“I feel like such a failure”, I said.
“What do you mean?” he said.
“This has been such a difficult semester. I feel like I haven’t done a good job at all.”
C looked at me with a puzzled expression on his face, his one hand still holding the bag of ice to the back of his head. We were sitting on a dock while he recovered from having injured himself an hour before during an outdoor teambuilding activity. In the forested area further away from us, he had fallen in such a way that he cut open an inch of skin on his head. He had been bleeding and so the First Aid attendant had advised that he not continue with the day’s activities. He didn’t seem to be too disappointed to be here, talking to me as we looked out on a scene of ocean, tree-covered mountains and blue sky.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about”, he said. “I’m having the best semester I’ve ever had in school! Everyone loves this class. There are so many things I would never have done if it weren’t for this class. I would never have spoken to A, for example. And he’s so funny! He makes me laugh!”
“But”, I said, “I haven’t used many of the tools in my toolbox. There’s so many things I normally do that we haven’t done.”
“You don’t need all those tools. You just need the one you’ve been using to get us to all to talk to each other and enjoy being together. And look at this, look where we are! Everyone loves this field trip!”
On any other day, having a student injured, bleeding, on a field trip would be a teacher’s worst nightmare, but C’s injury turned out to be a gift in disguise for my battered teaching soul. We could not have had this conversation were it not for his fall.
At that point, just weeks before the end of the school year, I felt defeated. I had been struggling all semester with an impossible class and it felt like nothing I did worked at all. I felt like I could not meet the needs of an extremely academic group of girls while I dealt with consistent disruption from a group of boys we called The Crew. (More about them later. C was not a member of The Crew.) Students engaged in feuds with other students in the class and those with learning disabilities had no education assistant support. There had been days when I did not recognize the teacher I became under the strain.
We must have sat talking for about an hour, and all the while he told me what he appreciated about being in a class that I thought I had completely failed.
When I later reflected on what he had said, I realized that I had not so much failed as I had forgotten what I intuitively knew: teens crave connection.
Helping students to connect to and with each other and to create a classroom community is central to all that I do. It’s the focus of all activities in the first week of class, and it’s the common handle on all the tools that I use. Having connection as the crux of my curriculum was initially a reaction to Apartheid’s forced separation at the beginning of my teaching career but, 26 years later, there is a different reason for its importance: the most technologically connected generation in history is ironically the most psychosocially disconnected.
Susan Pinker’s book, The Village Effect, cites several studies that point to the critical importance of real world, face-to-face interaction for everyone, but especially for teens who may experience “Facebook depression” even though they have thousands of “friends”. The studies paint a bleak picture of the effect of screens on the lives of teens.
I have very little technology in my classroom. I don’t have a Smartboard. I don’t want one. There is no way that I can technologically trick my students into consistently paying attention to things that they see as irrelevant to their lives. The content of the curriculum stands no chance in competition with the drama unfolding on social media and the novelty and brain rewards that video games provide.
Many education social media sites list suggestions for how teachers can add more technological tinsel to their lessons. It can be quite overwhelming to sift through them all, wondering whether I should “flip” my classroom or use tablets to teach storytelling. There are so many ways we can add bells and whistles to try to dress up course content in an attempt to hold students’ attention.
But, in my experience, the attention that teens want and need, the kind of attention they value and appreciate, is the kind that doesn’t require a battery or a wi fi connection.
The Crew knew this too.
The Crew are a group of close friends who got into my class after the shop class they really wanted was cancelled. Right from the start, our relationship was troubled. They would not stop talking to each other during lessons. They were constantly late to class. They seemed uninterested in anything that the rest of the class was doing. Some of them were suspended from school more than once. Most of them were sent to the office multiple times. But, at the end of the semester, all of them said they had had the time of their lives.
I admit that having them in my class felt like the ultimate test of my teaching life.
After 26 years of teaching, I had slipped into a kind of complacency. I had created a successful menu of strategies and activities. My class was popular and I admit I felt a bit smug about that. But, that smugness tempted fate and along came The Crew who taught me a new lesson about connection that I did not know.
You’ll notice in this photo that they’re all dressed quite similarly, as though in uniform. This was not by design. They were surprised when we pointed it out to them. I would often tease that they behaved like the Borg from StarTrek: multiple bodies with one mind. But they were nothing like the Borg in temperament. They were kind, and generous. Very funny, and very forgiving. It didn’t matter how often they were banished, none of them ever responded in the stereotypical way a hurt or angry teen might respond.
The truth was that they tried really hard to behave but that was like asking a fish to fly. They all had high kinaesthetic intelligence and it was extremely difficult for them to sit in a classroom all day. Amongst them is a competitive wrestler, a Bhangra dancer, two bodybuilders, three competitive soccer players, and a few artists.
Although students can leave my classroom at any time for a brain break, and The Crew frequently did, they still spent too much time being in a space that was not comfortable for them. I knew this yet felt quite helpless about doing much about it.
I felt like I was the proprietor of a successful restaurant that had seen lots of success over the years by keeping a basic menu that was tweaked regularly. And now I was faced with a group of patrons who seemed to want nothing on the menu.
But I was wrong.
Here’s what two of them said at the end of the semester about their experiences:
H: [This class] has been the most educational experience I have had. In this course I learned many new things about myself and developed skills and abilities that will forever help me in my future. This class was an unusual class. We learned to see things in many ways and through different perspectives. Through all these experiences I learned a lot about myself and became a more responsible and independent individual. This course always made me think beyond my limitations and really expanded my mind.
J: After realizing what we were doing was bad, and had a negative impact on others, I attempted to change myself a little bit. I started to … clean my act up by considering the feelings of others. I decided that even though it was late in the semester, there was time for change. I was able to start participating in class as much as I could and I took the opportunity to become prime minister of [our Civic Mirror country]
J, the leader of The Crew, was twice elected Prime Minister of the class’s simulated Civic Mirror country. His government was responsible for the country receiving the highest Civic Mirror ranking of all my classes over the past 8 years.
P, another member of the crew, got onto the Honour Roll for the first time, joining J who got on for the second time since Grade 8.
The entire Crew passed the provincial, standardized exam.
The Crew taught me that I didn’t need to worry about the menu. It was just fine.
C was right.