Thinking before communicating: a new graduation requirement?

Thinking before communicating: a new graduation requirement?
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Student A enters the classroom and proclaims, “I don’t want to be here. I hate where I sit.” The student then proceeds to emit commentary throughout class even as the teacher begins the day’s lesson: “This assignment is stupid,” she says. “I don’t like anyone here.” This is not reality TV; however, some days teachers feel as if it might be.

This is real life in a real high school classroom in a real suburb outside of a real big city. We teach our students literacy skills like active reading and writing. Should we also be teaching them how to actively and critically assess appropriate versus inappropriate behavior especially since nowadays there are plenty of celebrities whose fame is often based on outrageously bad behavior?

Back talk, speaking out of turn, or smarting off: whatever we call it, kids do it. While challenging parents and teachers is typical of a teenager in the throws of adolescence, the kind of back talk I see in the classroom is different than anything I have noticed even five years ago. The fact is I do not believe many students see their back talk as wrong. If the President can Tweet whatever is in his mind, why can’t we all, right?

I fear the act of publishing content online without any thought has become the status quo. What I see and hear at the high school level is not resigned to a certain kind of kid either. Whether 14, 16 or 17, regular level or honors, challenging family background or living within a white picket fence, students seem to feel they are entitled to say anything at any time whenever the thought crosses their minds. I find it fascinating, frustrating, and, quite frankly, scary.

A colleague of mine with over 20 years of teaching experience recently talked about the freshman students she teaches, saying that in all of the years of teaching she has never had so many students feel they have the right to interrupt when she is talking, shout out any comment they wish, or quite simply talk to her as if she were their peer. They also spend almost every class period complaining loudly about whatever the lesson is for the day. They certainly do not talk to her respectfully.

I will not pretend to have the answers here. I do, however, think that this behavior is learned and that now we all have to learn how to best address it. This issue makes me more than curious because it is a real issue, one that impacts schools, families, and society as a whole. Where do we start? Where do we place blame, the rise of social media, reality television, or family breakdown?

I once had a conversation with a colleague about this issue and she, without hesitation, said she blames MTV’s The Real World and its use of the confessional booth. Cast members on this 1992-2013 reality show, known to have started the whole reality TV phenomenon, were offered a unique opportunity to step into the booth and say essentially anything in their minds while having the camera all to themselves. It was a private therapy session for public consumption. 

The Real World was just the start. Now we all live in an unreal reality in which many regular people become stars on “reality” shows, and they become known often for either doing nothing or for doing nothing while behaving badly. Or they do nothing but become known for everything they don’t do and everything they buy or wear or the changes they make to their faces and bodies. For young people, some of these same reality starts become role models.

Reality TV aside, there is another glaring reality in American society: Individuals want public education to be effective for kids but they do not always want to pay for it. The other fact is, as my Indian students have discussed, teachers in this country do not get the same respect as they do in their country. This reality plays out on television. I recently watched two different television shows on which the teachers were represented as powerless in the name of comedy. On one show, a student is visiting a high school with her mother and asks a student how she likes the school. The student responds that mostly it is OK except for how sad and pathetic it is to watch teachers try to make a difference knowing they are in an no-end job.

Another show painted the job of educator with a thin brush, where the students were in control, and the teachers were characterized as buffoons with very little control. Clearly I am a bit biased here, but I have never met anyone more dedicated to helping young people evolve into literate and respectful society members as the colleagues with whom I work. We are in the trenches, teaching academic and social skills.

The truth is teachers will continue to fight all of the battles, to teach those who do not always want to learn and to have the important conversations about respect and attitude and thinking before speaking. The fact is we cannot do it alone. Can’t we all model good behavior and thoughtfulness? Teaching the youth to monitor their behavior means guiding them to be able to read and analyze others’ behaviors and actions and determine best practice. This kind of literacy is best learned in all classrooms, whether they are the ones in schools, those depicted on television, and the great big social classroom outside all of our doors.

I remind my students often that every thought in their minds does not need to come out of their mouths or be posted immediately on Snapchat or Twitter. Thinking before speaking is critical if they are to become effective communicators. We discuss examples of powerful communication and that which is not. I feel confident in how I address this important social skill, and I am hopeful that the young people in my classroom walk away learning a lesson or two regarding effective communication. I am not always as hopeful that those with power – celebrities, reality stars, and politicians – will always be responsible with their communication. 

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Filed under: Education, Parenting

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