Friday, February 6, 2009

The Problem with People

Every week, Ms. G brings her class to the library. Her class consists of three students. I've never quite figured out why she only has three students, but I think it must have something to do with the fact that these kids have been labelled "emotionally disturbed" at some point in their school careers. Along with these three students, there are three adults (besides the teacher) assigned to the class. Each kid has a one-on-one, as they are called. Normally, these one-on-ones are really just under trained, under payed babysitters. Not in all cases, but in most.

Anyway, Ms. G's class usually just spends time looking for books, reading, working on projects, etc. The adults read magazines and books. It's mellow and usually follows the basic school policies for classroom behavior, although there is never any real curriculum or instruction happening. But that's fine, because all kids need some plain old library time, right?

Today did not work out this way, I am sad to report. This is how it went down:
The kids came in. The one boy (who really loves to read) renewed his book and hunkered down at a table, perfectly happy. The two girls went to computers, presumably to use the catalog. One aide went into a conference room, closed the door, and started working on...what? School work (as in undergrad or grad school work)? Aide #2 sat down with a magazine, aide #3 did the same, all the way on the other side of the library. No one was anywhere near the kids.

Then walks in....the sub. Oh, man. He introduces himself as a retired teacher, sits down, and makes a call on his cell phone. This does not bode well.
I let it go, however, choosing to believe that the kids will prevail over their lack of leadership. The boy did; the girls did not.

A few minutes later, I hear the girls giggling and saying things like, "He look nasty!" This is probably not school work, I think. It is not. They are looking at pictures of Chris Brown on Google images. If you do not know who Chris Brown is, I do not blame you. He is a singer, heart throb, and major cause of swooning among 8th grade girls. So I ask,

"Ladies, what are you supposed to be doing for class right now?"

And they answer, "Nothin'! We got a sub! We just s'posed to come to the li-berry."

To which I respond, "Well girls, we don't allow free time on the computers, or during school hours in general. I'm sure there is something that we can find for you to work on that is school related."

During this interaction, the girls get increasingly fussy, grunting things like, "This school is dumb!" and "I hate this school!"

The aides and the sub continue their relaxing reading time.

I go to one aide and say, "Are there no lesson plans for today? They can't just browse Chris Brown pictures. What have they been studying in class?"

She says, "Well, I'm just a sub."

Great. Two subs. So I ask the other aide (the one not closed into a conference room). She says, "So you want us to leave?"

I look at the sub. He says, "I see where you're coming from, but I'm just a sub."

Ok, before I tell you the rest, let me just ask a question here. Since when do subs have ZERO responsibility for delivering instruction? Are they not expected to read and execute the lesson plans left by the teacher? And if there are no plans there, are subs not expected to have a bag of tricks to use to get through the day? Educational videos and games, books and stories to read aloud, etc. A single backpack can easily arm a sub with activities that are worthwhile for the kids.

So, I say, "Well, I suppose if there is no plan, and the girls are not going to use the library's resources, then yes, it would be best if you return to the classroom." I cringe for the poor boy, and I know they will do nothing academic in the classroom, but I cannot allow that to be the case in my classroom.

The girls get up and disappear into the stacks. "Ima getta book! Ima getta book!"
The subs and aides drift listlessly towards the door.
And then everything is just sort of suspended in time. No one coming or going. So I approach the girls one last time.

"I think we've been pretty clear that it's time to go ladies."
"We gonna get a book!"
"I'm sorry, but I think you've lost the chance." See, I don't take kindly to kids being flat-out rude, rude, rude to an adult in a position of authority. I get what defiance, insolence, teen angst, and general grumpiness are all about. What I don't accept is pure, unadulterated rudeness.
"I don't CARE!" This is the more vocal girl. "This a ol' raggedy library anyway!" (We have one of the best library's anywhere around.) "This a ol' ugly library! I don't know why she [me] always got somethin' to say. Fuck! With her fat self, this school's dumb. I hate this school!"

Girl 2 chimes in a bit, but I don't catch it. The subs and aides are already out the door. They're gone. They are so done for the day, and since the teacher is not there, their job has been reduced to waiting for the bell, just like the kids.

As they walk back to their room, I look out the window to watch. Each of them moves in a mosey, adult and child alike. None wants to go into that stuffy, dim classroom and sit there with angry feelings about the library and their wasted, pathetic Friday afternoon. I've ruined their day, with my anti-Chris Brown policy and my raggedy fat-ass library.

This sums up so many of the problems with this school, this system. It's a parable, a story to illustrate the kind of low standards and just-keep-them-busy mentality that pervades too many classrooms. It's a sorry way to end a good week.

On the other hand, my boys are here again. One is wearing a loose tie over his t-shirt. Another sold me a caramel chocolate bar for a fundraising effort, and I promptly gave it back to him to eat. They happily moved boxes of books in the rain for me. They asked me if I was really sure when I told them they had done a good job and could spend the last few minutes pursuing their personal interests, which they are now happily doing.

