Being an inner city teacher, my favorite part in D. Watkins's great book, The Beast Side, is the chapter with the ironic title of "Chasin' the Gram." Watkins is a former drug dealer, so it would be easy to assume he is writing about cocaine. Instead, Watkins is sounding the alarm about another addictive threat -- Instagram.
Although Watkins now teaches English 101 at Coppin State University, he had attended a school similar to the one where his nephew, Butta, was stuck in an in-house suspension class of some sort where:
School seemed like a jail, and level two -- Butta's floor -- was the psych ward. Students bolting up and down the hallways, desks taking flight, a trail of graded and ungraded papers scattered everywhere, fight videos being recorded on cell phones, Rich Homie Queen blasting at highest decibel, crap games and card games going down with children named Bitch and Fuckyou ...
Watkins and his sister had sought to get Butta out of a class covered by a sub who texted through the class and back to his "real teacher." But, "she was gone that day anyway -- stomped down and beat up, we later learned, by eight-grade girls mad she had confiscated their cell phones."
Back when he was in school, Watkins couldn't appreciate the required reading, such as Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Now, he knows differently but "my perspective was different when I was a kid. I came from a neighborhood with shootouts, dirt bikes, police raids, junkie fights, block parties, and hoop tournaments. Adventures happened every day and Twain seemed corny to kids like us; fences weren't being whitewashed with paint, but sidewalks were being red-washed with blood."
Watkins was transformed by the same books that grabbed the attention of my students, Sister Souljah's The Coldest Winter, Richard Price's Clockers and Sherman Alexie's essays. But, now, 20 to 30% of his students get lost midway through their class discussions on these writers. Watkins worries, "My students and I rep the same generation -- I look like them, we're close in age, and we even bump the same music. So why can't they focus in class?" Too many students "engage for awhile, but then they proceed to scroll." Like methadone fiends, they turn to Instagram.
Cheers later erupted when Watkins tried to "slap my class with a high-energy rant," condemning their addiction to social media. Then, his rant was Instagrammed!
Afterwards, a football player apologized, "I can't sit in class for an hour without checking my IG (Instagram)." He "IG's or 'chases the Gram' before he goes to sleep, when he wakes up, and when he drives."
Watkins admits that he chased the gram 230 times while writing his article, so he also is addicted. In the chapter's grand finale, Watkins deletes his IG - and then downloaded it again a few hours later.
I know that digital distractions have grown worse since I left fulltime teaching. It never made sense that we had metal detectors (for all the good they did) and yet allowed cell phones to keep "he said, she said" fights going. I often wondered how many of my deceased students might be alive today if we had taught them to use, but not be abused by cell phones. I also wondered if it was possible to explain today's obsession with social media without asking whether it fills a great moral and emotional void.
After the video of the South Carolina cop's brutal arrest of a student who did not hand over her cell phone, Watkins's insights are especially timely. But, that is a topic for a whole new piece.
We must heed Watkins's call and teach reading and writing in an authentic manner that speaks to our kids' worlds. We also must teach digital literacy and engage in a give and take on digital ethics. To do so, we must appeal to the moral consciousness of our kids.
Early in my career, as our lessons approached closure, the kids knew what was about to happen, and often I would hear from around the room, "Here comes the Jesse Jackson speech." As Reverend Jackson became less omnipresent, the phrase changed, and the students' new response was, "Preach, brother! Preach!" I didn't enter teaching with a plan to create classroom traditions of call and response. The students co-created the institution of teach and preach. Once they had been treated with the respect due to a student, the kids demanded more of it.
So, here's my rant. Whether in Baltimore, my Oklahoma City, or the most affluent metropolises, modern society continues to reduce the attention spans of adults and children alike. As our entire culture takes on the characteristics of Attention Deficit Disorder, it would be nice if we could toss our concentration skills on the ash heap of history. As the world speeds up, however, we must preserve at least some of our old-fashioned skills.
Reading is changing and we cannot hold back the tide. But some of the essence of literacy must be preserved -- at least until we can lay a foundation for an equally profound replacement. And we must join Watkins in promoting reading and writing that is authentic to young people.
We adults cannot predetermine what the attention spans of subsequent generations will be. Nor should we try. We should take our stand by umpiring a structured discussion on the principles that we seek to preserve. It is not up to teachers to preordain which of our favored values survive, but we must protect the integrity of the schooling process.
We must remember the key words of The Death of a Salesman within a higher context. "Attention must be paid." We all have a moral core, and we all want attention to be paid to our humanity. The hearts of teens today are as hungry as those of preceding generations. I doubt there is another power on earth that could stop them from "Chasin' the Gram."