What Teachers Do

What Teachers Do

Well gentle readers, it’s that time again. Today, August 24, 2015, is the first day of the new school year, for the kids that is. I’ve been at it, formally, since the 14th, and informally, for much longer. All day today I’ll be meeting seven classes of entirely new kids, kids it will be my responsibility to help educate for the better part of a year. I will do that by providing, every day, the best educational opportunity my abilities and resources can provide. I will encourage them to take advantage of that opportunity, but I know that some, being 15, won’t.

Come with me, back to the 1400s, back to when you began your tenth grade year, and meet your new English teacher.

First order of business: check your schedules. This is English 10, Mr. McDaniel, room 306. Are you certain you are supposed to be in this class at this specific time?

Yes? OK, let me see that schedule…history, room 206. That’s where you’re supposed to be right now. Do you know where that is? Do you have me at any other time? Let’s see…right, 7th period. Off you go to History and we’ll see you again 7th period!

Anyone else? You’re all sure you’re supposed to be here? Great.

As I said, I’m Mr. McDaniel and I have the honor of being your English teacher this year. Show of hands: how many of you actually like English?

Usually, 5-6 hands go up. 

Uh-huh. Well, we’ll fix that. By the time this year is done, you’ll like it.

Laughter and stares of disbelief.

You see, I believe that learning must be fun. It’s often work, sometimes hard work, but if you’re doing it right, it’s fun, and we are going to do it right. I’m going to have fun every day in every class. You may as well come along for the ride.

Show of hands: how many of you like to read?

Usually, 5-6 hands go up. 

Well there you go. There’s the reason. Reading is enormously important. See that sign above the blackboard, the one the reads: “read, read, read, read, read?” Reading well is the foundation of modern life. Good readers have enormous advantages. Mark Twain said that people that don’t read have no advantage over people that can’t read. Readers are better thinkers, better spellers, better writers, better at everything in life.

English, you see, is a skills class. How do you get better at any skill? How do you get better at playing basketball? That’s right: practice. But not just any practice, correct practice, practice with a purpose.

How many of you like to write?

Usually, 3-4 hands go up

We can fix that too. I can’t guarantee that I can help you all to become great writers, but I can, if you pay attention, and if you do the work, help you all to become better writers.

Remember that the skills you learn and improve in this class apply to every other class you’ll take in high school, college and the world of work. You read and write virtually everywhere else, don’t you?

English, particularly reading, is the study of human nature. The more you know about human nature, the more successful and happy you’ll be in life. Guys, wouldn’t you like to better understand girls? Girls, wouldn’t you like to better understand guys?

Some girls always say “no,” which provokes much laughter.

That’s why we study Shakespeare some five centuries after his death: he knew human nature so well. You’ll see what I mean.

Now, a question, an important question. Why are you here? More specifically, why do you have to take English and Algebra and History and Science, and all the other classes you’ll take before you graduate–if you graduate?

More laughter, and common answers.

No, no. You take all those classes to build bigger, better, brains. Will most of you actually use the equations you study in your math classes in the rest of your lives? But that doesn’t matter, because studying those equations builds neural connections in your brain in ways that studying English can’t. Studying music builds neural connections in ways that studying history can’t. Reading and writing and analyzing literature builds your brains in ways that studying science can’t, and all of those connections combine to make you faster, smarter, more flexible, more capable, better in every way.

Let’s say we have a baby sitting here, and we pop open it’s little skull and take out its brain (appropriate motions and noises). What does it look like?

“All gray and slimy?” “Gross!”

Credit: National Geographic

Credit: National Geographic

Not quite. It’s pinkish-gray and mostly smooth. But, if we pop open my skull and take out my brain, what does it look like (appropriate noises and motions)? Yes, it’s all wrinkly! The word for that is it’s convoluted; it has convolutions. Why?

Many guesses…

Because there is only so much room in our skulls. But our brains grow. Our heads don’t get bigger when we get smarter, do they, but our brains become more convoluted, so more matter can fit in the same space. The point is, we study many different things to make you more wrinkly!

From this point on, I just have to mention bigger, better brains, or making them wrinkly, and they enthusiastically leap into whatever we’re doing–most of them anyway.

OK, another question: what’s the most important thing I’ll teach you this year?

Many guesses.

No, it’s above the blackboard.

More guesses.

Yes, that’s it: “be in the instant.” What does that mean?

More guesses.

Pay attention. Be in the instant, be here, be thinking about what we’re doing, what’s happening in front of your face, this instant. This is something, if we’re wise, that we work on our entire lives. It’s difficult, but it’s absolutely necessary.

Show of hands: how many of you, even as we are speaking about paying attention, find your attention wandering?

About ¾ of the hands go up.

How many of you are, at this moment, in another dimension?

More hands and laughter.

Here’s why this is so vital, and why I’ll remind you about it constantly. How much of your life do you spend unconscious?

Discussion, confusion, guesses.

One third. The average person sleeps eight hours a day, 1/3 of the day. Most of you are 15. You’ve already been unconscious for five years. If you live to be 90, you will have been unconscious for 30 years. How much more of your life are you willing to miss just because you can’t focus your attention long and consistently enough to be aware of what’s happening right in front of you? Time is precious, your time most of all.