This begs the question: What's the difference between 'free time' and pursuing one's personal interests? Good question, and to many people it would look like the same thing. Here's why it's not: students who actively pursue their personal interests seek deep understanding and complex information from a variety of sources. For example, a student I am working with wants to write 'a book' about vampires. He asserts that vampires are real. He plans to read fictional accounts of vampires as well as vampire lore in order to write his book. He uses reference books, novels, and web sites. So, pursuing his personal interests often looks like he's just checking out some random vampire website during school hours. Some would assume he's goofing off, but he's not.

That's why I always ask what the student is supposed to be doing, or how that site is somehow relevant to a pursuit of knowledge and understanding. I know immediately when it's goofing off and when it's serious. If those girls had explained to me that they were working on some kind of project to, say, take a book they have read and cast the (imaginary) movie, and they needed to find the perfect photo of Chris Brown to do the trick for the main character, I would have known they were pursuing their personal interests in a thoughtful, purposeful way. I would have encouraged and helped them.

So, why aren't those girls doing a cool project like that? And why do some kids at this school get to, while others are just shuffled into a class with three bored adults who simply want to go home as soon as the bell rings? Can you IMAGINE what a one-on-one adult to student ratio could really do? The power of that is astounding, yet it got Ms. G's class nowhere fast this afternoon.

Now one of my boys is watering our plants. Soon they will be gone, and my fat self will head home in the rain to unwind, read my book, have a beer with my sister, and kiss my niece. I'm ready.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

I'm Surrounded!

There are currently ELEVEN 8th grade boys in the library. They are the smartest, funniest, coolest ones, too. Sic of them are my Student Librarians, four of them are student Tech Operations workers (out of work today because their leader is absent), and one is just visiting. They are hard at work, helping me number, label, sticker, tape, and box a few thousand books. There are constant complaints, jokes, questions, mysterious sounds, laughs, and whatever the modern equivalent of yo-mama slams are. One of them just got his new 8th grade class t-shirt with all the 8th grade students' names on the back. The other boys are pawing him, nearly knocking him over to find their own names and their friends'. Every few minutes they ask me if they can stop working and just hang out. Then they warn me that letting them do so would be a big mistake. Then they look at me expectantly, as if I am just fool enough to give them the go ahead in spite of my own (and their) experience. They keep asking me what to do if. What to do if there are more than 36 books in a box. What to do if some of the books have different covers. What to do if they run out of green stickers. What to do if they run out of blue stickers. What to do if Ms. Murphy runs screaming from the room.

As I said, they are the best, brightest kids. They are applying to $25,000 dollar a year private schools on the west side. They know exactly what to do, could do it better then I could, and will most certainly snigger about my silly little procedures later when I am out of ear shot.

But they are in 8th grade, and they cannot be contained. I will so, so miss them next year.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Robert and Javier - Bloggers!

Finally, I've convinced a young person (two, actually) that writing and publishing online is cool. I can't tell you how many deaf ears this message has fallen upon. For a while now, I've been trying to show kids the way that people are using online communities to, well, do just about everything. The thing is, the only thing they seem to understand is myspace. Forget about the fact the myspace is just one of thousands of online communities. They don't see it that way. For most of my students, there are no other websites where people can talk, laugh, joke, publish, and admire each other to a dangerously compulsive degree. Well there are!

So, how did this miraculous blog creation happen? It was a total fluke. Because an English teacher happened to be encouraging her students to enter a variety of writing contests online, I decided to show them a few of the many teen-authored sites where they can regularly publish their fiction, poetry, artwork, and music/game/book/tv reviews. I also (on a whim) showed them a few teen-authored blogs about fashion and music. I wasn't trying to convince them that blogging was for them. I have tried and failed at that, and have curled into a little fetal ball to ride out this wave and wait until a new idea hit me.

I left the students to their book-choosing, assignment-avoiding, friend-teasing, end-of-day activities and went about mine. Then Robert, dear, sweet, smart Robert asked, "Ms. Murphy, so, how can I make a blog?"

Hip, hip hooray! Javier joined in and they are, right now as I write this, customizing their new blogs, adding content, and transforming into the little digital natives that I knew they could be.

It's always seemed funny to me that we older, less intuitively tech-savvy adults assume that all teens and pre-teens are born with wires growing out of their ears and antennae embedded in their skin (oh, wait! we don't need antennae anymore! do they know what an antenna even is???), but the truth is, many of them are more clueless than we are. Hard to believe. They don't just learn to crawl then walk then speak then blog then master the online universe based on pure machine instinct. Someone must show them, and that someone WILL BE ME!

Well, maybe it will and maybe it won't, but inspiration has struck again and I am unfurling myself from the crumpled, balled-up librarian in the corner. My wings are drying off in the light of Robert and Javier's discovery, and I am ready to tackle the problem of teaching these so-called digital natives how to type/search/save/print/google/blog/copy/paste/highlight/find/email once again.

Robert's Blog Idea

I'm sitting here with a student who's going to make a blog!