By Walter Bitner
For many years, I taught music at elementary or K-8 schools, and I spent thousands of hours of my life as the only adult in the room. The students and I spent most of our time together making music, but over the years we had a lot of interesting and sometimes amazing conversations.
Early in my career I began to practice intentionally not answering all their questions, hoping to spur their imaginations and spirit of inquiry, so 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, I took this practice a step further, and intentionally told them things that weren’t true.
I taught at Carrollwood Day School from 1999 to 2003: at the time a K-8 school that occupied the premises of a summer camp on a lake in Odessa, Florida. The campus was covered with huge old live oak trees, and the many classroom buildings sprawled across several acres. The campus was divided into an elementary school side and a middle school side. “Specials” were in a building on the elementary side – our building held the music and art rooms and the school library. Elementary teachers walked their classes across campus to and from “specials.”
Each classroom was outfitted with an intercom so that announcements could be made to the entire school, and teachers could communicate to the main office.
The elementary and middle schools ran on different schedules. Elementary school teachers managed their class schedules and made sure that students made it to the right class at the right time, but middle school students followed a “bell system” that rang over the intercoms in their classrooms to signal the beginning and end of each class period.
The middle school bells rang over our intercoms in the specials building, but did not ring in the elementary school classrooms.
One morning 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. “Yes, of course, haven’t you heard about the rhino yet?” I continued. “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.”
The students 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 believed me, and I think others 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 even 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 after that, 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, and the story of “The Rhinoceros” became something of a tradition and a legend among the students at CDS.
This is one of many instances in which I perpetuated outrageous falsehoods with my students. 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 crucial 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.