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By Belia Mayeno Saavedra
Shit My Students Write and Dumb $#!% My Students Say are new meme-sites poking fun at the fumbles and goofs of students. Classroom quotes and essay excerpts are posted by teachers and take the basic meme formula from Shit My Dad Says and other quick-and-dirty quotables. But at a time when schools across the country are suffering severe budget cuts, and students enter institutions with increasingly limited resources, what are these sites bringing to the conversation about education?
I once had a particularly tough day of teaching and wrote this as my Facebook status.
"2day: A student eloquently explained to his male peers how it’s unfair that women be expected to do more housework & childcare. Minutes later, the very same kid threw his unwanted muffin at the wall & clowned me for my big-ass pimple and told me I was hella old and that’s why my skin is “falling apart.” Cada cabeza es un mundo FOR REALS."
That last part is a common folk saying in Spanish: "Each mind is a world."
And even though it was a rough day, it was also a beautiful illustration of the way that this student's head was, indeed, an entire world; he could share thoughtful reflections in one moment and then be completely antagonistic in the next. Just like most of us.
However, there's a problem. When we publicly share stories like this about young people, as on blogs mentioned above, we don't have control over the ways these stories will be understood or circulated. In some ways, it's similar to the problem of losing out on a new job because there's a random Facebook photo of you drunkenly waving a purple glitter vibrator at a friend's bachelorette party. We live in public and out of context. And now that teachers are blogging student stories, or tweeting teenage bon mots, the intimacy of the learning process, with all of its embedded mistakes and miscalculations, is open to judgment by complete strangers.
In my case, most of the comments I got in response to the above post, online, and in person, were about "knuckleheads," "little shits acting up" or how "we're doomed" if this is the way that kids act these days. A quick survey of comments on the Shit My Students Say blog — and twitter feed — reflects the same mixture of dismissal and hand-wringing.
After getting feedback on my post, I had to stop and reflect on the compulsion to share these classroom moments. Sure, it's mildly entertaining to read an essay excerpt where a kid uses the word "urine" in place of the word "yearn." But is there another reason why Shit My Students Write is going viral? Am I feeding into an already dominant culture of mocking youth for doing exactly what they're supposed to do — make mistakes?
The question gets even more complicated when we consider the ways that race and class play into these memes. One Shit My Students Say entry specifically identifies the teacher as working in an "urban" school setting, which most people readily read as black, brown and poor. In another tweet, the teacher gives a few clues which would lead readers to believe that she is herself white, while her students are African-American. When I quote my students, I repeat their exact language, which sometimes includes grammar common to African-American Vernacular English. But that means I need to be extra thoughtful when I relay stories of muffin-flinging aggression or a goofed-up word- because the stories teachers share don't exist in a vacuum. We're sharing them in the context of a culture which often assumes ignorance and/or criminality is embedded in youth, in blackness, in poverty. That means our stories can be appropriated and interpreted as evidence against the people we've dedicated our professional lives to serving.
Like this moment: "Wait, Puerto Rico is like, a place? Cuz I heard that Puerto Rican is when your moms is Black and your pops is Mexican. That's how you get a black dude with a last name like Ortiz or Lopez or some shit."
I repeated this to a puertorriqueña friend out at dinner one night. We laughed- the way we laugh when a younger cousin does something cute but slightly misguided. But the laughter that came from a group of white dudes ear-hustlin' at the next table was different. It was that at laughter, not the with kind. (The kind of laughter Dave Chappelle says made him question his comedic choices, after hearing it come from a white crew member when Dave used the word "n-gg-r.") One of the men at the table then made an offhand comment about Oakland- a majority black and Latino city- producing "dumbasses." But since all of this took place in person, it was only a relatively small uncomfortable moment. I can only guess how it would have played out if we were all cloaked in Internet anonymity, which is pretty much like Popeye's spinach for racists, homophobes and general jerks.
However, even after this, I don't want to give up sharing stories. The moments when students offer brilliant insight or make me bust out laughing are the best parts of my job. Ultimately, the problem is not the stories, but the lack of reflection and context. So here are a few moments I found to be worth reflecting upon. Imagine my comments in teacherly red ink, please.
1) February 7th, 2011: “I’ma get my PhD. If you get a PhD you get to make up fake-ass words and put them in the dictionary. I always hecka wanted to write the dictionary.” The student understands that advanced graduate degrees are used to legitimize knowledge production. He also comprehends that words coined by academics aren't necessarily any more "real" than slang.
2) March 15th, 2011. "What's bi-polar? Is that like when you get really upset when you're cold?" Although not necessarily arriving at an accurate conclusion, the student is actually going through a complex linguistic reasoning process. He's trying to reconcile a new word connotation associated with being upset with something that he already understands as having to do with polar bears and snow.
3) January 30th, 2011: "Miss Belia, is you mixed with something? Because when you smile you look like that one Pokemon." OK, this one's just funny. I've got a round yellow face and when I laugh my eyes squinch up like little apostrophes. I'm basically Pikachu in a wig.
And in case you're wondering about the kid who threw the muffin and told me I was getting raggedy at the ancient age of 30, he went on to become one of the most reliable, thoughtful and motivated students in class. In other words, his life as a learner was, and is, a trajectory, not a 140 character tweet. But still, I'm keeping an eye out for #ShitMyStudentsTaughtMe.
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