Note: This is an older piece of writing - probably one of my first forays into writing for pleasure. I think my style has changed in the last ten years, but this is still one of my favorite stories from the classroom and I hope you enjoy it.
In many ways, students who say "I don't get it" are a teacher's raison d'être. We help students to "get it," whether "it" refers to understanding the major events leading to Confederation or learning to cross the street safely. We need students to tell us when they do not understand a concept, because when they "don't get it" and don't tell us, major problems develop. Sometimes, student misconceptions provide much needed comic relief.
Several years ago, my Grade 7 class was studying First Nations culture. Specifically, we were discussing the importance of bison to the Blackfoot. In general, seventh grade boys are fascinated with killing things, so naturally, our discussion turned to the actual techniques of the buffalo hunt. Many students were aware of the importance of the buffalo jump—Dry Island Buffalo Jump is located less than an hour east of Red Deer and most of them had heard of the world-famous and (to them) well-named Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump. I was dramatically demonstrating to the class how the hunt worked. I asked them to envision an enormous herd of beasts in full stampede while I rode behind them on my wild pony (actually, a metre-stick with a horse head duct taped to it). I explained that eventually the mighty bison would run out of prairie and plummet over the edge of the buffalo jump to a horrible death. Although my students were captivated by the drama and horror of the whole event, a hand shot up in the middle of my presentation.
"Yes, Kelly?" I said. I was ready to demonstrate my full understanding of this important part of Canada's cultural heritage, but I wasn't ready for the question that followed.
"I don't get it," Kelly said.
"Don't get what?" I asked, still ready, still eager, still wanting to dazzle.
"How would stampeding buffalo over a cliff kill them?"
"They fall a great distance to the ground, which caused serious injury or death," I replied.
"But, wouldn't the buffalo just fly?" he asked.
"But don't buffalo have wings?" he asked. "You know, buffalo wings?"
He was dead serious. Keep in mind that this was the mid 1990s, long before Jessica Simpson made the same, but much more publicized, mistake.
Like everyone else in our classroom, I was floored. Incredulous stares and shoulder shrugs filled the room. Finally, one of my more creative students said, "It's like a Bugs Bunny cartoon—this huge buffalo has tiny little wings that it flaps madly, but it can't fly." Somehow, Billy had an image in his head that buffalo couldn't possibly die because they had wings (which are tasty and come in different flavours). I tried to explain that Buffalo wings were actually chicken wings prepared according to a recipe that originated in Buffalo, New York. I'm not sure he "got it", but I tried.
As teachers, we really don't know what is going on in our students' heads. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why thinking aloud is such a powerful teaching strategy. Nonetheless, though I hear things like this every week, I've never forgotten the comic image of buffalo desperately flapping tiny wings as they flew over a cliff.