after after all

When the foreperson announced the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, I cried.  I didn’t know that I would cry, but I cried.  Maybe it was because I thought of his mother.  Or maybe because I knew what would happen:  the debates, the protests, the questions that would never be answered, the Florida-is-so-stupid comments (again). What I didn’t know was what would happen to me.

I took my kids to the park the following Monday.  A summer camp arrived in fluorescent green t-shirts.  The counselors were young black men, probably in their late teens or early twenties.  I looked at each counselor as he managed his assigned group of campers, counting heads every few minutes or so, and I was jarred by the thought: could it have been you? 

I live in Florida, less than one hundred miles from a place called Sanford.  My neighborhood is racially diverse.  On two separate occasions during my run that Monday night, I jogged past a group of black teenagers.  I waved, they waved.  And again, I thought, could it happen to you?

And though none of them seemed nervous, I was nervous for them.  Because it felt like something had changed.

I’m married to a criminal defense attorney.  I understand reasonable doubt.  As a high school teacher for the past eleven years, I understand my own bias toward teenagers. But let’s be honest.  We wouldn’t be talking about whether racial profiling was a factor in this case if racial profiling wasn’t real.

My first teaching job was at a school in Boston, mostly for kids who had been removed from Boston Public Schools for one reason or another.  The school was at capacity with thirty-four students; teachers were allowed no more than ten kids per class.  My students were primarily black or Hispanic.

I remember watching as a white woman almost plowed down one of my black students in a city crosswalk, after yelling names at him out her window.  (I am still grateful for the man in the truck behind her who called the police.)  I remember taking the kids down to a city park to play basketball during the time we had carved out for P.E.  A security guard questioned them aggressively, a finger in each of their faces. He yelled about trespassing, he yelled about truancy. I stepped out from behind one of the bigger boys, and the problem ended instantly.  I didn’t say a word. But I was a white woman.  So everything was cleared up.  Just like that.  (Yes, both incidents happened in Boston.)

I understand that neither of those examples is very dramatic; no one was killed or even harmed. But what struck me was the reaction of my students.  Or, perhaps I should say the lack of reaction.  They weren’t angry.  They weren’t surprised.  They shrugged it off. Because, for them, this kind of thing happened every day.

The day after the verdict was a Sunday.  We went to church like we normally do. Though I hate to admit it, I don’t always listen to the readings.  Sometimes I’m shifting under the weight of a sleeping four-year-old, thinking about how much my back hurts. Sometimes I’m glancing nervously toward the back of the church, where the toddler screams I hear are probably coming from my own.  On this day, though, I listened. And the Gospel reading was about the Good Samaritan.  And I thought, If only it could have been.

During our day at the park, my girls were swinging on the playground merry-go-round. My littler one struggled to push her sister.  A black boy, about eleven years old, came over and offered to push them both.  “No, thanks,” my older one said.  Both girls jumped off and ran toward the swings.

A little later, while we ate our pretzels at a picnic table, I asked my daughter, “Why did you jump down when that boy offered to push you?  Were you afraid of him?”

“I was afraid he’d push me too fast,” she said, and then paused.  “I wasn’t afraid of him, Mommy.”  She looked at me like I was being ridiculous.

Because being afraid of him would have been ridiculous.

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tweet tweet. tweedle-lee-dee.

oh, the tragedy.

I sit at the front of the classroom, introducing The Tragedy of Othello, when I see one of my students attempt to stifle a sinister giggle from the the right side of the room.

“Susie (names have been changed to protect the guilty), what are you doing?”  It’s more of a statement than a question, though, because I know what she’s doing.  The tapping finger, the downcast eyes, the angled backpack hoarding the desk space before her.  These are telltale signs.

“Cyberbullying.”  Oh.  We all chuckle because we know she is (mostly) not serious.

And then the classroom erupts into a frenzy of the five Ws (and an H) and frantic digging for phones because of what is happening right now, during fourth period, on Twitter.

I sigh. Clearly, I am not as exciting as Twitter.  I don’t move as fast.  I’m too wordy. Each of my sentences doesn’t end with some witty summative phrase immediately following what used to be known as a “pound key.” I get that part.

