As a parent, my heart sank when I got the email at the end of my day. It read, "Re: Son's Bad Choices." It was from my son's classroom teacher and it chronicled my 9-year old's decision to use his parent-led classroom art time to express his recent interest in morbid-talk.
I came from a family of girls, and when I was a younger mom, I was somehow surprised to learn that young boys will turn anything, from juice boxes to string cheese, into guns. Now, as a mom to two boys, both of whom with leaves in their hair at any given time, hearing them in the backyard threaten invisible zombie hordes with a bloody-Pikachu-light-saber-fight-to-the-death is par for the course. As a teacher, I totally understood why his teacher needed to reach out to me.
WHY ARE SOME TOPICS TABOO?
My son, on the other hand, was totally baffled about her email, to the point of tears. He knew there were rules at school. He knows, for instance, that he can't talk about weapons at school even though we play Dungeons and Dragons weekly at our house, and his dwarf warrior has a tendency to swing first and ask questions later. He knows he can't bring his Pokemon cards to school even though he attends a Pokemon camp on his vacations that is hosted by a local speech and debate academy as a means to get elementary kids debating, strategizing, and talking. But that doesn't mean he understands why.
"We can't talk about weapons. We can't walk about Pokemon because they battle. We can't talk about magic. We can't talk about war. What do they think boys want to talk about...Fluffy purple unicorns?!" As he sees it, the school has banned all discussions that reflect what "boys are into."
Now, we can debate the fact that I was a comic-book lovin' girl who loved D & D growing up, and that this really isn't a boy/girl thing, but that's not his point. His point is that there are topics that are fascinating to him and that he is encouraged to embrace at home, but that come to a screeching halt come the morning bell.
I had to support the teacher and the rules, of course. After all, my kid was clear about what he couldn't talk about in schools, and he still chose an academic activity in which to launch his questionable artistic protest. Nevertheless, I also totally understood his frustration and I owed it to him to explain why these rules exist.
My simplified explanation, however, wasn't enough; he wanted to see some changes made. But I explained that you couldn't have a hand in changing rules if you don't respect them in the first place. People don't listen to people who just complain.
That's when this incident began to get really interesting, and that's when his teacher proved that while she also had to follow rules, she was a person who was flexible enough to leverage sincere student interest into a learning opportunity.
GENIUS HOUR AND THE GOOGLE CUSTOM SEARCH ENGINE
Her class is currently developing questions for their Genius Hour. My son's first plan was to ask how much code it would take to make a Lego Robot break down. But, with his teacher's guidance, he enthusiastically decided instead on the following:
"Why can't boys talk about certain things at school, and what can we do to make the rules more reasonable?"
His teacher and I are happier with this more sophisticated topic, but we're more nervous too. His new topic posed a challenge in how to guide him safely through his research while still ensuring that he was the one who did the research.
That led me to a tool I have used when training teachers, but I'd yet to use it for my own son: the Google Custom Search Engine.
If you want to know how to set up your own Google Custom Search Engine, check out this screencast here.
The Google Custom Search Engine allows a teacher (or parent) to create their own browser and load it only with the websites that they wish. In this case, I loaded it with kid-friendly news sites and articles that I vetted about various related topics. I loaded it with Newsela, TimeforKids, and articles about the banning of Pokemon cards, first amendment information, and various other posts from parenting outlets. Some of these focused on deflating fears about "gun talk" in young children while others focused on why it was so scary to teachers and parents to hear that kind of talk. I tried to load it up with both sides of the issue, and I'm hoping that my own bias isn't evident in the resources I provided.
So, in other words, when my son goes to his unique browser (aptly named "Google Gawron"), he can enter keywords of his own choosing: guns, boys, school, etc...and not get adult-level graphic descriptions of recent school shootings. He can also develop his own questions and type in, "Why can't we battle Pokemon cards in school?" and get applicable websites that address his issues.
He's learning media literacy while not seeing something he can't then un-see. I created the browser so that I could then confidently walk away to let him conduct his own research.
RECOGNIZING THE TEACHABLE MOMENT
I'm not sure where this topic will lead him, but his teacher and I are emailing back and forth to ensure that we're guiding him to move independently through a really sophisticated topic. I sent her the URL of the Google Gawron browser, and she's already sent me another website to add to it that she feels would help him in his research. His job is to stumble on these resources with his selection of keywords and questions. We're not feeding him his inquiries, but providing the safe environment in which to maneuver.
In the end, my son claims he wants to make a change in his school's policy. That might mean a meeting with the principal or even a speech to the district Board of Education. Who knows? But if those stakeholders can recognize the learning moment as quickly as his teacher did, my kid might have a shot at feeling like he's made a difference in his small community.
The Internet is a scary place, to be sure. But luckily, there are tools out there to help us as both parents and teachers. And I'm grateful to his teacher that she was willing to work as a team to show my son that his learning is more important than the school handbook.