There’s been a lot of growing excitement the past few years about modern and innovative ways to prepare children for careers, technology, and social paradigms of the future. I would just like to pause for a minute and remind everyone (including myself): High school kids have never been too excited about the adult world, and that hasn’t changed. Don’t get me wrong: I want wi-fi at my school, I like that LAUSD earmarked 1.3 billion dollars for iPads, and I want to teach skills that are relevant for the 21st century economy. But in our dizzy excitement to provide opportunities for our future employees, let’s not blind ourselves to the fact that regardless of how many presents we buy them, high school kids just aren’t that into us, our jobs, or our LinkedIn accounts.
A couple months ago, our high school tried to encourage the kids with their own “Bring Your Own Device” Day, but of my 150 students, I think maybe five of them brought devices they wouldn’t have otherwise. We were surprised by the half-hearted participation when maybe we should not have been. For a week, we theorized about the possibility of misguided promotional efforts, student theft concerns, or poverty issues, when suddenly, feeling a minor epiphany, I asked the students directly: “You guys don’t really like using technology at school, do you?” They smiled and laughed. One student spoke for the class: “No, but you teachers all think we do.” Another student said, “We like playing games and sending messages to each other, but we don’t want to use our phones for schoolwork.” Their heads nodded emphatically in agreement.
I suddenly realized that just because the students love using their devices to connect with friends, sometimes to the point of obsession, this does not necessarily mean they want us involved in their circuitry. In fact, maybe just the opposite. And so, before we get too emotionally or financially invested into “College and Career Readiness anchor standards” (the self-proclaimed “backbone” of the CCSS), or explicitly preparing them to face “career challenges and a globally competitive workforce” (from the mission statement of The Partnership of 21st Century Skills), or get them excited about “the critical role that STEM education plays in enabling the U.S. to remain the economic and technological leader of the global marketplace of the 21st century,” maybe we should realize (or remember) that most teenagers don’t want to even think about the job to which they’re going to be assigned for the next five decades.
Or maybe this is just a personal revelation. I’ve spent most of my career with AP seniors who generally can’t wait to get out of high school; now I’m teaching 10th and 11th grade “college prep” English and I’m presently blushing at my naive expectations.
Last week, in a similar way, I was surprised to find out that a great majority of my students don’t use Twitter. Many of them shrugged off my double-take with complete disinterest; a few of them said they didn’t see the point. I told them that Twitter is where I go to see headlines, and learn things, and read new perspectives on subjects that interest me. They nodded politely. They told me they still like Facebook, and love Snapchat, and really like playing interactive games. They sounded like a patient teacher repeating a lesson to me: We like to play games and send messages to each other. Twitter is not the medium for that. Twitter is for adults.
I didn’t believe them until I persuaded a few of them to contribute to a hashtag (#TeensOnSerial) to converse with other high school students about their theories on the Serial podcast. I was stunned by how almost painful it was for them to collaborate about something school-related with students from another school, but how willingly they re-tweeted from celebrity accounts, celebrated “crazy” parties, or burst into dramatic laments about broken high school relationships. In other words, redundant Facebook posts and text messages made public.
My blog post about Serial and Shakespeare led to our class being seen in The Wall Street Journal, Slate.com, NowThisNews.com, and the local newspaper, and they were genuinely stoked about all this. Likewise, I was so excited to make this a teachable moment: You guys can do this, too. I even asked a producer from NowThisNews (who looked so cool in her glass-walled big-city newsroom) right in front of all the students — if any of these students had written a blog post titled “My teacher is teaching Serial instead of Shakespeare,” would you have noticed them as potential writers, interns, or journalists? She said, “I would have noticed them in exactly the same way I noticed you, and in fact, they would’ve stood out much more.” But alas, none of my students have voluntarily started blogs since then (or even a Twitter account).
I should know better. I flashed back on all the times I’ve asked for a volunteer to look something up on their phone during a lecture and got nothing but a lot of reluctant shifting; then one student would do the requested research, while immediately a dozen more would pretend to do the same thing so that they could have an excuse to check for messages from their friends.
I flashed back to one particular season as a JV baseball coach, when I would often get frustrated at the goofing around, and I would habitually lecture my team about the work ethic and focus needed to play baseball in college. Once, a player interrupted me in mid-rant and said timidly, “Coach, we’re fifteen.”
Indeed, my students are only fifteen — they are just four years out of 6th grade, while they are 24 years (almost two of their lifetimes!) away from being my age. Maybe this is always on your mind, but it’s something that so easy for me to forget.
It’s also easy for me to forget that as high school students, my friends and I ridiculed the history teacher who “sold out” to become the dean. That to us, most adults looked relatively unhappy at their jobs. We really liked video games, wiffleball, and talking on the phone late at night, in low voices so our parents couldn’t hear us.
To clarify, a few of the students look forward to adulthood. They engage in adult discourses, they are bored by general classroom discussions, and they usually take AP classes. The majority of the students, however, are fixated on immediate pleasures and a lifestyle that will soon be over. And for these kids, changing the way we present the subject matter won’t fundamentally transform their desire to learn the standards, and it might even backfire. The thing is, if they don’t like broccoli, they’re still not going to like it if it’s in a burrito, especially if they already like burritos.
What does this mean for me as a teacher? For starters, I have to stop basing some of my lessons on the assumption that they are consciously interested in earning a good place to work, the chance to pay tens of thousands of dollars to study even harder for four more years, or the opportunity to argue with adults at staff meetings (or on Twitter).
My students actually like to read; many of them read voluntarily for pleasure. I should probably focus on tapping into that affinity. But they don’t read on their own to learn “domain-specific” vocabulary or engage in the global economy. They want to play games and talk with their friends. They like to solve mysteries, and they want to learn more about people. I remember when I was in high school, I wanted to major in English so that I could learn more about people, and maybe it would help me with the ladies. (And maybe it did — I believe I married a perfect woman.) They like the Hunger Games, they like reading about Lennie and George, they like talking about the characters in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. They like learning about people and how to deal with them, and applicable lessons on life — their life, right now. That’s how I can engage them.
They don’t generally care about tone maps, or iambic pentameter, or MLA formatting. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to teach those things; I’m just going to be more honest with my approach. I’m not going to pretend it’s intrinsically interesting to them, and I’m not going to think that giving them laptops or infusing social networking into my lesson plans is going to change anything in that regard.