Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Gap

Scenario One:
The other day I was having sort of working lunch wth a colleague on the lanai outside the teachers’ lunchroom. We had met partially because we enjoy talking with one another and partially because my colleague has a proposal for a learning fellowship in the works and was looking for feedback. The lanai overlooks middle field, one of the three athletic fields on our campus. It’s a pleasant place to eat and to watch the junior school students on recess chase each other around or play tag or touch football. While we were eating and talking, there were three junior high students fooling around underneath a plumeria tree about 50 or sixty yards away. I wasn’t paying much attention to them until I heard a crack and looked over to see the three students sprinting away from the tree and a large branch perhaps five or six feet long, lying on the ground. The three students ran across the softball field and behind the backstop, where they tried to hide behind a sign, laughing. There was one playground supervisor over near the basketball courts who had apparently been looking the other way and was not aware of the broken branch. That left my friend and me as the sole witnesses. I briefly considered getting up and walking downstairs to speak with the students, but I did not know them, and even as I was turning it over in my mind they were already heading over toward the classroom building. There was a good chance I wasn’t going to find them anyway, so I decided to let it go and continue with my lunch and conversation.

A few minutes later, another boy, perhaps a seventh grader, came over with a few of his friends, picked the branch up off the ground, and began chasing his friends around with it, swiping it dramatically through the air and smashing it on the ground behind them. Each time he did so, small branches and clusters of leaves were breaking off. He continued the chase for perhaps 30 or 40 seconds, and then dropped the branch and walked away with his friends, leaving the broken branches behind.

This incident weighed on my mind for the rest of the day, and is still occupying turf in my brain two days later. From one perspective, I suppose it’s no big deal. None of these kids were being actively malicious. They were just being kids, just fooling around. Within fifteen minutes one of the grounds crew had showed up, collected the broken branches, and put them in the dumpster, which I should mention was all of about 25 feet from the scene of the incident. So it might be argued that there was no harm done (except to the tree itself). It was the kind of incident that might have happened on any day, at any school, and given the range of possible incidents that might happen on any day, at any school, of comparatively minor concern.

So why does it bother me? Why does it bother me that the reaction of the orignal kids was to run away, and then to laugh about it? Why does it bother me that the second group of kids felt no compunction about creating a mess and then walking away from it? Why does it bother me that I did not put myself far enough out of my way to go down and address either group?

We have tried as hard as perhaps any school I am familiar with to create an environment which encourages responsibility and ethical awareness. We have a character education program that has been emulated nationwide. The last three words in our mission statement are “develop social responsibility.” We have a chapel program and a Center for Public Service and a variety of service-learning programs and a graduation requirement in Spiritual, Ethical, and Community Responsibility. Despite all of this, we have kids, as I imagine all schools do, who just don’t get it.

Scenario Two: At a meeting of academy supervisors the very next day one of the department heads made note of the fact that the word “rape” is now becoming a popular slang term in a variety of situations, as in “That test raped me” or “If you don’t give his book back Bobby’s gonna rape you.” In the time honored fashion following the similar entry of words like “suck” and “bitch” and “gay,” (not to mention the now omnipresent f-word) a word which has a broad range of denotative meanings is being pressed into service by kids precisely because of its shock value. It’s a way of being emphatic, dramatic, colorful. But isn’t the effect of the proliferation of the term is to deaden and devalue and commoditize both the language we are using and the very real denotation of the original word. What is humorous about rape? What is the effect of that word becoming common parlance on the sensibilities and sensitivities of the kids who literally think nothing of it?

So what are we to make of the gap between our aspirations and the behaviors of at least some of our students? What is to be done? Experience teaches that it doesn’t do much good to lecture kids about responsiblity or about vocabulary. If kids know who you are, and are willing to respect your personal preferences, they will usually listen if you tell them that the words they are using or the behaviors you are witnessing are offensive to you, and they will refrain from those behaviors for exactly as long as they know you are present. Over the course of my career I’ve tried to make use of the “teachable moments” when they have occurred in my classroom, but I have found it difficult to figure out what to do when I observe either at a distance or in passing bad behavior or bad language involving kids I don’t know. I know that on those occasions when I have chosen to talk with groups of kids who have, for example, strewn litter around and tried to walk away from it, that I have often been met with stony-faced resistance or complete disregard. At which point I have to make the choice to escalate the interaction into a full-blown confrontation or just give them a warning and walk away.

I’m not sure if there is an answer. The obvious answer is that you can change behaviors if the expectations are clear and everyone is willing to take on responsibility for enforcement. But I’m not sure that is ever the case anywhere, and it’s certainly not the case anywhere I’ve ever taught. So for now, I guess I’m going to continue living in the gap. But I’ll tell you what, the next time a branch goes down, I’m going after the kid.


Sue R. - InfoMedia Teacher said...

Thank you for being so thoughtful about a situation that happens with many of us, when we know our message is not going to be received.

I wonder what your students might do with this issue--knowing that their voices might be heard where elders' are discounted. I once saw a very effective, student-made, video about "that's so gay." It was done by high school students, including a brave young man who spoke about how that expression hurt him. The school had support for him and others, with a budding new Gay/Lesbian Student Organization.

Posters, videos, etc., about the "rape" message, or about the need for care for the environs, might stand a chance of being heard if they come from activist students. The students would need sensitizing, education, and a support system, of course. It would be a great task for a local women's group...?

Anyhow, I am grateful to know what upper schools, and other areas, are experiencing as new fad behaviors. I am in such an isolated area, that it takes a good deal of time for such things to trickle down to us!


emily mccarren said...

I've been thinking a good deal about the "We-don't-know-each-other-scolding" lately. As this is the biggest school I have ever worked at, by a long shot, I've been challenged by questions of what to do in those "teachable moments" when I don't know that kid. I find myself trying to create a kind of insta-respect and some sort of street credibility that will turn a switch in the child's brain that says: "She's cool,she get's it-- this is going to be an important moment for me." I know I am failing. But maybe by chipping away it will make a big place feel smaller, and kids more accountable for, or at least thoughtful about, their actions.

Bruce Schauble said...

Sue: I've thought about enlisting student input. I've seen some very effective student-made videos dramatizing some aspect of behavior, and when those videos are shown there is generally a slight "bounce" before everyone goes back to behaving in the ways they're programmed to behave. Yesterday a bus was unloading next to one of the school gates. There was an empty bag of chips on the sidewalk right in the middle of the gate, not more than ten feet from the rubbish can, which was literally the next thing they would pass on the way into school. I watched perhaps 40 students walk right over it. I picked it up on my way in - I didn't even have to break stride - and tossed it in the trash as I continued walking. But I had the thought, as I have had on almost every one of the dozens of occasions when this scenario has played out in pretty much exactly the same way, that I don't know how we've gotten to a spot where apparently either a) none of our students even has the thought occur to them to pick up trash when they see it or, perhaps worse b) the thought does occur to them but they just can't be bothered or don't feel it's their problem. I was actually thinking about putting some trash on the ground and setting up a camera and letting the camera run while people walked over or around it for 40 minutes, and then having them sit through the whole thing in assembly. Maybe that would send home a point?

Emily: Yes. Well. Maybe. I admire the fact that you at least turning it over in your mind. I think the size of the school is definitely part of the problem. There's less of a sense of shared responsibility and a greater inclination to see yourself as a very small part of a very large enterprise in which somebody else is going to take care of whatever it is that needs to be taken care of. But I think you're right: the only way the kids are going to get the message is if we do, individually, find ways to "chip away" at their reserves of disengagement.

Thanks, both of you, for your comments.