Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Don't Eat Donuts (in Lima, Peru)

This is not about food. It's about homework. It's about parents helping kids, about adding a dose of levity to assignments that seem dreary or overwhelming. And it's about instilling confidence and boosting a student's trust in his or her own capacity to remember vast amounts of information, or else minute details—which may in and of themselves be helpful or not, but they are anyway necessary for the process of learning how to learn, learning how to think. The mind is a powerful machine, but sometimes it needs a little jump. Like the one I gave my son yesterday, as he worked on a weekly spelling assignment. (As an aside, let me point out that my son is a kindergartener. Spelling tests? I have mixed feelings about this. The copy editor in me knows that good spelling goes hand in hand with literacy. I lament the general downward spiral of spelling skills in our electronic age, so I'm glad his school cares about it. Still . . . in kindergarten? I don't think I had homework at all until maybe the end of elementary school, although I did read a lot.) My son was having trouble and getting frustrated enough so that even some words that seemed as though they should be fairly simple for him were not. He was tired, and I started thinking of ways to make the job easier, or if not easier, then at least entertaining. Enter the donuts. My son was having trouble with the word "don't." Even a single day later, I don't recall what the hang-up was—something about the sequence of d-o-n-. So as he was heaving a sigh, I said, "Don't eat donuts!" He looked at me like I was crazy. I asked him if he had any idea how "donut" was spelled. I sounded out two very distinct syllables. He spelled the beginning of the word with no problem. I told him it was the same with "don't" and suggested that he could use the similarity to help him remember. He asked me to say it again, which I did. "Don't eat donuts!" I told him in an exaggerated, fake admonishment that made him laugh. The next time we went over the word list (we're supposed to do it twice), he spelled "don't" correctly, and did it with a smile on his face. Silly, but completely worth it. The use of mnemonics is nothing new, of course. Not for anyone who's ever had to memorize anything. Even my son was already familiar with the device: he's known for a while that the colors of the rainbow are ROYGBIV, for example. And understandably, we are much more apt to remember something funny than just a rote rule (although those get drilled in, too: i before e and so forth). In helping my son yesterday, I had another, older memory: it was of me in middle school, needing to learn the capitals of all the countries in South America. Why was I having trouble with this? Well, it was a lot to remember—we were making our way across the entire globe, actually, and it got a bit overwhelming. Memory triggers can be so many things: acronyms, phrases, sometimes sing-song melodies. It was this last that did the trick. I don't know how it started, but my mom was helping me study, and somehow she came up with this little chant, using the one pair of names I was most blocked on as a refrain: Bogota, Columbia . . . Lima, Peru. Caracas, Venezuela . . . Lima, Peru. And so on. There's nothing particularly funny about this, but it made us both laugh. On the day of my test, it also helped me remember all the material; I sang in my mind and wrote to a rhythm. I don't recall the grade I got, but I'd bet it was an A. Close to thirty years later, I can still list out all the South American capitals, but only if I chant them the way we did when I was twelve. Will my son remember "Don't eat donuts"? He won't need to—spelling the word "don't" will soon be something he'll never believe he ever needed help with—but maybe he'll retain the phrase anyway, just for fun. If he doesn't, I know I'll have countless more opportunities to work with him on developing study skills throughout the school years; to give him tips and tricks and hopefully more laughs along the way. It is likely that he, too, will need to memorize the world capitals (I hope he does, but not for some years!) and we could find ourselves singing. Regardless, I know how it feels to have a parent (or two) assist with homework, to have them lighten your burden just a bit. My mom and dad always made themselves available, didn't pressure me about the end results but did help me with the process, and I hope that when all is said and done (and sung) my son will have the same memories of me . . . whether or not he heeds the warning about tempting but lethal fried dough rings.

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