The Sense in Nonsense: Waking up the Brain Cells
By Ali Plum
To the me’s and the you’s and the Cindy Lou Who’s
What might this wise Seuss say if he were here today?
I think Seuss might say what he said in his own day, “Children want the same things we want. To laugh, to be challenged, to be entertained, and delighted… A person’s a person, no matter how small.”
I adore the nonsensical words and rhymes Dr. Seuss penned. I adored listening to Billie- a surrogate grandma circa 1983. She read to me in her natural Okie tone, I can hear it today, MCGELLIGOT’S POOL.
“If I’m patient and cool, who knows what I’ll catch in McElligot’s pool,” says the boy with the vivid imagination who despite the ‘seen’ (a muddy puddle he’s fishing in) believes in the ‘unseen’—surely this pond leads to the sea. The gruff furrowed brow farmer in the story implores the boy to stop the nonsense, to stop wasting time imagining there’s something beyond the concrete.
I remember hearing Seuss tales and my heart skipping a few beats with excitement, the lyrics, the scenes, and the imaginings. Quite honestly, his lyrics made me want to learn to read. His books are like music to me, and bid me come into the pages, into Who-ville and climb those funny slanted mountain doodles, and shake the hand of one of those famous friends- Yertle the Turtle, the Wocket, Thidwick, Gertrude, and the Zax (among others of course. One can’t leave out the Grinch.)
Dr. Seuss changed kid literature. He changed learning as well. He changed learning for me at least. And I know a couple of other little Plums bit with the Seuss bug in their toddler days—and the bug remains (thank goodness!)
School would have been unbearable for me without the likes of Dr. Seuss, a 5th grade science teacher named Mr. Corbett, and a few others. It was patience and their insistence that I believe in myself rather than disdain my kid brain, their mantra ‘Oh the Places You’ll Go!’ changed the way I perceived myself at many points in life. Though school always remained a great challenge.
Public education is a quandary these days. I hear NPR discuss the teacher’s union outrage in Wisconsin (uh, many other places as well, this being the most recent). I hear my home state do a lot of talking, a lot of stressing, and a lot of complaining about the state of public education. I hear a lot of about test scores, angst about test scores, shutting down schools cause of test scores; meanwhile debating teachers abilities in this that or the other way. We don’t pay teachers enough to be under the immense amount of pressure to ‘perform’ much less to teach. No one’s to blame and we are all to blame. Blame game has proved moot. Moot doesn’t move us to a new resolute. If we are not resolute we are like wet noodles flopping around making excuses for something so fundamentally important AND simple—teaching our kids how to love learning, how to engage in their own mental process, how to ask questions, and how to believe in themselves as thinkers, creators, innovators.
A lot of us furrowed brow grown ups look at the puddle like the farmer in McGelligot’s Pool and say, ‘Oh don’t bother imagining it will get better. It’s too broken. It’s a waste of our time. Let’s just keep debating who’s right and who’s wrong. Let’s keep pointing fingers. That’s much more practical than seeing, imagining possibilities.’
“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.”
Well, it happens to be Marco-the boy- who enlightens the farmer. Not Seuss, the usual narrator in his other works. Marco imagines a number of possibilities, endless in fact. “The Child is Father to the Man” the line in William Wordsworth poem resounds powerfully in my mind as parallel to Marco’s interaction with the farmer.
Perhaps if we simply asked or paid attention to how kids learn, what brings letters and numbers and fascinating things to life? We would probably find more than enough ideas to re-start the education engine. Perhaps we’ve been looking at learning upside down. Yes, test-test-testing leads to numbers that indicate something helpful for big people in big places. Tests are necessary, I’m willing to see that. But tests aren’t the whole picture. They are the black and white, the silent film of learning. We need Technicolor classrooms to revive the laughter, the challenge, and the delight of learning.
(I am the least qualified person to comment on such things, although I am a student, and a human who is a lifelong learner. Disclaimer: this is purely my opinion.)
Perhaps many kids love the way the classroom works. Perhaps many thrive in it.
But for me, and many I’ve met through the years- young or old- like me, the classroom functioned as a place to feel significantly less smart, less successful than others. It was a place that signified stress and concepts I didn’t understand ‘on time’ and fear of being called on.
The upside: I loved stories, writing, and art. Those classroom experiences felt like safe havens, where there was room for daydreaming, creating, expressing and learning a great deal through those processes.
