"We Opened an Art Gallery When the Kids Wanted Coachella"
We teachers have the key and the training and, for most of us, the experience to anticipate what students need and how to make curriculum “cool.” However, as a result of the pandemic, students got used to screen time being encouraged rather than ridiculed. A new routine of pajamas as a uniform and any excuse (including the valid ones) to keep the camera off developed. Trends went rampant on social media. Content became more accessible, and with it, our curriculum got lost in the fold. Our curriculum was no longer “cool,” because it wasn’t a trend, it wasn’t viral, and it wasn’t going to promote five new followers and eighty more likes. But, we kept our heads down, hearts open, and methods intact for their return to in-person instruction.
There was excitement that first day, maybe even that first week. Students (and staff) found the universally shared experience of finding joy in complaining about being at school . But after the novelty wore off, the pre-COVID techniques weren’t working as well as before. Students were used to engaging in, literally, every possible distraction. Multi-tasking was a social norm, but during distance learning it became expected. Now, students seem to be having trouble paying attention to any thing other than their screen.
Now I may just be a theatre teacher, but something dawned on me a few weeks ago: Teaching is an art; it’s our art. Administering authentic assessments, asking discussion questions which have no definitive answer, finding those quick one-minute non-academic conversations to better know your student; that’s art. But students aren’t finding value in our art. It doesn’t mean they’re bad. It doesn’t mean they’re mean or lazy or dumb. It means they’re teenagers who have other interests. It means they’re teenagers who are still baby crawling out of a pandemic, just like we are. In all our anticipation and excitement of preparing for the return of in-person instruction, we opened up an art studio when the students just wanted Coachella.
Coachella is exciting, it’s viral, it’s hip. The cool kind of hip, probably cooler than Greek Theatre. Probably. But I am not a Coachella attendee. Sure, I’ve seen the videos. Who hasn’t? Sure, I can name a few hit songs from the top two lines of head- and sub-headliners. But after that, I’m about done. Names of artists I have never heard of (and I listen to Spotify’s “New Music Friday” every weekend just so I can stay current!). I went to credential school to learn the art of teaching. I learned how to pace, plan, and display patience for my students. I learned how to take standards and be creative in how I teach them. I learned how to collaborate with colleagues so shared experiences benefit as many students as possible. But our students didn’t pay a cover charge for this. In fact, they are giving up their most valuable commodity: their attention in class, when they could be at home in a pajama uniform and on their phones or sleeping. We ask our students to treat school like a job, but it’s our job to make school not seem like a job.
At Coachella, attendees get to pick and choose which artist they want to see. They can leave for a bit, grab a bite to eat, come back later, and catch the next interesting act. They can stage hop if some artist bores them. Concert culture is filled with patrons whipping out phones to record a concert for their story, even though the rest of us see there’s nineteen videos of a murky-looking singer and choppy audio. And we followers skip right by it (just me?). Rather than being present, every “worthwhile” opportunity is now a chance to record, share, and hope for attention. Social media became social distancing’s best friend, and it's come with our students back to school, creating a distance in their socialization. “Hi, friend, how’s it going? Oh, I’ll just wait for you to look up from your screen so we can have a conversation. Oh, you’ll just send a DM. A like? Maybe a follow? Okay, cool cool cool.”
It’s a difficult issue to solve. Do teachers make them quit the tech cold turkey and risk rebellion? Do teachers go lazy on cell phone policy and trust that students will listen to direct instruction and not doom scroll through social media? Do we find ways to incorporate phone usage so our students learn healthy ways to use technology?
What I do is simple for me, but remember, I’m just a theatre teacher. No phones out when someone is talking. Period. We have a five-minute mask break (aka intermission) outside, every class. During this time, phones may be checked, music listened to, and I can have several of those one-minute non-academic conversations to better know my students. Then, we return to class mode, phones put away, and we carry on. The headliner is theatre, and the acts are our lessons. Do all my students leave their phones on silent and never take them out during class? Of course not. The teacher tone and teacher stare work wonders for those, though. I remind them and, now that we’re in October, I see phones out less and less. In fact, I have seen more engagement.
We just finished reading through our tragedy play for our Greek Theatre unit. We read through Bryan Doerries’ translation of Sophocles’ Ajax. His translations serve student-understanding quite well, making their ability to connect themes to modern-day issues incredible. After day three of reading, we finished just before Odysseus returns to call out Agamemnon. We ran out of class time and I wanted to sum up what we read so we could end class cleanly. The students groaned. “Uh oh,” I thought. “I’ve lost them. They’re over it. They wanna stage hop to the next interesting act. Sorry, Bryan, I thought they’d like it!” I have no poker face, so my students noticed my initial acceptance of their boredom and disappointment in my selection of text. One of the students explained, “No, Mr. G.! We’re groaning because we want to keep reading it! I wanna know how it ends.” “Yeah, me too!” another student added on. “Yeah! What happens next?” “Athena and Tecmessa are such girl bosses!” “Why did they do that to my boy, Ajax?” These responses, shout outs, filled my theatrical heart, and I just smiled and let them talk over each other. Like a noisy concert audience would. That’s how class ended, with the right kind of noisy classroom until the bell rang. And you know what? I didn’t see a single phone out. Take that, Coachella!