Today, I gave up.
I know we’re not supposed to have students using cell phones in school. But, for those of us who teach, you know that the kids have them and they use them and you might as well be telling them to hold their breath while in class if you tell them to put their phones away. I’m the Activities Director at my high school. One of my assignments is to work with the Seniors during the standardized testing days. Seniors don’t get tested; so, while the rest of the school is diligently bubbling their little fingers off, I have to entertain, occupy and keep the Seniors in thrall inside the school gym for four hours.
It is exactly as awful as you can imagine. I have tried to come up with activities that will interest them, but, honestly, with about 400 teenagers in the room, you know that there’s no way to make all of them happy. You know how there’s always two or three kids in class that hate the assignment, no matter how cool it is? Well, multiply that out. Instead of 30 or 40 kids, you have 400. So, instead of 2 or 3 it’s 20 or 30. Or more. It can get ugly fast. They don’t want to be there and they’re old enough now to start questioning why they are there and what’s the point. So, even when we bring in a good speaker who talks about successful strategies they can use to manage their time, money and life when they get into college or the work world, there’s still a bunch of them that just don’t care. Or, if we bring in a three-screen multi-media movie/presentation designed to inspire them to achieve more, there’s a bunch that are bored. We have tried all these things and more.
I have even put together a full-fledged carnival on the soccer field with inflatable slides, bounce houses, climbing walls, and bungie swings. And, still I get complaints. If you teach high school for any length of time you come to realize that teenagers simply complain. It’s in their nature, somehow.
So, yesterday, I went into the gym and had one of the worst days ever with the Seniors. This is my fourth year doing it. It was hot and they were restless and that was after a half an hour. It was so bad that even our guest speaker had to stop and say, “Guys, I’m not getting paid to be here. I’m just trying to help you out with some good information. Try to show a little respect.” To no avail. They stopped talking for a minute. But, then the phones were out, the ipods were out, the earbuds were in, and so on. One girl literally turned her back on the speaker to talk with her friends. Yes, I went up into the audience to admonish her. I stared down several kids using their iPods. I motioned many to put away their phones.
Some reading this might say, “So, Poirier, take control! Make those kids put that stuff away and pay attention.” I agree. That’s a super idea! But, when it’s more than half of the audience, it’s almost impossible. Let’s be honest, discipline in a classroom, or assembly, is really by agreement of the students more than anything else. And, my experience is, if you get too heavy-handed, they turn on you completely. If you have 400 plus surly Seniors in the gym and they turn on you, well, I think you must realize it’s not a good thing at all. In a way, if we’re being honest, I’m really just keeping them there long enough to qualify for ADA money. We simply can’t allow them all to be absent that day, no matter how much we might want to.
However, today, I gave up. Today, I pulled out my iPad and used my @kaiserasb Twitter account with the students. See, Twitter has this cool feature that if you have text messaging on your phone, you can access the Twitter service with the phone number 40404. In fact, you don’t even need a Twitter account! Anyone can text the words “follow @username” to 40404 and they will get that user’s tweets as text messages. (Note: replace the word “username” with the username of the person you want to follow.) So, I had the kids all type a text message that read “follow @kaiserasb” and send it to 40404. Then, I told them that periodically I would have them text me something to win extra tickets to bring guests to the graduation ceremony. Our graduation tickets are like gold to some of these kids.
Next I told them that I wouldn’t take questions except through Twitter. They had to text the question @kaiserasb to get me to answer it. It became a game, even. And, my Twitter timeline became a backchannel discussion that leaked into the main discussion, or, at times, became the discussion.
It was fun! Imagine that! I was enjoying the Senior Assembly!!! Now, I’m not going to pretend that everyone was listening, because they weren’t. But, Robert A. Heinlein once said, “Never attempt to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig.” Now, I object, in principle, to referring to any of my students as pigs, obviously, but this is a metaphor, not a comparison. In this case, trying to get some of these kids to pay attention to me as I went over the Code of Ethics for graduation activities, or the Senior Information pamphlet was useless. So, I began the day by saying, “Today we are going to go over graduation information. You will sign a sheet later saying you understand what is expected of you. Also, we will keep track of who was present today and by being present, you agree that you are responsible for what we cover. However, being that you are all 17 at least and probably even 18 years of age, I am going to give you the choice to pay attention or not. If not, please move further up the bleachers. If you want to listen and pay attention then please move further down the bleachers or sit here on the floor and it will be easier.” I gave them a couple of minutes to move.
And then I went over the Twitter usage. For me, it worked a charm! Kids were tweeting questions about graduation, they were reading the pamphlet and the code of ethics and then asking questions, they were responding to my questions and they were commenting on the information. Some complimented my new haircut. Others asked when they could go home. I learned that kids use the term “ratchet” as a noun to describe someone in an unfavorable light, as in, “Can @kaiserasb get this ashy ratchet away from me?” I didn’t. I said that was their problem. Someone tweeted to me, “@kaiserasb You are #winning!” For those unaware, # is a hashtag that Twitter uses to track tweets so you can search for all #winning tweets easily. Also, winning is something Charlie Sheen does, apparently. Someone else claimed they had SWAG! I said that my wife says I have swag and got a tweet back that “@kaiserasb ain’t got no #swag!” The kids were smiling, laughing and enjoying the back and forth. I got requests for shout outs and delivered them. The teachers who were helping supervise even got shout outs. It felt great! It felt cutting edge! A room full of kids interacting, time flying by.
Oh, and the kids learned what was proper behavior at graduation, what the dress code was, how to check out and so on. How do I know? Because I would periodically say, “Okay, for a free graduation ticket, tell me who you turn your Code of Ethics into once it’s signed.” And I checked my Twitter feed for the first tweet to correctly identify the bookkeeper. I later said, “What do you need to bring with you to pick up your tickets for graduation?” Someone tweeted back, “ID” and another “CYA ticket.” Both were correct. Both received free graduation tickets. And instead of having to stop and get their name, I simply “favorited” their tweet on my timeline and went back later to see who got the free tickets.
So, I got instant feedback from the kids that cared. Were they all engaged? No. But, then, they all wouldn’t have been engaged anyway. I have sat through enough staff meetings, attended enough conferences to tell you that even the best speakers with an audience that actually cares, probably loses about 20% of the audience’s attention at any given time. So, instead of people that want to be there, replace them with 12th graders suffering from severe senioritis and you can imagine what a tough room that is. I could have been more strict and pushed the kids to be quiet and listen. But, I would have been a lot more angry and they would have been a lot less cooperative. Honestly, I think I got more engagement from them today than ever before. I answered more questions because I didn’t have to say, “You, there, in the red, yes, what’s your question? What? Say it again? People, quiet down I can’t hear the question. Oh okay.” I didn’t even ask them to quiet down in two hours. The kids that wanted to get the information got it. The others? Either they got it and moved on to their own thing or they didn’t care and will suffer natural consequences, or it never mattered in the first place because they weren’t graduation. Ultimately, today, everybody got something they wanted.
I call that a #winning situation.