School is Uncool(?)

I didn’t spend time in a classroom until college, and the first real test I ever took was the SAT, but last year I found myself standing at a blackboard for the first time, writing an assignment in the biggest, most even letters I could manage. I found myself saying, “If you have a question or a comment, please raise your hand.”

I teach a group of eight-year-olds. It isn’t public school, it’s religious school. I’m an atheist, but I’m also a lay clergy member, so I guess I’m pretty qualified, if you look at it from a certain angle, in a certain light. My students are really smart. Some of them think they’re much smarter than I am, and it isn’t irrefutably clear that they aren’t. These kids are, for the most part, private schooled Manhattanites, and they wear clothes so stylish that sometimes I find myself making a mental note: “Riding boots with skinny jeans, long-sleeved shirt, and red knit vest,” even though I probably won’t end up coughing up the money for boots that nice.

But the biggest difference between my students and me is not that they dress better and have drier wits and snappier sarcastic comebacks. It’s that they care a lot more about being cool. I guess the other things are symptoms of that caring. At eight, they are already looking around to make sure no one thinks they’re lame or weird.

They’re looking at each other all the time. They can hardly spare a look for me, at the head of the class, because they’re so busy getting approval from one another. They have learned that their peers are infinitely more important than the adults who pop up to yell at them, cajole them into memorizing something, beg them to pay attention, and slap a test down in front of them.

(to be fair, this doesn’t look that inherently cool. source)

During the first class of the semester, I ask a kid if he got the folder he is carrying last session. He points to the date at the top and says, sneering, “What do you think?” He refuses to participate in the activities. From lowered eyes, he peeks around the room, gauging everyone’s reaction, every time he refuses. His lips quirk into a little smile when he says, “No. I don’t care.”

Even the kid who talks about poop all the time is only doing it for the other kids. He’s embarrassed to say something real. He’s already defensive. He starts to answer a question I’ve just asked. “I think it means that…” and then, glancing around, changes his mind and says, “they all had to poop.”

The kids giggle.

“No poop,” I say. “Let’s give an answer that doesn’t involve poop.”

It’s too late, though. He’s right back at me with, “It seems like they had to poop, because why else would they be trying to get out so fast?”

We are talking about Exodus. The biblical escape from Egypt.

(I understand now why teachers are tempted to play movies in class, instead of talking. This one might have made my life a little easier. source)

When I started teaching here, I wanted to sit in a circle with everyone and talk about stuff and play some games and sing some songs. I thought we would all speak in turn. You know, like people do. Within two days, I knew that would never ever ever work. And not just because they are eight. When I worked with a group of twelve and thirteen-year-olds it was the same. They seem to have learned to take advantage of every kindness. They snatch up every opportunity to be loud and change the subject and start their own conversations. So that, after a class or so, I wanted to yell, “I’m trying to be nice to you!! Why are you making me be mean?”

I’m sitting in a café on Amsterdam and 114th, asking my friend, “How did they already decide that learning isn’t cool? Why do they already care about being cool?”

She is a PhD student at Columbia. She isn’t sure. We speculate about their families, their school environments, the presence of nannies in many of their lives. We try to remember being eight. I don’t remember everything, but I’m pretty sure I had no idea what “cool” was. I didn’t have to know.

I have a student who raises her hand a lot. She almost always knows the answer. She guesses ahead. “I see the braided candle back there—are we going to talk about havdalah later?” Her outfits are not quite as coordinated as the other girls. But even she will catch herself sometimes, participating too earnestly, and suddenly flop around in her chair for a laugh, make a little sarcastic comment, or giggle extra loudly when that kid mentions poop.

I’m not sure what happens. Or when exactly it is that kids learn that incredibly important lesson about teachers and answering questions and their peers. But eight seems young to me. It seems way too young to pretend you aren’t curious. Or to not be curious at all. It seems too young to be afraid of your peers’ judgment. Too young to think adults are stupid and boring, and too young to be flippant. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, or stodgy, or out of touch, or something, but I kinda wish every age was too young to be those things.

Because when I went to college, I sat in classes full of kids who were just like the eight-year-olds I teach. They were bored and they didn’t want to answer too many questions because they were afraid of how it might make them look (like they were sucking up. Like they weren’t cool). They were really sure that nothing good was going to happen in a classroom.

I want to yell at my class, “I’m not one of them! I’m not a regular teacher! I’m making this fun!” And sometimes they have fun. But I have to fight for it. Because every step of the way, they’re fighting to keep school uncool.

*  *  *  *

Wild fun: Try walking somewhere you would’ve taken the subway to. It makes you feel accomplished. Look up for a block, and see what the tops of the buildings are like. They are sometimes really surprising.

10 comments to School is Uncool(?)

  • I think I became more consciously aware of wanting to be cool and fit in (which I was not and did not do well at all) in fourth grade, age 9-10. What’s funny is that I am extremely “popular” at age 28, with a ton of wonderful friends. I never knew it could be this cool, and my 9 year old self through the rest of school sure had a hard time believing it would ever get better!

    • kate

      I love stories about people who “got cool” later on. Such a huge victory. Every time I feel like that, I want to go back in time and tell my past self what’s going to happen to her. Just so she can be excited for it.

