Teenagers These Days: rantings of a scribbling woman

I’ve got a stack of ninth grade English class essays in front of me that I just started reading. I’m down to the last five and am learning so much about my students. It’s perfect that we plan for this essay the first six weeks because for the kids who actually do the essay (an autobiographical narrative), it does teach me much about why they are the way they are.

But this year, I am especially sad by what I am reading. Sure, the bad grammar and elementary vocabulary is depressing, but more importantly, it’s the stories. I asked my students to write about a time in their life that was monumental or that signified a turning point for them, a moment which in some ways defined who they were or why they were who they were. This year, I’ve read some stories that make my heart break. Stories of drug addicted mothers, foster care, abusive fathers, and gang deaths. Stories of abandonment and a desperate need for love.

Sometimes I think I will have to read these essays over and over again when I want to get mad at my students for not being what I think they should be. Yes, they should try hard. Yes, they should keep getting back up when they fall and reach their goals. But lets face it, where are they going to learn that from? The home is the most important environment these kids have and most of them are broken. In the town I teach in, divorce is common; drug use, gang violence, poverty, alcoholism, child abuse, sexual activity, and illiteracy is a norm. And then to make that worse, they have all the radio stations and the movies teaching them that indulging in sex, drugs, violence, and greed for money is a normal and expected way to live and will fill their life with joy.

Meanwhile we have politicians, judges, and other American citizens pointing their fingers at the education system and screaming out that we are the ones who failed their children. Now I am not saying that our education system doesn’t need work. Believe me, this NCLB bologna is ridiculous and only leaving more kids behind but we could be amazing at what we do, and I still feel we’d have a problem. Why? Because how can I expect a 14-year-old teenager to pass his classes and his state exams at proficiency level when he lives in a home with 10 other people including his drunk father and his mother who works three jobs to support him and his best friend just died in a gang shooting, and he himself is being pressured by all the violence in his neighborhood to join a gang too so he can have protection and he can’t read very well because no one read to him when he was a child and meanwhile he wants money because all the music he listens to and movies he watches and commercials he zones in on tell him that money will give him everything he wants and right now school doesn’t seem like its going to work out for him, but selling drugs could give him some instant cash so…….

Do you understand what I am saying? No, not all of my kids are gang members, but many of them come from everything just short of that. I’ve got a 14 year old girl who is pregnant, another student who is living alone in a 1 bedroom room he rents while working 2 jobs and going to high school so he can live the American dream. I’ve got another student who is so proud right now because his mom has been clean from meth for 10 months and he thinks she finally kicked the habit so they can be a family again.

This is what our society has left for our grandchildren. I wasn’t here 50 years ago, but from what my parents tell me and my grandparents, this wasn’t the norm then. This wasn’t the problem with education then. So what is different?

I think greed and an overall indulging and condoning of immorality has corrupted this world in a way it hasn’t seen since Sodom and Gomorrah or the times of Noah.

So now what to do?

So many of my student’s writing is so poor despite my scaffolding, I will have to give them a D or an F on their essay, but what I really want to do is give them a big hug and tell them that despite what has happened to them, they are actually doing really well. And I will for many of them. I’ll give them their grade because I can’t fuel the system by just pushing these kids a long, but I will love them the whole time I set the standard high. And I will encourage and support them as they try to learn (or not) the skills I am instructed to teach them.

What else can I do?

It’s not just the education system that needs to be changed people. It is everything. Its turning off that song on the radio that glamorizes sex and drugs no matter how much we just like the beat because if we all did, the radio station would stop playing it and that would be that many fewer kids being indoctrinated to believe that way of life is normal and good. It’s about going to marriage counseling and being true to our vows to our husbands or wives even if we aren’t in love anymore because that is what marriage is about and that is what our kids need. It’s about teaching our kids to find joy in giving rather than just taking. It’s about going to the library if we can’t afford to buy books and checking out one bedtime book to read to our kids even if we really want to watch that lame reality TV show instead. It’s about teaching our kids that they can have some self-control and not have sex even if the world tells them they should. It’s about sacrificing our own selfish desires for the better of others. Can we do this? Honestly, I know of only one way we can all transform…..and you all know my stance on that. But it is a condition of the heart. And that condition is something I don’t think will change for better anytime soon.

So in the meantime, I will continue to love these kids. And hope and pray that we all survive the future that they will bring on this world when they become our next voters and leaders of this country.

