April 2018

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

NL #5: Warning: Do not try this at home.

NL #5: Teens are easily fooled, something they don't want you to know but once you know, fooling them can be great for their education.

My friend Colleen, a science teacher, told me last week that she has a frog stuck in her walls. From time to time it ribbits. (I would say "croaks", but I don't want you to think I'm writing about a resurrecting frog). Colleen told her students that this frog came to talk to her. It's there, it told her, because it wants to learn about freshmen, but it's shy and afraid, so it stays in the wall. Some don't believe her, but others nod knowingly each time it ribbits.

I learned the most about fooling teenagers from my colleague Don. When we were teaching an American Studies course together, our class was discussing Ben Franklin's "How to Make a Great Nation into a Small One." To experience the frustration and sense of powerlessness Franklin was discussing, we orchestrated a little trick so that students might experience similar emotions. We were in a new school, one that had separated from the historical high school, and these juniors were frustrated with a sense that they were powerless in the school (the "hat rule," stating they were not allowed to wear hats, was the symbol of this powerlessness for them.)

Before class, Don and I wrote a letter on school letterhead, signed by the principal, saying that there would no longer be reserved student parking for upperclassmen. We promised the gun-shy principal that we wold not let the letters escape the room. The principal, a good sport, came into the class with the letters, placed them with evident exasperation on a table, and told us to pass them out. "What's it about?" we asked. "Just do it. I'm sick of this," she demanded and sort of slammed the door as she stomped out. The students laughed a nervous laugh and angled for the letters.

Don and I acted as though we would distribute the letters at the end of the class, but students got ahold of them and passed them around. A ripple of fury went through the class. They ranted. Finally, one student (Andy, who was particularly fond of his duct-taped hat), sort of yelled, "This is just what Ben Franklin was talking about. We don't have the power to make decisions that affect us!" Don smirked. I was guarding the door both to insure that students did not run after the principal and to make sure that I didn't give the hoax away.

Don said to them, "You [pause] have been duped." The room got very quiet. Finally, Maya asked, "What's duped?"

Teenagers may seem skeptical, but this skepticism is an act of self-preservation. They really don't know what to believe, so they're guarding themselves with doubt--sometimes with doubt cloaked in surety. Maybe that 's something we never grow out of, protecting ourselves from our own sense of vulnerability.

Warning: Do not try this at home. Teenagers can be unpredictable and such tricks should only be applied by a professional.


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