      I guess that’s actually what the whole “It Gets Better” campaign is trying to do for gay kids who are getting bullied. Great project.

  • That’s so sad. I blame pop culture. People wonder why schools are failing (usually in reference to public schools) and I’m sure it has something to do with being underfunded and taught by tired old tenured teachers who just don’t care anymore. But I think the biggest reason is what you wrote: kids don’t want school to be cool. They don’t want to sit there for eight hours a day, five days a week. They’re kids! Why would they want to work a full-time job like their uninvolved parents, sitting in one big, long meeting all day, listening to the boss drone on about info they know they’ll never need?

    They know that being exceptional will get them shunned by their peers. All they’re trying to do is survive in the sausage factory adults have relegated them to, with as little pain and humiliation as possible. It’s not that they don’t want to learn. Children learn no matter what! It’s just that what they’re mainly learning are the skills they need to survive on the schoolyard, and those skills are much more relevant to them than what’s on the curriculum. Everything else (including the teachers) are just a distraction. It’s a sad commentary, but they’re smarter than we give them credit for.

    • kate

      Do you think kids have always been bored in school, or is becoming increasingly pronounced? I’d be interested to learn more about that.

      And who would want to sit at a desk for 8 hours a day? I know I don’t! And I know most of my friends who have traditional office jobs now don’t like it either. Especially since the hours are even longer for adults, usually. More like 12 hours. Or even 14. Eek.

  • Rachel

    I don’t think being cool is the only factor. In most classrooms, especially K-12 when teachers ask questions it’s only to quiz students and not to provoke discussion. Kids learn quickly that answering won’t help them learn. When you want to change the dynamic it’s a hard sell, because the idea that the information will be revealed by the teacher and passively absorbed by pupils is already ingrained.
    At any rate, when I taught ten year olds from Seattle I didn’t find the attitudes you describe.

  • Valerie

    I’m really glad that you’re writing about homeschooling and public schooling. My boyfriend and I have discussed homeschooling our kids when we decide to have them, but we weren’t really sure how homeschool “works”. The only thing we’ve had to judge it by is a small handful of homeschooled mormons that usually fit that homeschool stereotype. We’re atheist and plan on raising our children to be free thinkers, much like we try to be! It’s usually a downer when we realize that most homeschool groups are religious. In short, thanks for the information that you provide and for blasting away at homeschool stereotypes.

    Lastly, I was a preschool teacher for years and even children of preschool age go through the same peer awareness. I worked with a large group of children with behavioral problems and special needs. When I first started, the kids quickly got out of hand, but I learned that I had to “rule” my classroom, so to speak. Eventually, the children figured out that we could have fun as a group and learn and that learning was cool if we all settled down. They also learned that when they’re messing around and seeking negative attention that I don’t respond to it, we don’t move forward with our days, and the atmosphere becomes pretty bleak and boring very quickly.

    Stick to your plan and ignore the small stuff. Eye roll them if you must. Show them it doesn’t amuse you and that you find their behavior immature. It worked for me and the preschoolers and whenever I had older kids in my care and they’d flip out because I was “treating them like little kids” I’d point out that I’d stop treating them like little kids once they stopped acting like little kids.

    Once they figured that out…we all had tons of fun! Good Luck!

    • kate

      It’s frustrating for me, too, when I meet other homeschoolers or come across them online, and everything feels comfortable until suddenly Jesus gets inserted into the conversation. I am totally fine with people loving Jesus and dedicating their lives to him, but I have no interest in being lumped in with religious homeschoolers, because we’re simply too different, and the ways we’ve approached education often don’t correspond. Which is confusing for a lot of people who don’t know very much about homeschooling.

      Anyway, secular homeschoolers are out there! I’m about to put a whole network of them on my blogroll, actually. So stay tuned. And thanks for the comment (and the teaching advice! I’m learning, slowly but surely….)!

  • […] New post over at Un-schooled, about teaching a class of eight-year-olds, who are definitely cooler than me, and who definitely […]

  • School CAN be cool, although it is usually so in secret pocket classrooms. I know, I taught in one for 35 years. By and large my students looked forward to coming to the class, and actually would run into the room, get out their work, and start “doing”. I used to joke that I didn’t need to be there. You see, I had fashioned myself into their facilitator, someone that they could ask questions of, as they took their personal journey through the class, all while working towards the curriculum (which by the way I wrote and road tested constantly). I speak for a lot of educators who say we are not working in an oppressive, lock step, environment, but in an exciting one that helps students find their inner voices, find their passions, while igniting their exploration of what it means to be a “learner”. I know I have made an impact, because I am still in contact with students from as far back as 1976, because I wasn’t just another female voice giving them small tidbits of information, but someone who cared about them and how they could take what I was teaching them and make it “real” for them. I helped THEM to connect the learning dots, instead of allowing them to have compartmentalized learning experiences. Ah, and lest you think that my teaching a non academic subject would make a difference, I also taught an academic AP discipline as well. Oh, and a tip about discipline, never assume your students think you have anything they want. You have to prove to them you do.

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