Thursday, Jan. 10, 2008

Getting students out of the halls and into the classrooms

E-mail this article \ Print this article

David*, a tall, angular African-American high school senior, leans against my classroom door, his right foot against the doorjamb. ‘‘David, in or out?” I again remind him. ‘‘Make a decision.”

The tardy bell has sounded, and I have asked him twice to take his seat in the English 12 class I try to teach. He doesn’t move. His head turned away from me, he looks into the school hallway as if waiting for — what? — friends? A fight? The 10:15 Metro bus to take him home?

‘‘David, sit down. Do your warm-up,” I again ask, my voice louder, more insistent. The class quiets down slightly, watching with lukewarm interest, another showdown between David and myself.

I move toward David, wanting to hurt him for his need for confrontation and attention, wishing in some hidden, unspeakable, unteacher-like part of brain, I had a baseball bat, a pickax or an AK-47.

I’m telling you this because I think you need to know about David. So much depends on the choice David, and every other American student, will make. In or out? Classroom or hallway?

If we are to understand what Time and Newsweek magazines, Oprah, and perhaps a dozen books have repeatedly called our ‘‘crisis in education,” we must understand clearly the choices that face David. His decision is fundamental to a battle that rages inside almost every public high school in the country. But, surprisingly, after all the words used to describe our broken schools, very few educational researchers or critics talk about the choice facing David — contemporary culture vs. unpopular class, [rapper] 50 Cent vs. Shakespeare, the pull of the popular or the push of schooling.

More simply, David must choose between two very different and conflicting cultures — the hallway culture vs. the classroom culture.

Much to our sorrow, we’ve allowed our young people to create their own subculture. There are reasons — mostly economic — for that. Those reasons, as fascinating as they are, are well beyond what I’m talking about here.

You need to understand this, however: A ‘‘separate tribe,” as author Patricia Hersch describes our youth subculture, rules our schools’ hallways. Hallways are this tribe’s turf, the meeting and greeting ground where young people play out popular fantasies of violence, sexuality, and, especially, consumerism. The hallway rules are easy, the rewards immediate, and the rituals provide culturally approved media roles young people have been fed since birth. In school hallways almost everyone can be ‘‘someone,” even, or especially, if that someone is a wannabe thug, pimp, player, roller or top ‘‘dawg.”

If you were to spend five minutes in my school’s hallways at class change or at the end of day, you would despair for our country’s future. Students screaming obscenities at each other, male students bullying and degrading, in the most graphic and unmistakable ways, female students (and the females usually laughing hysterically at each insult), fights between residents of one neighborhood vs. another, and enough anger to blow up a city block or, for that matter, a city.

One of my ‘‘better” female students, from Cameroon, Africa, described our hallways as ‘‘opening a sewer, toxic poisons spilling over everyone.” She adds, ‘‘There’s not a day I’m not afraid.”

On the other hand, for most of our school’s young people, classrooms are places of crushing boredom. Classrooms are — using the most dreaded word in our students’ limited vocabulary — ‘‘boring.” What happens in classrooms represents delayed gratification and the idea that schooling will somehow ‘‘pay off some time and somewhere in a world that, seemingly, most of our young people don’t want to live. Our future citizens have given up on something that is essential for the survival of human society and ‘‘the future” is the best way to describe it.

In the conflict of hallway vs. classroom, the entire educational edifice runs headlong into the concept of ‘‘hip⁄cool⁄fly,” that tribal code that defines that which is easily accessible and acceptable — anger, violence, rebellion, electronic toys and sexuality — as opposed to that which is terribly and terminally boring — classroom authority, discipline, history, math, reading, writing and reasoning.

In other words, David is not alone in his dismissal of the classroom culture. Let me give you an example. As an English classroom assignment to teach five paragraph essay writing using imagery and metaphor, I asked each of my classes of students to, ‘‘Describe, using imagery, your typical school day.”

At the end of the fifth class period I had collected 175 essays. Beyond the expected result that few of my high school students could produce five paragraphs, the unexpected (and, to my mind, shocking) result showed that in describing their school day, only one student mentioned anything at all about the time spent in a classroom.

‘‘My classes are boring and dull, as usual,” that one student wrote.

Classroom time for my other students was just too uninteresting to mention. Friends and lovers found and lost, verbal and physical fights won or lost, and professional football⁄basketball occupied my English students’ attention during the course of their day.

There are, to my mind at least, tragedies inside tragedies about what I’m trying to describe here. You see, David is a reasonably bright young man. He once critiqued our school’s efforts at education this way: ‘‘It ain’t real.” True enough.

For him and I’m guessing for most students, hallways are real; classrooms are unreal, not to mention, lame and useless.

The tragedy here is that it is David who is — after 11 years of schooling — ‘‘useless” in almost every way, except as a consumer. David doesn’t know who fought World War II, the issues centered on the Russian Revolution, or when the Civil War was fought, can’t find Iraq or Vietnam on a world map, can’t count back change, can’t figure the square footage of the house he probably will never own and doesn’t know who delivered the Beatitudes. Also, he can’t consistently drive a finishing nail, wire a junction box, hang, mud and tape drywall or write a standard business letter.

Finally, the only thing David can or will bring to our broken world is a defiant attitude of learned helplessness. We’ve taught many (most?) of a generation lessons in consumerism, boredom, violence, apathy, sexuality and fear. But not much else. It was, in fact, an ‘‘easy sell.” We shouldn’t be surprised by David’s choice.

David glances over at me approaching him, puts his baseball cap on backward and walks into the hallway. The entire class laughs and, with some students standing up, applauds.

* Fictional name to protect the student’s identity.

Lynn H. Fox is a Fort Washington resident and retired Prince George’s County high school teacher. He teaches at DuVal High School in Lanham as a retire-rehire substitute teacher.