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Those Amazing Teachable Moments

//www.starbeck.com/images/as_131_smile_mask.jpgIf someone had asked me why I wanted to teach high school students or to teach English, they would not hear me speak about my excitement over creating grammar trees or analyzing the conflict in the plot of a story or determining whether or not Hamlet is insane. I wanted and still want to teach high school students through literature and writing because I want to make a difference in their lives.  Literature and writing was the only avenue that allowed me to get in touch with my emotions in high school and college. High school is a terribly confusing time for most teenagers and many of them, I myself was one of them, couldn’t find solace at home. How much I would have loved to hear from someone willing to talk about the struggles of being a teenager and how they got through it. Someone who truly understood what I was going through and willing to admit some of the things they learned. Someone who could be a good example to me.

Of course, I have long stretches of time in my classes where all I do end up teaching them is how to analyze a character and how to determine whether a word is an adjective or an adverb, but every once in a while, I am blessed with an opportunity to teach my teenagers about life. Sometimes it may be through the theme of a story that everyone is into and I can hear their silence…but a different kind. A silence that screams thought and contemplation instead of boredom or apathy. But even better are those moments before, during, or after school, when I can teach them about something that is affecting them right now.

I had that moment today.

We just finished a unit on Poetry. I love poetry and I loved poetry in high school. But one thing I remember from poetry in high school is that I learned more from the poems that connected to my life than the poems that Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson ever wrote about. Browsing through the curriculum that I was to teach this year, I couldn’t help but notice how quickly we would rush through poetry without ever having students learn how to apply it to their own writing or to have them share poems that make them think or feel something. So I made some adjustments. I required each one of my students to either bring in a poem that they wrote or a poem that someone else wrote, but that they liked. Everyday, someone would read their poem and we would talk about it before jumping into the day’s lesson. I even told them that I wanted this poetry unit to be meaningful to them. And as we studied poetry, I often asked them to think about how they could write poetry using some of the figurative language or techniques that the poets of our curriculum used. I saw many amateur poets excitedly practicing their skills on their college-ruled lined paper that they folded and stuffed into pockets or passed on to friends in the halls.

Today one of my students brought in a poem that she wrote. It was a free-verse confessional poem about the masks she wears and her desperation to be liberated from the lies she lies behind. She started to cry while reading it and the entire class was screaming the silence of complete understanding. We all gave her a big group hug and when I heard students whispering to each other about how they felt the sameway  and when I saw tears well up in a few empathetic audience members, I knew I had to set aside my lesson for the moment and use this opportunity to teach them something.

I asked them to raise their hand if they felt the way she did. Every single hand went up. Twenty hands from twenty 14-year-olds of every color and social group and intelligence level. Twenty teenagers who thought that no one understood them, but learned right there that they had more in common then they thought. For half an hour we talked about the masks we wear in high school. About how tough it is when we don’t know who we are. I shared with them how much I had felt the same way when I was a freshman. And then I felt called to take it to a deeper level and bring up how so many teenagers turn to drugs to find comfort in their confusion and how this just fuels the vicious cycle of not being self-actualized. I explained to them that what they are feeling is normal– about the development of their frontal lobe and what areas of our thinking and acting that it influences. Also coincidentally, the very same part of the brain that drugs destroy, slowing its development or preventing it from ever developing at all until they find themselves at the age of 35 and realizing they are at the emotional level of a 14-year-old and wonder if it is too late to ever figure life out. Students asked a lot of questions. Questions about alcohol and marijuana. About where to draw the line.  About what to do about “friends” who are abusing drugs. I had one student ask me what she could do to help herself not feel so lost and confused. She finally realized she was normal, but still wanted hope. I gave them both secular and spiritual advice. I told her and the rest of the class to write, to exercise, to stay active, to do more of the things that help them release emotions and energy. I told them to associate themselves with people who love and respect them no matter who they are, be it family or close, true friends. And I told them, that for me, Jesus has made a difference. I made sure to say “for me” so that I couldn’t be accused of telling them they HAD to develop a personal relationship with their creator even though I wanted to so bad. This is definitely one of the downsides of working in public education and I’m not sure if I will have a job tomorrow. But the atmosphere of the class had gotten so personal at that moment, I think it will stay indoors. If not, I have faith that I will be okay.

It was hard to change the subject to our analytical essays afterward, but we all made the transition. I told them that they could come and talk to me anytime they wanted and that I would listen and not judge them and to do my best to share my wisdom. I told them that our class was a family and I watched their heads nod in agreement. It was a powerful moment.

In the end, it really doesn’t matter if these kids walk away from my class knowing the difference between a simile and a metaphor. But if they walk our of my door knowing that they are not alone and there is light at the end of the dark tunnel of adolescence without masks or drugs or suicide, then to me, I have made a difference. I hope they all sleep a little better tonight. And maybe try writing another poem again soon.