates. Best of all, the project then can be all theirs.

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