Epiphany! For many, this is the first time they ever understood why paying attention is important. I also take the opportunity to explain what an epiphany is (a sudden burst of insight or understanding). Education is mostly about paying attention to the little things in life.

Enough theory for today. For the next 15 minutes–and you can work in groups–we’re going to take a test. Yes! That’s right! You get to take a test on your first day in English! Aren’t you lucky? Oh, quit whining! This is the fun part!

This is a word importance test. It’s about the way we think about and use language. Read each question carefully, and read what is actually on the page. Do not overthink things. Read the words that are there. In each question, there is a key word or words that will help you understand it. You’ll have to work fast because we need the last ten minutes to give you the answers. This will be extra credit; one extra credit for each question you get right. Let’s go to it!

I walk about and help, and I’ve now conditioned the kids to expect to work every day in class–which we do–and to expect to have fun doing it, which we do as well. Here’s the test, with the answers included after. Have fun!


(1) If you went to bed at 8:00 at night and set your analog alarm clock for 9:00 in the morning, how many hours of sleep would you get?

(2) Do they have a Fourth of July in England?

(3) How many birthdays does the average human being have?

(4) Why can’t a man living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina be buried in a spot west of the Mississippi?

(5) If you had only one match and entered a cabin equipped with only a kerosene lamp, an oil heater, and a wood burning stove, which would you light first?

(6) Some months have 30 days, others have 31. How many months have 28?

(7) If a doctor gave you 5 pills and told you to take one every half-hour, how long would they last?

(8) A man builds a rectangular house; each side has a southern exposure. A large bear wanders by. What color is the bear?

(9) How far can a man run into the forest?

(10) How could Joshua have spent three days inside a fish and emerged alive?

(11) A man had a flat tire. After removing all the lug nuts, he accidently knocked them into a sewer grate and could not retrieve them, yet after a short time, he drove away. How is this possible?

(12) Did Adam and Eve have navels?

(13) Two men were playing checkers. Each played 5 games and each won the same number of games. There were no draws. How is this possible?

(14) Take two apples from 16.5 apples and what do you have?

(15) An archaeologist claimed to have found some coins at an ancient Roman city that were dated 46 B.C.. They were found in a clay jar. Are they genuine?

(16) How many animals of each species did Moses take into the ark with him after the flood?

(17) Is it legal in Texas for a man to marry his widow’s sister?

(18)   I have in my hand only two United States coins which total 55 cents in value. One is not a nickel. I repeat: one is not a nickel. What are the two coins?


17-18:     Genius

15-16:     Very bright

13-14:     More or less normal

10-12:     Subnormal, requires constant supervision

6-9:         Drools constantly, should not be allowed to handle                                     sharp objects

1-5:          Single celled animal–can only be seen clearly under                      microscope


1) Key word: “analog.” This is tough for the kids, because many have never seen an analog clock–a clock with hands. The answer is one hour. An analog alarm doesn’t differentiate between AM and PM. When the hand hits 9:00, the alarm goes off.

2) Key words: “Fourth of July.” Sure they do, it’s right after the 3rd and just before the 5th. They just don’t celebrate Independence Day.

3) Key word: “birthdays.” Answer: one. “Birthday” means day of one’s birth, which happens once.

4) Key word: “living.” He can’t be buried because he’s not dead.

5) Key word: “light.” The question encourages people to think there are only three choices, but there are actually four. One would have to light the match first. All may be lit, even though three are brighter.

6) Key word: “28.” Answer: all of them. Every month has at least 28 days.

7) Key words: “every half hour.” Answer: 2 hours. You don’t want a half hour to take the first pill.

8) Key words: “southern exposure.” It’s white because it’s a polar bear. There is only one place on the planet where every direction you look is south: the North Pole.

9) Key word: “into.” Answer: halfway, because at the halfway point, he is running out of the forest.

10) Key word: “Joshua.” He didn’t. It was Jonah. See what I mean about paying attention to the words that are actually present?

11) Key words: “drove away.” Despite losing all his lug nuts for one wheel, the man was able to drive the car away. Answer: he took one nut from each of the other wheels, which worked well enough at least temporarily.

12) There is no real right answer, but it provokes discussion and is their first attempt to apply what they already know to a problem.

13) Key words: “won the same number.” The only way that’s possible is if they weren’t playing each other; they each played other opponents.

14) Key word: “take.” Answer: two apples. It didn’t say subtract.

15) Key words: “46 BC.” This one requires a bit of board work and a bit of Latin. AD translates not as “after death,” but as anno domini–“in the year of our Lord.” BC is “before Christ.” I have to draw a time line to illustrate. How could anyone know that someone named Jesus Christ would be born 46 years into the future and that thereafter, time would be based on the date of his birth so that they could write “46 BC” on a coin? Obviously they could not, so the coins are fake. It’s not “after death,” because that would leave a 30+ year gap where the time Christ lived was unaccounted for, thus, “in the year of our Lord,” makes sense.

16) Key word: “Moses.” He didn’t. It was Noah, and before the flood.

17) Key words: “his widow’s sister.” It may be legal, but it’s tacky. If he has a widow, he’s dead.

18) Key words: “55 cents in value.” Answer: a nickel and a 50-cent piece. The coin that’s not a nickel is a 50-cent piece.

It’s going to be a great year!