Every year I teach my eighth grade class about the moon phases. It's slightly confusing, I suppose, because of the nomenclature.

I mean, TO BE ENTIRELY REDUCTIONIST, the actual process is pretty easy: the moon appears to change shape in the sky over the course of a lunar cycle because it is revolving around the Earth. That's it. That's all it is. Even the most listless kids seem to process that fact fairly easily.

But when you introduce the names of the phases (New Moon, Waxing Crescent, First Quarter, Waxing Gibbous, Full Moon, Waning Gibbous, Third Quarter, Waning Crescent), that's when they're brains go wongo. Which is why I was so pleased when one of my students (K.), an eager, excitable girl with a laugh that, at full volume, rattles Venus, told me she'd come up with a fail-proof way to help her remember how to differentiate the phases.

More often than not, the kids get spun around between moons that are waxing (gaining light) and waning (losing light) because (1) the words alike and (2) the images of each are mirror opposites of each other.

My initial tactic several years ago was to tell the kids to just think about The Karate Kid, to think about how Mr. Miyagi would tell Daniel to “wax on,” which would remind them that waxing meant the moon was turning on, or getting brighter. That worked for a while, but then the new Karate Kid came out and fucked all of that up. (“Mr. Miyagi never says anything about waxing. Do you mean when he keeps telling the boy to put his jacket on and take it off? How does that teach me about the moon? And who's Daniel?”)

So then I tried this thing where you cup your hands and the right hand is waxing and the left hand is waning and that shows the light that's left and blah, blah, blah, but they looked at me like I had antlers growing out of my chest when I tried that one.

So the new, most excellent trick, via Cash Money records and per K. (I'm remembering her words, best as I can): “Mr. Serrano, here's how I remember: Do you know a guy named Lil Wayne*? He's a rapper and a skateboarder**. His name sounds like 'waning,' and his name has a 'Lil' in it, which reminds me that waning means the moon has lil' light and is getting darker. Waning. Wayne. Lil Wayne. Lil light. Losing light. Waning means losing light.”



It's certainly roundabout, but it's undeniably brilliant. And something I've implemented into my lesson plans as is necessary. Kids are always coming up with cool shit like that. And even if not something exactly like that, they're always trying to teach me SOMETHING. A couple of the other things music I've learned:

Jenni Rivera is THAT DUDE (and she still might be alive)

I'd assumed that my students, nearly exclusively Latino, had heard that Jenni Rivera, a supernaturally talented Mexican singer, had died in a plane crash. What I had not assumed was how vital that moment was to them. When one of the girls in my last period class brought it up, I feigned ignorance. “Who's that,” I asked. I don't imagine Frankenstein received less hostile reactions. “WHAAAAT!? YOU DON'T KNOW WHO SHE IS?! I THOUGHT YOU WERE A REAL MEXICAN?!” things like that. I let the kids explain her existence to me, a thing that is never not entertaining because kids summarize things with a hilarious simplicity. (Jay-Z: He's a rapper and he made a song about auto-tune and he likes New York.)

Eventually, the conversation mutated into a discussion about whether or not she was actually dead (nobody has seen her body yet, I was told). I let the kids argue with each other for a minute or so before I called them back to order. “I'm going to go home and look her up tonight,” I told the mass. “Good,” replied one of the girls. “Look for a song called 'Por Que No Le Calas.'” (Above.)

Mago De Oz is AMAZING

During independent study, I almost always play music for my classes. Generally, I pick what we listen to (it's mostly the Miles Davis station on Pandora, though occasionally we'll utilize the Ray Charles one too). Every so often though, I let one of the kids pick. Usually, because we're an inner city school with an inner city population, they pick rap. When I oblige, the same rule always applies: “We'll listen to it until we hear a curse word, at which point we're going back to Jazz.” None of them last very long. The record this year: Tyler, the Creator (identified as “Taylor, the Creator,” FYI). He made it three words before he got kicked out. I'm certain he'd be proud of that.

At any rate, one day, one of the more interesting kids in class asked if we could listen to Mago De Oz, a band I'd previously never heard of. When I asked about who they were, I was given a very circular, “I don't know. My brother listens to them. They sound the same, but different.” (My kids read a lot Pitchfork, I guess.)

The band, which I eventually learned was more than 20 years old, is this bizarro mix of heavy metal and Celtic music sung in Spanish. There's actually a very solid cohort of kids on my side of town participating in what I anticipate will be a thriving Spanish heavy metal scene in the coming years. Of the various musical treasures I've been delivered by my students, knowing about this remains my favorite.

South Park Mexican Isn't Guilty

He's not, apparently. My students argue this point endlessly, year after year, without fail, even though none of them seem to be aware of what he's in prison for. (My very favorite: I once explained to a kid that SPM was in prison because he thought it was a good idea to sleep with 14-year-olds, to which the student, after just a beat, replied, “Well, so do I.”) I have an SPM album on my phone (it's the brilliant Never Change, which, as a Mexican, I am required to listen to at least four times a month), and I've never had any issue experiencing his music without considering the crimes he very likely committed. They just seem like two very separate things. I mean, Ben Franklin had slaves. You probably have some light bulbs in your house, I'm guessing. So chill.

There are maybe 1,000 more instances like that (one of the best moments came when one of my kids asked me if I'd heard of a group called Metalachi, a hybrid heavy metal/mariachi band that he knew about because he heard about it from one of the kids in a class that I played it for in the year prior). Most of them aren't much, but some of them are great.

I don't know. There are a lot of things I love about teaching. Those short sideways conversations where kids are just talking and not trying to remember the definition to something, those are near the top.

I'm saying, Lil Waning? That's boss level shit.

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