On the first day of school I tell the students a story to shift their perspective about school and their preconceived notions about my class. In Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, the introduction discusses how truly remarkable it is that any of us are here at all. I was inspired by the introductory passage and have applied it, in a way, to my class. For me, it is important to explain why I’m so crazy, weird, and enthusiastic about coming to school.
I start with this (or something close to it):
“Boys and girls, look around you at the students to your left and right, seated at these tables. You’ve all come from different elementary schools and are in this class for the first time. It is a collection of students so unique that it has never been tried before in the history of the universe (about 14billion years). We will learn together and have experiences that no other class will have and after our time is up, we will never exist together again. Our time, is sacred and precious.”
I’ve put a prism in one of the windows in my room so that when the sun shines, it refracts the light to create rainbows that cast all around the room. One inevitably lands on my whiteboard so I mark it with an ‘X’.
“We value our time, it is important to us but how much time does it take to get to know someone? To call someone a friend? To respect and admire someone?” The kids’ answers range from instantly to several years. One kid in the room blurts out, “LOOOOK! It’s moooooving!”, as the rainbow has started its’ slow trek across the whiteboard. “Yes”, I respond, “time moves in only one direction. The time we have together is fleeting, as we are about to find out…”
“Ladies and gentlemen, please take out a pencil and scrap piece of paper or calculator to work on the math part of this problem.”
“How long is the school year?”
There is always at least one student in the room, being a bit louder than the others, who shouts, “It’s a whole year lonnnnng, Mr. Spiegel…argh!”. Laughter and snickers…
“Yes it is.. kind of”, I say “But is it?”.
A hand raises from the back of the class and Captain Technicality chimes in, “No it’s not! It’s actually only ten months long!”. S/he feels quite proud of his/herself until (almost immediately) Captain’s superior, Colonel Clue, quips:
“Actually, Captain, it’s only one hundred and eighty days long”. True story. It happened…
“Right!”, I say. All the while I’ve been writing these numbers down on the whiteboard and many of the kids are busy trying to write the numbers down as well on a scrap piece of paper. The child who originally blurted about the rainbow re-enters the conversation and remarks that the rainbow has moved, ever so slowly, in just a few minutes (about 4-5 inches)…. Ooohs and ahhhs abound. I say simply, “Yes, time does seem to move only in one direction”.
“Let’s continue… So, the school year is one hundred and eighty days long but we don’t spend a full 180 days together. The school day is only six hours long. If we take all the time we spend together as a class, it might look like this:
1 school year = 10 months = 180 school days
6 hours in a school day X 180 school days = 1080 hours
But our class does not spend all that time together. How much time do we spend together each day?”
“About 50 minutes”, says the class.
“Yes… that seems about right. So let redo our math:
50 minutes per day X 180 days = 9000 minutes
9000 total minutes divided by 60 minutes in an hour = 150 hours”.
“How many hours in a day?” I ask, innocently.
“Ok, do the math…”.
Frantic scribbling ensues. Hands begin to raise. I wait, patiently, until about 80% of the hands are up. It takes about twenty seconds. Then I call on the one kid I can tell needs to be included in the conversation.
“Um…. I’m not sure but…. six and a quarter?” the words are nervously exhaled from a child who is visibly trembling at the thought of speaking up in class.
“RIGHT”, I exclaim. A sheepish grin sweeps across her face, triumphant.
“So, boys and girls, imagine that this class took a weeks vacation together. Imagine that we stayed up night and day for that week and I taught you everything I know about geography. We shared moments. We laughed and cried. We got to know each other. Made new friendships. Supported each other through good times and bad. We learned from each other and we appreciated our personal growth. I ask you…. Is that enough time to do all of that?”
Eyes are staring wide in my direction but I’m about to totally blow their minds in another minute.
“Let’s go one step further”.
The average 11yr old is about 4015 days old. If we divide our six and a quarter days of time by four thousand and fifteen days, we can find out, roughly, the percent of your life that you will spend in my class.
6.25 divided by 4014 = 0.0015566
“Um… Mr. Spiegel? What does this mean?” Asks an overwhelmed student. I can see the smoke from the cogs of her brain wheels churning.
“In math class this year you will learn about percentages, decimals and fractions and how they are related. The first place to the right of the decimal is the tenths place, then next is the hundredths place, followed by the thousandths place.”
“ So you’re saying that we spend about one one thousandths of our life in your class”?
“Or, to put it another way using fractions and percentages, you will spend a total of one tenth of one percent of your life in this class.” I say as I let the weight of the moment sink in.
“After that the number gets smaller as you get older. This is why I’m always in a hurry to get class going. It’s why I want so desperately for you to go home wanting to come back tomorrow. We don’t have a lot of time together and I want every moment we do spend to be awesome”.
“By the looks of the rainbow, our time today is already over for today.”
“What do you do with my chairs?”, I ask.
“Push them in!!”, They yell in response.
“Right, now get out of my classroom”, I say with grin a mile wide. Kids smile, laugh and realize that every class will end like this.