Why you shouldn’t always tell your students the truth
For more than half of my teaching career, I taught music & performing arts at elementary or K-8 schools – six of these schools in all, with a wide range of approaches to education between them. One common aspect among all my experiences at these schools, however, is that I spent the majority of my time at each school – thousands upon thousands of hours of my life – as the only adult in the room, in front of a group of children. We spent most of our time together singing or playing music, dancing, rehearsing plays, or working on developing our skills to do these things, but over the years we had a lot of interesting and sometimes amazing conversations – both on and off topic.
Early in my career I began to practice intentionally not answering all of their questions, hoping to spur their imaginations and spirit of inquiry, and that they would develop the habit of trying to find things out for themselves. My experience was that often students would come up with very interesting and insightful ideas about the world if I could refrain from shutting down the possibilities that opened with a question by slapping a pat answer on it.
Sometimes, especially with younger elementary school children (K – 3 or so), I took this practice a step further, and intentionally told them things that weren’t true. The story of “The Rhinoceros” that I told to first grade students at Carrollwood Day School when I taught there from 1999 – 2003 is the tallest example of these tales that I told over the years, and became something of a tradition and a legend there among the students, some of whom would even corroborate my story and help maintain the myth among the younger students once they discovered I had been leading them on.
The intercom system at the old CDS campus
In those days CDS was a K-8 school that occupied the premises of a summer camp on a lake in Odessa, Florida during the school year. The campus was covered with huge old live oak trees, and the buildings in which classes were held sprawled across several acres. At the front of the property on Gunn Highway was a large building with some offices, a kitchen, and an auditorium/multi-purpose space used variously as school cafeteria, rehearsal space for dancing and theatre, school assemblies, and more. Between Gunn Highway and the lake were six smaller buildings on the elementary school side of campus, all built on the same design with three rooms, each used as a classroom. In the years I taught at CDS, there were two or three classes each for grades 1 – 5 (Kindergarteners attended school at the early childhood campus), and all of their classes were held in these buildings. Ball fields for physical education and a larger classroom building that included a science lab were on the the middle school side of the campus, where students in grades 6 – 8 attended classes.
“Specials” were housed in the building farthest from the road on the elementary side of campus – the three rooms in our building held the music and art rooms and the school library. Elementary classroom teachers would walk their classes across campus to and from “specials”.
Each classroom at CDS was outfitted with an intercom: a speaker that was mounted on the wall and controlled from the main office: announcements could be made to every classroom or two-way communication could be made with each class individually utilizing this intercom system.
The elementary and middle schools ran on different schedules. When elementary classes were scheduled to attend a special or other event outside their own classroom, it was simply the classroom teacher’s responsibility to bring their class at the right time. In the middle school, however, there was a “bell system” that rang over the intercom system in their classroom to signal the beginning and end of each class period.
Since both elementary and middle school classes participated in specials, the middle school bells rang over our intercoms in the specials building – but did not ring in the elementary school classrooms.
I don’t know what inspired me, but one morning in August 2000 – at the beginning of my second year teaching at CDS – I was sitting with a group of first graders in the middle of class when the middle school bell rang over the intercom. The children were startled – a couple of them actually looked like they were about to jump out of their seats – and asked what was that noise?
“Oh, don’t worry, it’s just the rhinoceros. He must be hungry again!” I said.
The rhinoceros! That created a bit of a stir. Most of these children had spent years at the CDS early childhood campus, and were now finally “graders” in their first week at the big school, as the students at the ECC called those students who had grade levels assigned to their classes.
“Yes, of course, haven’t you heard about the rhino yet? He lives in a pen over by the middle school, near the lake. When he’s hungry, he pushes a button in his pen to ring the bell we just heard, and one of the middle schoolers will go out to his pen and feed him.”
Some laughed and some looked at me incredulously, but I could almost see their imaginations at work by the expressions on their faces as they took in my story and the preposterous idea of a rhinoceros living right here, at school!
Some of them believed me, and I think some of them just enjoyed the idea even though they knew I was putting them on – whenever the bell rang during class, they would often shout out “The Rhino!!!!!” and grin. Some of them told me weeks or months later that they had finally made it over to the middle school side of campus and looked all over the place: they couldn’t find the rhinoceros anywhere!
Each year brought a new crop of first graders and I continued to tell the story of the hungry rhinoceros with each class when they first heard the middle school bell ring over the intercom in my classroom.
Why I did it
This is one of many instances in which I perpetuated falsehoods with my students – such as the story of where falafel comes from (falafel trees, of course), or the time I explained the gash on my forehead (all too real) with the story about the bear I fought on my way to school…
One reason I did this was that it was simply fun – fun to let my imagination run away a bit and take the children with me. I think that though children are less experienced and therefore more gullible than adults, often they know when they are being had and just enjoy going along for the ride.
More importantly, I think that it is important that children learn that adults don’t always tell the truth – even those they look up to. I was careful always to be truthful about things that are important and about the subject of our work together, and only told them fanciful tales about inconsequential things. But my general idea is that I wanted my students to have the experience of doubting the word of an adult – even one they knew and trusted. This doubt once sown would help them begin to listen critically to what they were told – by anyone – and weigh it against what they know to be true, their own ideas and experiences.
All of this, and some laughs along the way.
©2016 Walter Bitner
Walter Bitner is a multi-instrumentalist, singer, conductor, and teacher, and serves as Director of Education & Community Engagement for the Richmond Symphony in Richmond, Virginia. His column Off The Podium is featured in Choral Director magazine, and he writes about music and education on his website Off The Podium at walterbitner.com.