How do you teach appreciation?

Published on: Author: bette 6 Comments

I’m sitting here this morning, cozy and warm, listening to a storm raging outside. Richard just mentioned something one of his Facebook friends posted, and once again my mind started meandering. So I decided to stop and see where it might lead …

Here’s what his friend wrote:  “If you want the kids’ test scores up, bring back band and bring back shop and get them actually learning stuff instead of teaching them how to take a test.”


I flashed back to circa 1970 when I started teaching 4th Grade at Santa Anita Elementary School in Arcadia.  Social Studies for 4th graders in California has always meant “California History,” and back then that meant to start with the first unit in the book and move chapter by chapter through the book as far as you could get before June. That usually meant that we’d finish the Gold Rush just in time for Open House.

The first unit was about the California Indians and I always began the year by teaching report writing.  For fourth graders in 1970 that meant introducing them to 3×5 note cards (which they loved). We’d work together at first, learning to find the topic sentence in a paragraph and make a note by writing down the “important” words or phrases without copying a whole sentence. After practicing as a group they were on their own to finish the rest of the chapters in the unit.

When they each had a reasonable stack of cards, we worked on turning their notes into an outline.  Believe me, it was slow going, and the reports they turned in just before Thanksgiving sounded pretty much all the same – but I’m sure many of their parents still have those construction paper report folders with carefully handwritten pages held together by three little brass brads.  (At least I still have two of them that I’ve shown my grandchildren who are now goggling information about the same California Indians.)

The image that started me thinking in this direction, though, was that of small groups of 9-year-olds sitting on the grass outside the classroom, quietly chatting, and looking a bit like the pictures of Indian women in our book patiently grinding acorns into meal with their matates or weaving baskets from the reeds growing along the desert streams.

So … what does that have to do with teaching appreciation, or bringing back shop or music classes? (That’s why I call this blog “Meanderings” … stick with me here if you can . . .)


Every year we 4th grade teachers would go to the local craft store and buy small pre-drilled wooden bases and large skeins of reed that the kids would soak in buckets of water so they could weave “Indian” baskets for their parents for Christmas.  Since their reports were always due by Thanksgiving, and we started practicing for the Christmas program in early December, the baskets gave us a bit of downtime during what every teacher knows to be one of the most hectic times of the year.

So back to the Indian baskets and the amazing, pastoral scene of little kids, quietly chatting while weaving their baskets.  We’re they considering the intricate beauty of the Chumash baskets we had seen at the Natural History Museum on the last field trip?  We’re they expressing amazement at the infinite patience those ancient women must have had to create baskets that could actually hold water as well as to separate the chaff from the seeds – like they had read about in the book and taken notes on their little cards?   I highly doubt it!

All of that said, however,  I now know, with 20/20 hindsite … that their brains were quite busy those days learning something far more important than the date that Father Serra arrived and transported those native Americans to the Mission village to make adobe bricks. We hear a lot these days about “time-on-task” – which in some cases has even meant cutting recess so that kids could spend more time at their desks memorizing facts or pushing pencils.  “Downtime” is a term that very few teachers would feel comfortable saying when asked what a group of kids might be doing.

The technical word, however, for downtime is consolidation and it’s when the brain is transferring information from short-term memory to long-term.  In other words, it’s when real learning takes place.  It’s true that the human brain is learning all the time – but the other thing that is true is that the most important learning is done when it doesn’t necessarily look like it’s learning.


So back to the question.  How DO we teach Appreciation?  I suppose the best answer to that is to learn to appreciate how kids really learn – and take another look at what’s important for them to learn.  To this day I believe that my fourth graders have a deeper appreciation for Native American culture because of those little baskets. It might have looked to an outside observer as though that was “time-off-task,” but it’s important to remember that we need to give their brains time to process new information in order to consolidate it with what they already know.

So, will that improve test scores?   Well, I guess that depends upon the test.  If our goal is to get them to spit back the information we have drilled them on for a couple of weeks so that they can correctly fill in the bubbles on a machine-scored test card … I suppose it won’t.  But if we really want them to appreciate the life they are given – other cultures – the value of hard work and perseverance – music – art …. and I could go on and on … then we must take the focus off test scores and get down to the business of preparing kids for what comes after “School.”


PS … I didn’t even mention the value of an activity that requires the use of the small muscles needed for legible handwriting … but, of course, that’s an entirely different subject.




6 Responses to How do you teach appreciation? Comments (RSS) Comments (RSS)

  1. I’m sure there is research to back up the observation of this writer-commenter.

    To teach appreciation…. The best lessons I ever learned were from children in preschool, kindergarten, special ed and my own infant-toddlers. Every little thing is something of wonder, an invitation to examine something more closely and discover even more questions or a delightful surprise.

    I taught kinder for 6 years of my career. This was in a poor, rural area where my students went from home to school, usually with no preschool or day care experience in between because all the aunties and grandmas lived in the same little town. I used to describe August-December as my period of “herding cats”. I had more than one moment of despair per year when I thought I was never going to turn these kids into “students”. Then came Winter Holiday Break. In January I had student return to class. It was always an amazing transformation. They went home for winter break as rambunctious kittens and came back as students.

    I can say the same about myself, as an adult learner. I went to Mexico to study Spanish in a full immersion program. By the 3rd week I was in utter and complete confusion. I was so lost. I returned home feeling like the experience was a “bust”. The following year I went to visit friends in Mexico for Thanksgiving. I found myself surprisingly comfortable chatting with non-English speakers in my “toddler level Spanish” and making my self understood while they searched their “mental files” for what they knew about English to help me along. So the whole experience wasn’t a “bust”. It was wonderful!!

    • You’re right that there really is a lot of research that supports the need for “downtime” for the brain to consolidate new learning. Your experience in Mexico is exactly what happens. I’m going to look for an article from The Oregonian about the work of Michael Merzenich. He said that learning STARTS with confusion and ends with the “ah HA” moment. 🙂 I just found his blog and I’m going to subscribe.

  2. Hmmm… We have 90 min. blocks in our high school. I have a small group of ELL students and each day we spend 10 min half way through the block doing something in the gym, usually frisbee. (Did I mention they’re mostly boys?… very energetic ones at that!) I will tell you, I began getting double the work out of them during our time by adding in the 10 minutes of exercise! And they show TONS of appreciation!
    I’m so glad I work where I work and have the freedom to do that.

    • Wouldn’t it be cool if someone would do a study and compare the test scores of “energetic boys” who have to sit in a classroom for 90 minutes with no break to those who get to take 10 minutes to let off some steam in the middle of it? I wonder how many people know that MOVEMENT is the best way to release dopamine … the brain’s “feel good” chemical? Even 45 minutes is way too long for high school kids to stay in a seat. I highly recommend Eric Jensen’s book “Teaching with the Brain in Mind” … or anything else he does! Check this out:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.