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Then and Now and Further On

1152.jpgAs a reporter, you can be asked to cover both the mundane and the truly magical. Often, you don’t get to choose what becomes news. Going with the flow becomes the norm.

So when an elected official in my town sent me an email requesting that I cover a “town-hall style” meeting about drug use at my former public high school, I was a little intrigued. Even when I was a student during the school’s earliest beginnings, it was nicknamed “Heroine High.”

It’s the type of place where some kids drive BMWs, sport iPhone 5’s as a token accessory, and jet off to St. Lucia for a relaxing spring break. Meanwhile, others proudly wear John Deere baseball caps, take vocational classes centered around agricultural practices, and grew up on sweet tea, dirt biking through the woods, and NASCAR. In short, my alma mater is a mixing ground for the Old South and New South. The one with all the transplants from Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio, that is.

Sure, there’s a huge push to take AP classes, become digitally savvy and get into the state’s leading public  universities. There’s also an award-winning soccer team, an amazing drama department that’s traveled to Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival to perform, and astounding murals swirling along the white walls.

But these are teenagers.

Naturally, there’s a clique for jocks, band kids, preppies and goths. Students huddle in their groups before the first morning bell sounds, and it’s unthinkable to wander far outside your bubble. Fitting in somewhere is crucial and so is experimentation. God forbid your friends and classmates think you’re not up to speed on the latest sexual practice, social media phenomenon, or way to smuggle alcohol into parties.

The funny thing about listening to this town hall meeting was that my perspective was radically different as a working young adult than it had been as a high school kid. At 16 or 17, I probably would have been nodding along fervently with the adults who said using any drug or drinking was akin to a moral failure and surprisingly – since we were in a public venue – a sin. Most people on the panel were religious and spoke about involving teens in church youth groups to keep them on the straight and narrow. To my ears, it all sounded a little extreme and ridiculous. I felt very caught between two worlds. On one side was the shiny-shoed police man with the crew cut and firm voice speaking fact, sense, reason. On the other lingered every whispered rumor in the hallways, every late night gathering with friends, every party I’d been to and every less-than-pristine choice I’d seen myself and others make.

It wasn’t so easy to be black-and-white now knowing life was filled with gray.

It’s not that I’m advocating for drug use. On the contrary, I’ve never smoked anything, including cigarettes. And, it’s likely that the moment I become a mother, I’ll be all about my child hanging out with the church-going, over-achievers from the involved, loving families. But, as I see it now, there’s something alluring about the entering your teenage and young adult years. There’s a feeling that with every passing birthday, new possibilities are opening up for you to experience, try on, and see if they fit. From driving to voting to drinking, growing up is a step-by-step process. Trying to stamp out every guy with shaggy hair and killer eyes who heads to the sports field after class with his buddies to smoke pot is about as likely as eliminating hazing at college frat houses.

Life’s going to happen to these kids, and they need to be prepared to deal with it. It’s absolutely ok to choose to say no to every single substance. For your health, it’s certainly preferable as every doctor will tell you. From afar, the flannel-wearing, indie-music listening, secret house-party attending kids seem pretty cutting edge. Some of them are fabulous people with blazing futures ahead. Others are masking up a lot of childhood pain, personal suffering or feelings of inadequacy.

But you won’t know until you get up close and find out.


Text Me, Maybe?

Student texting during class

Student texting during class (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My high school is a formidable fortress of red brick with a navy blue, metal roof in my memory. It is a place surrounded by quiet woods that eagles circle over. The dark, tinted windows encasing the school’s stairwells glisten from the outside and leave your car’s reflection rippling as it approaches the security gate where visitors must state their official business before entering.

I remember strict dress codes where girls were not able to show even the seductive hint of their shoulders. It was a world of humorous note passing to alleviate math class boredom, watching VHS tapes of mitosis during Biology, learning about Microsoft Excel during Computer Applications and dancing along to Ciara’s “1, 2 Step” at birthday parties. When a boy in my senior psychology class brought his brand new iPod with him to class one afternoon, he was the epitome of modernity. I graduated in 2007.

Although it has not been that long in “real time,” the world of mobile technology has rocketed ahead in five short years, leaving many in the education business stumbling to keep up. When I returned to my alma mater just two months ago to chat with high school juniors about the college search process, I was amazed at what greeted me in the halls and classrooms. Everyone had a smart phone where I had made it through four years of college without one. They were constantly texting and even playing music in the middle of their teachers’ opening addresses. I saw a kid composing music on an iPad outside of the chorus room and had to stop and do a double take.

While I realize that my old high school is better off than most and that many within it can afford expensive gadgets, that is beside the point. Yes, I understand the world has advanced technologically, and that’s great. There is much to be said about the benefits smart phones and the like bring to our daily lives, from instant access to email to the ability to read up-to-the-minute news. But this isn’t an issue of accessibility as much as it is one of respect–for one’s education and one’s educators.

The teachers in my memory rarely allowed our attention to waver from what they were saying. In fact, they readily confiscated cell phones and ripped ear buds from eardrums. Yet after spending a day roaming the halls, I had the distinct feeling that things had changed.