But here’s the part I don’t get:  I am a working mother of three and my phone, which is not quite educated enough to be considered “smart”, is tucked safely inside my purse, hidden away in my desk drawer.  The sound is off.  When I remember, I glance at it in the four minutes between classes.  But I don’t always remember.

the phone.  In the five classes I teach daily at a local private high school, there are six students without smartphones.  Six.  Why on earth does a teenager need a smartphone?  If I, a working mother of three, don’t need a smartphone, then why do they?

I’ll tell you why.

They need it for texting (I kind of miss the days when all they did was text).  They need it for Ruzzle.  They need it for Snapchat (Pictures that disappear?  Brilliant idea.  Really. I’m not even going to tell you what teenagers are doing with that.)  They need it for Fun Run.

And when I polled my second period class full of sophomores concerning what, exactly, they use their smartphones for, the answer was a resounding, simultaneous:  “TWITTER!”

Oh, Twitter.  Forget Facebook, my friends (and fellow parents).  They’re over liking and commenting.  They’re tweeting.  And retweeting.

Let me take a moment to say that I’m not some kind technology-and-social-media-hating curmudgeon.  I have a Facebook, I have a Twitter, I have a blog.  But what concerns me as a classroom teacher is the behavior I’m starting to see that seems to be a direct result of the overuse (to put it lightly) of smartphones, of being continuously plugged in.

They can’t keep themselves away.  And though some of them may use this handheld piece of technology appropriately (I had one boy tell me, “I like to use my phone to tweet.  tweet.  read sports articles” — be still my heart!), a great majority of them don’t. They use social media to gossip, to complain about their teachers (and their parents), to arbitrarily use foul language, to cheat on their school work, to post compromising pictures of themselves (I won’t tell you what they’ve shown me), to recount each event of each period of each day.

And they use it to gang up on each other.  To bully.  To be ugly and hateful. Just this week, a few of our girls participated in a Twitter cyberfight, slinging quick and disgusting insults at each other during the school day.  Things they would never say to each other’s faces. Things that would horrify the very people who gave them the smartphones in the first place.  And even though the fight was between two or three girls, the majority of our student body saw the exchange and even went so far as to involve themselves. (I used to work for a principal who told his students that if they stood around and watched a fight happen without doing anything about it, they were just as guilty as the fighters.  In my opinion, this is worse.  The bystanders keep it going.  They promote it by retweeting.)

And even though they’re probably going to hate me for it, I’m going to tell you, parents, that they use it to broadcast all the pieces of their lives that they want to keep from you.

In the minimal research I did for this post, I found enough to make me nervous, as their teacher, and as a parent.  So I told them that.

“You crept, Ms. Lavelle?”

“I did.  I crept.  Did you guys know that your Twitter profiles are basically public?  That even though I don’t ‘follow’ you, I can see what you tweet?”

the boys.  Their eyes widened, not out of concern for the publicness of their lives, but for what I might have seen.

Then one of them said, “But if you make it private, you can’t retweet.” Oh.

The truth is, I love these kids.  But what I’m seeing is starting to get downright scary. Every moment of their existences is fodder for social media, every thought they have needs to be put on display.  Even when some of those things should be kept quiet.  Especially when some of those things should be kept quiet.  How will they ever learn to discern?

The tragic flaw.

“You guys know enough about Shakespeare to know what happens in one of his tragedies.  Othello’s tragic flaw will be his downfall.”

“Hashtagspoileralert, Ms. Lavelle.”

Hashtagsigh.

I suppose, though, that there’s always a glimmer of hope.  That it’s not quite doomsday yet.  I leave you with a recent post made by a former student of mine on Facebook (yes, I’m old, so I still check Facebook):

facebook.  “Lost my phone today.  Thinking about going a semester without one if it doesn’t turn up.  If anyone has to talk to me or contact me for some reason, just Facebook me.  I’ll check it every now and then.”

Yes.  Every now and then.

it’s (not) only teenage wasteland

If you’ve participated in any kind of discussion concerning education in recent weeks, you’ve heard the jargon:  Common Core, student engagement, best practices.  Bloom and Marzano.  Formative assessment. Summative assessment.  Essential understandings. There are even catch-phrases that are repeated consistently to teachers throughout a day or two of Professional Development:  “80% of good teaching is good planning!”

When it comes to teaching high schoolers, I beg to differ (of course).

