1:11 PM EDT, June 17, 2014
The English 101 class I teach at Coppin is the shit. Technology is on point, we have the latest everything, and my students are amazing.
I assign hot contemporary books—right now we're reading Buck by MK Asante and just finished Jay-Z's Decoded. We also read multiple essays by both Junot Diaz and Sherman Alexie, in addition to the books that the college recommends. 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?
Why do 20 to 30 percent of them get lost midway through our discussions? Our topics are relevant and normally centered around critical thinking, transformative arcs, and universal truths, and often cause heated arguments over subjects they care about—or at least subjects that they tell me they care about. I ask because I really care . And they engage for a while, but then they proceed to scroll.
They scroll. Their heads tilt and dip like the fiends in front of Lexington Market, their eyes locked on Instagram as they finger their smart phones for the remainder of class and even after it has ended, to the point where I have to yell, "Y'all can leave now! Get out!"
They spend hours aimlessly scrolling, absorbing fake and altered realities, praising the lives of celebrities when they could be enjoying real life, participating in rich discussions, and learning. I can't blame the "boring" stigma usually attached to English 101 because our class is fun and I won't write my students off as lazy.
Something has to change. I beat the streets, I've never been to prison, I survived East Baltimore's semiautomatic-weapon crack era, I figured out how to learn in public schools, and I escaped murder multiple times, so I know I can beat a free iPhone app. My lessons are interesting and the idea of IG beating me sounds ridiculous.
So I decided to slap my class with a high-energy rant on why their addiction to social media is toxic, robbing them of real life experiences, making them robots. I ripped and fulminated against checking timelines during class for about 15 minutes. My arms swung back and forth like a conductor, spit flung from my mouth and drenched the students in the front row, and all of the cell phones were tucked away. Everyone sat erect and some even cheered me on. I made my point and I finally got through to 100 percent of my students. Well 99 percent, because someone Instagrammed a clip of my lecture with the caption,"This nigga crazy!"
But I didn't feel completely defeated. I know I reached someone: Tyree, a stocky freshman football player who witnessed that rant from the back row, approached me after class.
"I gotta apologize to you in advance," he said gripping his phone, looking down at his feet.
"Why Tyree? What's wrong?"
Tyree picked up his chin and tightened his neck. His shoulders were as wide as my desk. I repeated my question.
His eyes welled up. "I can't sit in class for a hour without checking my IG and I know you said it's making me fail but I can't do it!"
He went to tell me that he IGs or "chases the Gram" before he goes to sleep, when he wakes up, and when he drives.
"You IG and drive, Tyree! Are you crazy?" I said, shocked that he's willing to die over filtered pictures. I pulled up a chair and sat him down.
Together, we analyzed his timeline. I had to see what he saw. I had to figure out why he would let this app threaten his safety. We scrolled. He follows thousands of people with posts that are about as unique as a person in skinny jeans and dark frames nowadays. Multiple selifes, party-promoter fliers, and pictures of food—disgusting food, like trays of white macaroni with eight pieces of American cheese laying across the top, impatiently waiting to be melted, with a caption that reads something like, "My grandma makes the best mac and cheese." And then more pics of the same stuff on repeat, over and over again, each photo more underwhelming than the next.
"You'll be a fool if you fail because of IG, Tyree, but risking your life is crazy! I can't believe you look at face pics and dull food shots while driving! Does Instagram send you checks? You know you are paying for your education? Think about it."
I wanted to confiscate his phone like a drunk driver's keys; he's just as dangerous. Tyree left in shame and I was beyond pissed. I wasn't sure if it was because he was so willing to accept defeat or because I was off work and he cut into my IG time.
Yes, I'm addicted too. And I didn't realize it until my own rant made me think about checking my page.
I'd never check my page while teaching or driving but I definitely check it while I'm doing everything else—drinking, eating, sleeping, cleaning. I checked it 230 times while writing this article (I counted).
I check my Instagram as much as my students, if not more. My skin itches and I become physically ill when away from my timeline for too long. I care about my likes too. I monitor my followers and I hopelessly double tap ridiculous pictures that I don't really like with hopes of the ridiculous picture-poster returning the favor and making me equally ridiculous.
Instagram is an escape for me too. There are more dangerous escapes out there, such as heroin, but well . . . Let me retract that, IG is our dope, which would probably make Facebook methadone.
And it's not a white thing or a black thing; it's an addict thing. Neither I nor a student like Tyree is any different from the rich white kid at Harvard who chases the Gram in between yacht parties and games of polo—the Gram distracts us all. The only difference between that rich white kid and Tyree is that the rich white kid is a rich white kid, meaning that he can afford to fuck up. He has a backing, and unlike Tyree, who is a first-generation college student, failing English 101 will not stop his financial aid and get him kicked out of school.
Street kids from Baltimore like Tyree can't afford to fail classes, especially English in a city where only 7 percent of African-American males in the 8th grade read on grade level. We need to save every kid who's willing to come to class. So, maybe, as parents and educators, we can change the way we look at this whole social media thing.
If we all know that these kids are going to be in the same place at the same time with their eyes locked on the same social networks, then why can't we find a way to reach them there and educate them? Why can't we use social media as a tool to guide the lost children back into the schools while connecting with and enlightening them on levels unimaginable without social media?
I'm sure that I'm not the first one to pose this idea, but perhaps I can play role in making the shift.
When the end of the semester rolled around, Tyree, a great kid with the potential to earn As and Bs, showed some growth as a writer, but he ended up with a C. IG distractions hindered his potential. Monitoring the effects that the Gram had on a student like Tyree has lead me to question my own growth and wonder what I could accomplish if I didn't punch that app so much.
So, I deleted it with the hopes of being more productive.
Then downloaded it again a few hours later.¿
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