“The kids are supposed to only use [cell phones] in the halls or at lunch. I have noticed that half the time it’s the parents that are calling the kids in the middle of class for something ridiculous. I don’t approve of texting in class, but now it’s so prevalent that unless it’s all the time instead of work, I just about have to give up. What happened to not allowing them in the building at all?” complains one Spanish teacher.

Although her students are allowed to listen to music while doing independent work, she believes social media use is out of control and vividly recalls a day she chose to start an ill-fated conversation with a student about it. “Right before class started this girl was taking a picture, so I said, ‘Are you going to put that up on Facebook right now?’ And she says, horrified, ‘Oh no! Nobody uses Facebook anymore. We all tweet.’”

Of course, there is some irony in the fact that I got in touch with instructors to ask them about this issue via Facebook and that they all responded fairly rapidly. I was amused–and must admit somewhat gleeful–when our group Facebook message led to some teachers educating others about the ways in which they are combating the rise of disruptive cell phones in the classroom. “Cell phone use has no purpose in the classroom. I, along with several other teachers on my hall, will be requiring students to place their cell phones in a holder within my classroom next year. If the phone is away from them, they cannot use it. My fear with the phones is using them to cheat on assignments or the increase of teacher sabotage by recording the teacher and using it [against him or her] out of context” explains a social studies teacher.

A history teacher chimed in to say, “Before the iPhone came out, kids could text without looking at their phones. They had the digits’ locations memorized. I knew they were texting but couldn’t take the phones away because I couldn’t see them. Today, girls either leave their purses–the BIG bag is en vogue–on their desk at an angle, so the teacher can’t see the phone or cross their legs and place the phone in their lap and pretend to haphazardly look down at the floor.”

She admits that she gives her students an ultimatum when she sees the phones. They can either put it away immediately or have it confiscated. School policy states that on the second offense, a parent must pick up the phone. Yet many parents claim they cannot run down to the school to grab their child’s phone, so many administrators wind up having to return them to the students anyway.

She has also noticed that those who text constantly almost always perform less well on tests than those who pay attention in class, explaining “That’s common sense. Brain’s can’t perform two tasks at the same time.” A scholarly article published in Teaching of Psychology in 2010 upholds this idea. It speaks of a study conducted on college students who were split into two groups. Both watched a video and were told to take notes on it as its material would appear on their next test. Yet a ringing cell phone disrupted one group’s movie experience, and those participants performed significantly worse on the part of the exam that covered information they could not hear as well as the other group due to the ringing.

Maya Cohen writes in “Cell Phones at School: Should They Be Allowed?” that cell phones allow kids to be in touch with their parents in the event of an emergency. Yet she also argues that ring tones and text-message alerts can prove extremely disruptive during lectures if students forget to silence their phones. Plus, cell phones have been used by students to call in false bomb threats to schools, and of course, they could be key tools in effective cheating and cyber-bullying.

According to David Raths in “Revisiting Cell Phone Bans in Schools,” 24 percent of K-12 schools in the U.S. ban cell phones altogether, and 62 percent allow phones on their grounds but ban them in the classroom. Nevertheless, organizations are eager to explore the market for mobile educational technology. PBS and the International Society for Technology in Education have created many educational apps geared toward students while the Princeton Review and Kaplan now offer text-based test preparation for the SAT.

The very recent decision of public schools in Montgomery, AL to allow cell phone use in the classroom sparked a debate of its own. Some argue that teachers can walk up and down desk aisles to monitor what their students are searching for online. An English professor from my college, however, has made the point to me that bringing devices like the iPad, which allow users to flow between Google, a Pages document, Facebook and online shopping with the sweep of a finger, to class would make it incredibly challenging for educators to monitor their usage for academic purposes.

Greg Graham argues in “Cell Phones in Classrooms? No! Students Need to Pay Attention” that New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg had the right idea when he instituted a cell phone ban in 2007 for the city’s public school system. He writes that today’s teenagers cannot remember a time when we weren’t so wired, when life didn’t move as quickly and accessing information took longer. He laments kids sleeping with cell phones beneath their pillows so that the buzzing of incoming messages will startle them from slumber. Neurological research is now confirming that we think and perform the best when what we are focusing on has our undivided attention. That means that texting and listening to the teacher discuss the causes of the Civil War is not the best way to ace the next exam.

As Michael Waterson mentions in “The Techno-Brain,” there is now little doubt that our love affair with technology is rewiring the very structure of our brains. Mobile devices constantly pinging and buzzing are cultivating a new ability to be drawn to distractions and an inability to switch tasks with ease.

Yet there is still hope for academic America. Students can be trained in the art of “single-tasking” in the classroom, if, as Dr. Naomi Baron, executive director of the Center for Teaching, Research and Learning desires, “a classroom (becomes) a room for sharing ideas, a space for contemplation, a setting for social interaction. None of these functions harmonizes with intrusion from the outside.”

No doubt high school students can belt out the chorus to Carly Rae Jepsen’s summer smash-hit “Call Me Maybe” or argue about the benefits and drawbacks of Twitter if you give them the opportunity. But whether or not they are allowing themselves unlimited and uninterrupted access to a solid–not to mention free–education is much more difficult to measure now that the rules of communication have changed.

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