A Hole Is to Dig. A Test Is to…Give?

Several years ago, I visited a used book sale in its final hours before closing.  The deal was hard to beat – fill a box for just a few dollars.  My children added many books to the stack, and we were soon headed home with a hefty collection of ‘new’ books.  Because the selection had already been picked through for several days by savvy bookworms, I did not plan on finding much of value.  To my surprise, I stumbled upon a little gem of a book that has become one of my favorites—not for its pictures or its rich vocabulary but for its startlingly realistic glimpse into the thought-world of a young child.

The book is called A Hole Is to Dig: A First Book of First Definitions by Ruth Krauss (1952).  I would describe it as one of those books for children whose secondary purpose is to entertain adults.  The book begins with a small note of thanks to the students of several nursery schools and kindergartens, presumably for their contributions and inspiration for writing the book.  Patterned after its title, the book includes page after page of simplistic ‘definitions’ that are not altogether intuitive to the more mature mind (Krauss, 1952):

  • “Mashed potatoes are to give everyone enough” (p. 1).
  • “Dogs are to kiss people” (p. 5).
  • “A lap is so you don’t get crumbs on the floor” (p. 26)
  • And my personal favorite: “A floor is so you don’t fall in the hole your house is in” (p. 38).

As fun as it is to browse through the book and to chuckle at the undeveloped perspectives, it may be equally unsettling to realize that we as ‘grown-ups’ are not always so sophisticated in our thinking either.  Seeing through a glass, darkly, tends to be our default.  We can become so accustomed to seeing the world (i.e. our classrooms) through a foggy lens that it can be difficult to identify when we have slipped into thinking patterns like those displayed above.  Consider the following statements:

  • A test is to give so that the gradebook is filled.
  • Student desks are to rearrange every nine weeks.
  • A bulletin board is to stress out the teacher about how to best display his (absence of) artistic talent.

Like the quotes above from Krauss’s book, these statements demonstrate a lack of clear purpose; something about the ends and the means do not fully align.  For example, most hosts in their meal planning have a desire to ensure all the guests will be adequately served.  This objective is not accomplished by adding mashed potatoes to the menu but rather by strategically planning out serving sizes and purchasing sufficient ingredients.  The mashed potatoes are merely an efficient tool for accomplishing the task.  I may be embarrassed as the host if some of my company goes without eating because I thought whipping up some mashed potatoes would be adequate for the need. In another example, it may be nice to look at the floor during a meal to see how effectively everyone’s laps have protected it from becoming covered with crumbs, but taking a long-range view makes one wonder what it will look like once everyone stands up.  There are likely better ways to keep the floor clean, but as long as we maintain that laps are the answer, we will likely not brainstorm to identify a better solution. 

For teachers, the question is this: are there routines in our school day that we take for granted?  If so, what are they?  How could these tasks or routines be improved?  By identifying these areas, we open up exciting opportunities to innovate, improve our teaching, and create a classroom that runs more smoothly.

In the earliest years of my teaching, I distinctly remember the large bulletin board in the front of my classroom. When I looked at the expansive blank surface, I saw a clean canvas on which to create a veritable work of art.  I went about setting up the rest of the classroom to my specifications, and all the while, I thought about what masterpiece I would create that would stun my students, my fellow staff members, and all the guests who would pass by my room.  Needless to say, this extraordinary amount of pressure made me start and restart dozens of times.  How would it be decorated?  What cute, snappy pun would fit the theme?  In the end, my board earned a few compliments, added a little to the room’s atmosphere, but contributed absolutely nothing to the students’ learning.

I will never forget the day I stumbled upon the idea of functional bulletin boards—displays that were not purely decorative but that contributed to the learning environment.  An effective use of bulletin boards is to display student work without adding many extra ‘frills’—let the students’ work communicate their learning without distraction.  Other bulletin boards are informative or interactive and are meant to display reference material that will benefit students.  In creating my present bulletin board, I have invested in some nicely themed fabric as a backdrop (bye-bye unwieldy bulletin board paper), some sturdy burlap for the frame, and reserved the space expressly for reference material my students will need on a regular basis.  Perhaps the best part of all is that I can reuse it year after year, if I wish.  No, it will not end up in the Met or the Louvre, but it has saved me immense amounts of time—and it is something that my students and I actually use.  A bulletin board is not meant to be an added stressor.

Consider the other classroom items or practices mentioned above: tests, student desks, grading, etc.  Now ask yourself this: what are they for?  Be prepared for an answer that may be different from how it is currently being used.  Regarding tests, we often default to giving tests because ‘It’s time to give a test!’ or ‘I better get at least one more test grade before the end of the quarter’.  There may be times when these statements are valid, but perhaps the better thought would be ‘We are at a point in the study when it would be helpful to measure how much students have learned.’  For student desks, I like to move these as needed and prefer not to restrict myself to a certain time frame.  Scheduling a desk change can be helpful, but students quickly come to expect (i.e. demand) it after just a few times.

I have once heard it said that the spring of the school year is the best time to experiment with our teaching to see how routines and structure may be improved.  By this time, our students are hopefully operating well in the current systems and will likely enjoy the opportunity to try something new.  As a middle grades teacher, I am usually up front about this with my class, and I generally tell them that I would like to try an experiment to see how well we can make something work.  They are usually more than happy to oblige!

As we think about the routines and tasks in our classrooms, where are the opportunities for some rethinking (Grant, 2021)?


Grant, A. (2021). Think again: The power of knowing what you don’t know. Viking.

Krauss, R. (1952). A hole is to dig: A first book of first definitions. Harper & Row, Publishers.

Image by Freepik.


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