Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Tase Me, Bro

Today in my Title I reading workshop we're taking a look at an issue that has made recent headlines: the fan at a Phillies game who ran onto the field and was subdued via taser by police. I've just completed 90 or so hours of state-mandated Category 1-4 English Language Learner (ELL) teacher training. Much of this training has focused on methods of modifying instruction for students whose primary language is something other than English. This population of students, which is very culturally diverse, makes up a majority of students within the juvenile justice system. In my ELL training, there's a lot of emphasis on building background, in explicitly linking concepts to students' own personal experiences.

In preparing for this lesson, I think a lot about how I can build background for my students. I'm guessing they've heard about this issue, because the TV is on in the living room downstairs somewhere between frequently and always, and it's tuned to ESPN about 90% of the time. It's a sports issue, I reason, so they'll have to have at least heard of this, right? I pre-teach some of the vocabulary in the NY Times Bats blog post by Justin Sablich ("tased," "appropriate," "force," and "stunt" are a few); we watch a 45 second You Tube clip of the kid running on the field and being taken down; we do a shared reading of the NY Times sports article, "To Tase Or Not To Tase?"; and we listen to a podcast excerpt of the Tony Kornheiser Show in which several sportswriters/commentators discuss the ins and outs of this issue.

True confessions: before teaching the lesson, I pretty much make up my mind that the kids are going to love the fan who ran out on to the field and hate the trigger happy stun gun cop. How could they not? Kids in juvie hate cops, don't they? Plus, every teenage kid probably wants to get his 15 minutes of fame somehow, some way. They'll think the fan is cool and the cop's a jerk. I'm totally convinced of it.

As we finish reading the blog post, Carlos blurts out: "Miss, I've been tased before. It feels like a big shock, and your arms drop and you go down. Oh, and it leaves a big red mark." Raul adds, "Yo Miss, I haven't been tased before, but my brother has. The cop had to hold the trigger down like, mad long, because my brother's really fat, and he had to like, aim it at his ankle and his back and stuff. My brother had like a heart problem and had to go to the hospital when that happened." By the end of the day, I find that all but one of my students have direct experience with being tased. They know how it feels. I don't.

So much for the freshly-trained teacher building all that background. I half laugh to myself as I realize something: they've built the background for me.

We compile a pros and cons wall around the issue, and each kid contributes something to it. Some play devil's advocate, some not. We discuss the rights and wrongs, the who-did-whats and what-would-you-have-dones. At the end of the class, each kid writes a reflection statement in response to the appropriateness of the use of tasers on fans who trespass at a major league ball game. "People need to act right when they're in public," Pablo writes in his response statement. "We couldn't know what the kid was going to do. No one can know. He could have had a weapon. And if the cops had taken him down in a tackle, he could have gotten way more hurt. The taser was an appropriate use of force in this case."

By the end of the day, every kid agreed that it was the fan who was at fault for making a poor decision to run out on to the field. Every kid sided with the cop for using the taser to subdue the fan and control the situation.

I begin to realize that this happens all the time. By 'this,' I mean the prejudging of my students. Lots of people take these kids of color, these kids in lock up, put them in boxes and attach labels: 'Trouble.' 'Lazy.' 'Stupid.' And although I definitely don't see my kids as any of these things, I had sized them up in a certain way because of their status as juvenile offenders. I 'knew' their opinions before hearing what they really thought and reading what they wrote. I made them guilty of something, in my own mind, before hearing their testimony.

Now, some may say that mine isn't such a horrible gaffe. But thoughts, even the tiny, invisible ones, can lead to meaningful behaviors and actions that are detectable by others. I really want my students to be sure, as often as possible, that I believe in them, that I give them the benefit of the doubt. I think all teenagers need guidance by adults who have this attitude. As I reflect on today's lesson, I feel a bit disappointed in myself. I'll try not to make this mistake again. And I suppose what I feel the most is gratitude to these boys for reminding me that teachers, not just students, can learn important lessons in their own classrooms.

It's true I've never been tased. But today I felt a little stun. And it felt good.

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