Danger! Assuming That Students Understand Our Words Fails ThemBy Susan Fitzell
Bev and her husband had hosted an inner city teen for a few of weeks during the past summer. She gushed about what a fulfilling experience it had been, then she paused, reflected for a moment, and confessed, “It was eye-opening, though. I wasn’t prepared for how different our worlds are.” It had been over a year since my friend Bev and I had talked at any length, and intrigued to hear more, I urged her to tell me about it. She shared her story.
I was driving out of my comfort zone to pick up a complete stranger. You can imagine. I was both excited and nervous. Going through my mind were all of the icebreakers and questions I could conjure up while focusing on the road. It was what my heart wanted, I knew deep down that it was all going to be worth it; we’d give it our best shot, and things would work out for the best. One thing that I wasn’t prepared for, though, was that first car ride home.
I figured that the drive would give us a nice opportunity to open up and get more familiar with each other. Before much was said though, Freddie grabbed his earbuds (headphones to me) out of his pocket and plugged in his iPod. I was left alone with my thoughts, “How can you have a conversation when the headphones are in? How do you hear what is going on?”
Even today, my kids don’t get in the car and put on their headphones. They listen to the music playing in the car. Why? Because we still often have conversations while we ride. I can get the Internet on my phone with the latest news, and sometimes I will pipe up about something interesting when I’m in the passenger seat. That is just one way we start a discussion.
Tuning back in, I heard Bev continue with her story…
When we arrived at home Chuck was in the backyard busy grilling dinner. I took Freddie out back and introduced the two of them, but still, Freddie didn’t take out his headphones. As we sat down for dinner, I finally asked, “Freddie, I’d like you to unplug yourself while we eat.” Once I had access to his ears I said, “I do not advocate headphones at the table. Dinner is a great time to talk and get to know each other a little.”
He looked at me baffled and asked, “What does ‘advocate’ mean?”
I was surprised. Isn’t that a common word, something a teen should know? But I explained what it meant, and I said, “Thank you for asking about the meaning of that word because we don’t want to use language that you don’t understand. If there is any word we ever use that you don’t know, just ask, and we will tell you.”
Eventually our conversation moved to our plans for the coming weeks. Chuck and I soon realized we had very different opinions about our plans and time commitments. But we discussed our ideas, considered the alternatives, asked Freddie for his opinion, and came to a compromise. Freddie ate but didn’t say much else until dinner was over. As we were leaving the table, Freddie asked, “Do you two always do that?”
“Do what?” I asked.
“You know, talk like that.”
“Well, in my house everything that gets brought up turns into an argument. People get mad, they throw things, I put my music in and try to block it all out. You guys just talked, talked a lot, and then you agreed, even though you both had different ideas, even though you both thought your idea was better.”
I had to tell him, “That’s the way adults make decisions. And, yes, sometimes we have to compromise.”
This is one of those tidbits that might appear to be a bit of fluff, but it’s not. Research has shown that when students feel safe, comfortable, and positive in their environment and can participate in discussions, achievement goes up.
In another way, for me, this is one of the silver linings because it’s the kind [continued next page]