By Mark, Selle, Ph.D., Superintendent
Can I use the Latin word for donkey on a family educational blog? (By the way, it’s asinus). I want to because of the adage “Don’t assume.” I remember when I was in junior high a friend asked me, “Do you know why you shouldn’t assume?”
“Why?” I innocently inquired.
“Because,” he said, “It makes an ass out of you and an ass out of me…get it? ‘Ass-u-me,’ Ha ha.”
Well, it’s good advice in education. A story about my 8-year-old son illustrates the point.
Joseph wanted to sign up for bitty basketball, so my wife and I discussed it and, after measuring the impact of one more activity on his schedule and ours, we said he could. After all, we all need more exercise at my house! He was delighted.
The first day of practice in late December brought freezing temperatures. So even though my children can easily walk to the school gym, Joseph came to me dressed in shorts, a T-shirt, and tennis shoes and hopefully queried, “Can I have a ride, Dad?”
“Why don’t you walk,” I retorted. I didn’t look up from my computer where I was catching up on some work. “You’re going to basketball practice,” I added. “The exercise will do you good.”
Exasperated, palms face out at his sides, mouth dropping with eyes in disbelief, he countered, “Because I’m wearing shorts, Dad. It’s fa-reezing!”
Not to be outdone by an 8-year-old, I fired back, “Well then put on some sa-weats.”
He buried me with his final argument, “I don’t have sweats, Dad.”
I was defeated. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s go.”
While we were walking to the van, he went for the grand slam, “Can you give me a ride home when practice is over?”
“We’ll see,” I stalled as I unlocked the van.
On the short ride to the school, we talked (or, more accurately, I engaged in a monologue). “You know, Joseph, jogging to school would actually be great! You could warm up, get to practice all ready to go, have a great practice, and then you could take a leisurely jog home to warm down!”
Joseph was actually listening. “You mean,” he inquired, “if I warm up I might not be last when we do our laps around the gym?”
Seizing on the teachable moment, I said, “Yes! Do you know why?”
You see, Joseph loves science. I wanted to tap into the physiology of warming up and warming down as well as the competitive advantages and health benefits of running in general.
“Sure,” he said, nodding with the goofy look he gets on his face when he’s seriously interested but also whimsical.
“Well,” I responded, “when you run, your blood runs through your veins faster and makes them bigger so that more blood can get through. Do you know what capillaries are?” I probed.
“Uh … no,” he said bluntly with the same goofiness.
“Well,” I said, as we reached the gym, “I’ll have to sum up. I can tell you more about capillaries if you ask me after practice.”
I concluded, “They are tiny hair-like blood vessels that run throughout your body, and you get more of them when you exercise. All of this extra blood carries more oxygen so you don’t get as tired and you can have a shot at being first instead of last when you run laps.”
“Okay, thanks dad,” he said as he slammed the door.
He ran to the door of the school. When I saw him again, it was at the front door of our house. He also ran home!
As he came through the front door winded, I asked, “Did you run home buddy?”
“Yes,” was all he said with a grin.
Later, Angela, my wife, also smiled as I recounted the story to her. The sound of the boys doing calisthenics upstairs reminded me that there was a new interest in exercise in our children.
I told her that there was an educational message in the story. “We simply can’t assume,” I said. “We talk to our children and our students as if they know simple things like, ‘practicing your running helps you run better.’ Well, Joseph didn’t know that. Taking the time to tell him made all the difference. It motivated him to run home in the cold when he was determined not to on the way to practice,” (not to mention to bring the ceiling down on our heads while doing jumping jacks on the second floor).
I guess the aphorism is simple. Most are. We shouldn’t make assumptions that might not be true. Education does require patience, taking time to talk, explaining details. I did these things almost in jest to give Joseph a bad time for not wanting to jog to school. I fully intended to give him a ride home too (after all, he was dressed in gym clothes on a cold December day). But the truth is that I was assuming that he knew how good running was for an aspiring athlete. He didn’t.
In the week since I first drafted this story, I took my own advice with my high school Latin class (I have taught at least one class per day for all but three of my 27 years in education). It went well! I have been wanting students to keep a learning journal, for example, and simply assumed they knew how to do so. I saw great results after explaining how to journal and then demonstrating with a sample journal entry on my own learning. I’m now taking to heart this educational maxim for teaching both in my family and professionally: Don’t assume.
Valley School District Superintendent