It’s taken me to my thirty-something age to pass algebra and learn how to write a real live outline and abstract (although admittedly all the rules and wherefores still confuse the heck out of me.) But this feeling of failure or lack of success rather doesn’t just go away once past the high school room doors, or once diploma was in hand. The feeling got lodged in my psyche round 5th grade. And then stayed-- like an unwanted guest, siphoning many of my natural resources—the feeling that I was dumb or unmotivated or a number of other descriptions.
I’m not throwing a pity party—quite the opposite. For once I feel exhilarated by the fact that I’ve learned learning never stops, open minds leads to a more open heart, asking questions leads to finding out new possibilities. Learning new things keeps connecting pieces of puzzles. Our brains are amazing things!
And now, experiencing this love of learning—I hope with resoluteness for our education systems to embrace a new way of seeing teaching, a new way of motivating learning- an intrinsic experience of neurons and brain synapses breaking into dance! An experience that allows a heart to be moved by what it hears new that day at school. That teachers could have the freedom to move in their uniqueness and teach the way that makes sense to them because then what they teach will make more sense to their students.
I have a dream that one day, all the multiple intelligences will be celebrated and valued equally. I have a dream that we will stop labeling our kids one side of the brain or the other, hence limiting their view of themselves and abilities. I have a dream that the generation who still has recess and eats in that famous elementary cafeteria smell every day will love words and poetry as well as numbers and math, seeing that both can be fascinating and full of riddle, rhyme, and pattern.
I have a dream that Dr. Seuss’ encouragement, “Think left and think right, think low and think high, oh the things you can think up if only you try!” will ring and resound through school halls; kindergarten through senior year and beyond! that we parents will motivate by encouraging curiosity, fostering creativity, and expressing affirmation rather than endless stressing about deficiencies. As a wise woman has told me many a time and I now understand, “Focus on the donut, not the hole.” (Thanks mom. It makes so much sense now with my own kiddos.)
We might be late bloomers, we might be early risers, we might be artists or we might be scientists. We might be motivated, we might whine, we might act tough, we might act like we don’t care about our mind.
“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, It's a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, And that enables you to laugh at life's realities.”
We all are born to take in new things daily, find stories in stars, wonder about how A + B= C and relish the process of finding out why, look at history finding fascinating similarities and learning vital lessons for the future.
This is what I dream about when I look in the puddle—the possibilities for learning are as endless as the sea.
I hope the phenomenon (that I often fight) of social media will one day lead to change, real palpable change, on the road to education reform. If a country’s people can find their voice and strength through such a thing; why can’t we ‘as the people’, the parents, the teachers, the kids, the ones who care about keeping the learning spark alive in the classroom, find our voice and in unison say,
“Ok, we’re ready to see the possibilities. We are ready to look at what we’ve done that hasn’t worked. We are humble enough to ask questions and be open to new innovative solutions. We are hopeful and courageous enough to leave the denial and heated debates aside and HOPE in the younger generations. Rather than give up or label them or criticize them.
And we are ready to see the grave misstep somewhere along the way when we thought it was ok to take creativity and expression away. It’s not OK. Our kids will need art and music and movement more than ever heading into an age where they are seeing less and less of our faces and more and more screens. We are more plugged in to devices and less plugged into getting to know each other. Kids need a place to still play, be kids, let out how it feels, they need a place to imagine nonsense and write from that place not just fill out blanks on another worksheet. They need to be able to try science experiments and work out equations on the big white board. They need a place to learn how to solve problems and collaborate with each other. They need a safe place to falter and then learn from those tries. They need a place where they can learn they are not the kings of the world, but learners, observers of it—and what a fascinating, fun, and weighty role to look into the who, what, when, why, and how of things.
I think Dr. Seuss might encourage us adults to take a deep breath and then exhale and admit we’ve tried awful hard to make a system work, but in our best efforts its broken plain and simple.
Broken pieces though can form a most vibrant beautiful mosaic, especially when lit.
And that’s my dream for public schools in OKC and abroad—that we can heal in a mosaic way—the shards of glass strewn about all over the place we can bring together in puzzle form with a cohesive collaborative glue and create a stunning outcome.
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You're on your own.
And you know what you know. You are the guy who'll decide where to go.”
I believe. I believe in learning. I believe we can help learning happen more in classrooms—all classrooms—by taking cues from the Marcos how to find possibilities, use our imaginations, and respect the rhyme again, just like Dr. Seuss…
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.”