Is knowledge of these educational trends important?  Absolutely.  And the teacher-dork inside of me eats this stuff up.  Call me crazy, but I love Common Core.  The first time I saw a standards-based report card, I wanted to frame it and hang it on my wall.  Or at least ask the media specialist to laminate it for me.  But the truth is that until you establish a relationship with those teenagers, it doesn’t matter what the standards are because you won’t be able to teach them.  The students won’t let you.  And if you don’t try to get to know those kids early, you’ll have a really really long year ahead of you.

I am, by no means, an expert teacher.  It has taken me ten years to start feeling like, once in a while, I have some success when I teach.  (To my surprise, I did get them to read and even sort of take an interest in Chaucer this year.  They even wrote their own little prologues and tales.  Whoa.)   But there are a lot of days when I wish my little darlings came with some kind of handbook.  So here are my seven-best-practices-for-getting-ready-to-implement-those-other-best-practices:

Quit the power-trippin’. If you’re there to be “in charge,” they’re going to show you, quickly, that you’re not.  And in fact, they should be in charge of their own learning.  And you should encourage them to be.  You don’t know it all, and they know you don’t. So don’t fake it; if you don’t know something, say you don’t know it.  Be open to learning from them.  Because the truth is, there’s a lot they know, and a lot you don’t.

Hear them out.  Even if you don’t agree with them (and a lot of times, you won’t), let them speak.  Because, sometimes, that’s all they really want.  Sometimes they know you’re right, and they might even know they’re wrong, but they want to feel as though  you at least might listen to their side of things.

Laugh with them.  And at them.  And at yourself.  They are some of the funniest people I have met, I promise.  So let them be funny.  And, once in a while, make an attempt to be funny, even if you end up looking stupid.  (It’s only the first week of October and my sophomores are already used to my bad puns.)

Treat them like people.  The weird thing about adolescents is that they’re human; they are not animals, they are not aliens.  And what makes them even more complex is that they are not, technically-speaking, children or adults. If you force them to do childish things, they’re going to act childish.  If you make an attempt to treat them like adults (at least young ones), you have a better chance of getting them to, maybe, act like adults.

Busywork is insulting (to the students and to the profession, really). When it comes to assigning work, make sure that work has a point to it, and that you can explain that point.  If they don’t know why they’re doing something, they’re certainly less likely to do it (or get anything out of it).  We’re supposed to be teaching them how to use their brains, how to be independent thinkers.  Not regurgitators.

Be compassionate.  What they experience in high school is both very intense and very real.  Even though you know that, someday, they will look back and laugh at themselves for taking all of the drama so seriously, don’t tell them that.  Because right now, they are raw.  And while they are incredibly resilient, they are also easily wounded.  So even though you may know that, in the grand scheme of things, it won’t matter that she wasn’t picked for homecoming court, it matters right now.  It matters a lot right now.  She doesn’t need condescension.  She needs you to let her cry on  your classroom floor.  (And, if I’m being completely honest, I should say that a lot of my students have already been forced to live through things I haven’t yet experienced.  One has a substance-abuse problem that is rooted in anxiety.  Another has a restraining order against his own parent.  And yet another asked me today if his mother is still “Mrs.” even though his father died some months ago.  In many ways, they are wiser than I.)

If it’s broke, fix it.  Maybe it’s because I get bored easily, but I can’t teach the same thing the same way year after year. And with how quickly things change in this world, really, no one should.  But teaching is both demanding and exhausting, and so sometimes we turn to what is easier instead of what really works. Last week, I sat in a lunchroom full of teachers from all different counties who could not stand the idea of changing their curriculum to include the Common Core Standards.  They were resentful and aggressive.  And to be honest, it was both downright scary and embarrassing. Clearly, what the US has been doing to educate its children hasn’t been working, so we have to change it.  Will it be hard to adjust?  Probably.  Is it the right thing to do?  Absolutely.  So, my friends, you’re going to have to change. And you’re going to have to change often.  Sometimes, what works in one class doesn’t work in another. Change. Oh. My. Goodness. Otherwise, your classroom will become a teenage wasteland.  And that’s the worst kind.

Now, go plan a lesson in which your students are analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating.  And remember, they must be highly engaged.  All of them. Oh, and please incorporate a Smartboard. Or an iPad.  And ask them to turn everything in on Edmodo.  (Please make sure you remember to post it on Instruction Planner.)

See?  Sometimes teaching actually is rocket science.