When school feels like a biker bar

IMG_2779Today is the first day of school for my children and I am worried. I worry someone will be mean to them. I worry they will feel like an outsider. I worry they will sit alone on the bus or in the lunchroom. I want my children to belong and to feel a part of the group. I assume this is some left over law the jungle. A “if you don’t run with the pack the lion will eat you,” mentality???

I’m sure my cavewoman ancestry plays a part in this feeling, but so do my experiences. I have had those days where I sat alone in the cafeteria, when I wasn’t picked for the team and that horrible year where a classmate wrote “I hate Keely”trapper keeper Google Searchon her trapper keeper and carried it all around school. (It turns out some boy she liked actually liked me. There ensued social warfare). As an adult I still experience moments like these. Some call them Biker Bar moments.  Where you walk in to a bar and it turns out you are the only one not dressed head to toe in leather and chains.  

I experienced that feeling this summer when I started a 6th year program at the University of New Haven. It was my first time in the classroom as a student in 15 years. I felt pretty confident until I heard everyone speaking. Doctopus, Flubaroo, PLN, ICT. What language were these people even speaking? I felt like I knew nothing. I felt as if I were an antique, a 100 years behind these other teachers. I couldn’t blame my age as some appear to have been born in the same decade as me. I know that having left the classroom for 10 years to raise my children contributed to my feelings of inadequacy. Luckily, I was able to hide behind my Chromebook and quickly Google the terms they were using. I spent that first face-to-face meeting catching up, translating and trying to understand. 

My husband noticed this same phenomenon on move day at the university. He talked about the student athletes, texting, taking pictures, and simply being on their phones during the whole move-in. Many see this type of phone use as a symbol of rudeness.  The Pew research study Americans’ Views on Mobile Etiquette states 89% of people used their phone during their most recent social gathering with 82% reporting the phone usage hurt the conversation.  I believe the phones were being used as a “mother’s skirt” that they could hide behind. The situation was wholly out of their control. Selecting an Instagram filter for the photo of your dorm and tweeting about pushing your mom out the door is 100% under your control. Sherry Turkle defines these moments as being “alone-together” in her 2012 Ted Talk Connected but Alone? Where these student-athletes being rude or taking control of a difficult situation and employing an updated strategy to find success in an uncomfortable situation?

I teach middle school students so they can not fade into their phones as a defense mechanism. In order to negotiating their positions in our learning community they must juggle parent, peer, and teacher feedback. Attempting to please all three groups each of which has a highly divergent goal; is nearly impossible. As established by James Paul Gee in Social Linguistics and Literacies (p. 2-3), students must be literate in multiple “social languages” in order to be successful in a variety of contexts and discourses. My students will negotiate these waters by volunteering to go first but not too often. Making jokes to get a laugh out of their classmates without upsetting the teacher. Wearing the “right” clothes that don’t violate their parents’ values or the school dress code. They must be three different people all at the same time. I will watch their hand go up, their jokes roll by, and the slogan t-shirt messages and remind myself that no matter what the outside of the box looks like, these are kids. Little kids; no more than 11 or 12 years old. Regardless of the mixed messages they emanate, they are here to learn and every one of them can learn. I will know who the cool kids are (LeBron sneaks, a new pair each day this week), the immature kid (wore a Hello Kitty top in a non-ironic manner), and who will struggle (did not look at me once the whole week). I will know all of this and I will teach them by reaching out through the Chromebook. Allowing each to hide behind the screen while they pursue their own interests at their own ability levels; an impossible task before we became a one2one school*.  

*My school offers a free Chromebook to all students and allows students to bring their own device as well.  It is expected that students will be online in every class, with few exceptions.  Students and parents must sign acceptable use policies but there is no school or district-wide policy on repercussions for violating said policies.

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