February 26, 2006

Big-bodied babies?

Sometimes I have to remind myself that my students are really nothing more that big-bodied babies. This is probably easier to do in grade school, and even middle school. But I left middle school to teach high school because I wanted to teach students who were more ready to think abstractly and to work beyond the requirements of a typical classroom assignment. However, a few times each year I am shocked to discover (again) that my students, even though they are tall like me, talk like me (sometimes), and look like adults, they are not adults.

It's easy for me to remember that my 5-month old is a baby. She's mostly bald, can't walk, and can't feed or change herself yet. She cries when she's hungry or needs a new diaper. It's easy to understand her because babies are simple. When they are happy they giggle, when they are upset they cry, and when they are tired the sleep. Easy. High school kids aren't always that easy. But the reason they don't seem that easy has nothing to do with them, and everything to do with how we see them. (I can't speak for the grade school teachers out there; I welcome your comments and observations in the comments area below.)

I recently had an experience in class with two seniors I enjoy and respect concerning a project they submitted for our weekly 10-minute show aired on the on-campus closed-circuit television system. One of the segments we regularly include is a student profile. The student profile is intended to highlight the life of an outstanding student, especially a student who has a little-known talent or contribution worthy of being shared and celebrated. Unfortunately, this year my students have not completed many student profiles; not for a lack of outstanding students, but more for a favored focus on their own personal creativity. The current class of advanced students is a very creative group. I was recently quoted in the campus newspaper stating this fact for the entire student body and staff to read. (That may have been a mistake). Sometimes I preview the show in my sixth period class the day before it airs. I've come to trust my students so this time I did not preview this episode before showing it publicly. Tragic error.

This particular student profile was irreverent, sarcastic, offensive, and while entertaining, in very poor taste. It included shots at homosexuals, religion, and other teachers on campus. My sixth period students loved it. I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed because I exposed my students to material that while they see it everyday on commercial television, is NOT APPROPRIATE for viewing in a public high school. Plus it was just plain distasteful and I was offended that students that I taught and trusted would submit such a project after I regularly devote time to discussing examples of appropriate and inappropriate work. Apparently I need to devote more time to this topic.

I immediately called the students into my classroom but was unable to meet with them until the following morning. That gave me all night to stew and did I stew. Later my wife would tell me that was the most stressed out concerning school she had ever seen me. I like to think that my advanced students are more mature than the "average" high school student. But they are still high school students, imperfect in everyway, growing into maturity, and learning day-by-day. They are going to make mistakes, disappoint, and drop-the-ball. We all do, even as "mature" adults. I wanted to be gracious, forgiving, and understanding, but I was just too upset. Actually my mood was motivated by more than simply this incident, but these boys were the catalyst, the "straw," and unfortunately, would receive the brunt of my frustration.

By the next morning I was cooled down. The boys met me in my classroom and we talked. We discussed the project, it's merits, and it's problems. Their humor was appreciated, but it came at a cost I still don't think they understand. And how can they? When the messages all over commercial television are negative and generally insulting, it's no wonder that these boys would take those themes and elaborate upon them. Most concerning was their surprise at my reaction to what they had created. They were genuinely shocked that I was offended, or that anyone would have been offended. The boys previewed their project within their circle of friends to rave reviews. I think this is a major problem within our culture. Take a show like the Family Guy: a funny show for adults. But I'd bet that more kids watch Family Guy than parents. And it gets worse. This year Fox sent stacks of Family Guy book covers to our school for the students to use. Every time "Jimmy" opens his history text he reads, "watch the Family Guy Sunday's on Fox." Who's in charge here?

Our jobs are so complex. We are to teach the youth to read, write, and multiply. We're not supposed to instill our values and God forbid we share our personal beliefs while we passively watch our society crumble down all around us. From student dress to use of language, everything is relative to self, and there are no absolutes. If I think it's ok and nobody gets hurt... really? I disagree with those who feel that our jobs stop at the "three R's." It can't. Who else but the teachers will protect our big-bodied babies? (Of course parents are responsible for raising their children, that's not what I mean.) Parents send their kids to public school and expect that their children will be educated in a secure and appropriate environment. Teachers are responsible for establishing and maintaining this safe-haven in our classrooms. It's a daily scrimmage in a struggle that we are losing. Our failures present themselves in small ways like allowing an inappropriate project, or comment to slip by unchecked. It's a slippery slope.

We teachers need to recommit ourselves daily to the protection of our students. When you enter your classroom today and look at your pupils remember that these kids are really just babies who are in desperate need of our best attention.

Please post your comments below.

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