Too Cool for School?

Posted by Melissa Buie on Wed, Nov, 14, 2012 @ 09:11:00 AM

In Hinds Community College, college, classroom behavior, faculty, English


(photo by Jeremy Wilburn and Greg Bishop of UIS.EDU)

As a teacher, getting caught up in negative situations can sometimes be too easy. After all, we are stressed with our personal issues along with those our students decide to share with us. Besides that, we have papers to grade and tests to scan or books to review and evaluations to oversee. I don't have enough time to go to the bathroom between classes. You don't have enough time to retrieve your materials from Duplicating. Sigh! Isn't it awful?

Not really actually.

Let me just say that today was one of THOSE days--one of those "teachable moments" days reminding me just why I chose this job.

One of my favorite poems to teach is "We Real Cool" by Gwendolyn Brooks. On a surface level, it is such a simplistic poem about a group of high school students who have skipped school to play pool, "lurk late," and "thin gin." In other words, these pool players are now "largely unfit for and unable to participate in conventional society" due to being part of a "counterculture," as Urban Dictionary so eloquently defines the status of "too cool for school."

This poem's simplicity makes it highly accessible to developmental students, particularly in Beginning English or Intermediate English, as I have witnessed this semester. As a tool for teaching summary, I integrated Brooks's work because I believed that it would be easy to understand yet would be thought-provoking. I also thought it would provide a little shock value. A poem of only roughly eight sentences? Simple sentences? With an AABB rhyme scheme? Am I back in elementary school? I could imagine the students' confusion at first over having such a seemingly one-dimensional literary piece handed to them.

But elementary students do not read about numbskulls who choose to bypass educational opportunities in hot pursuit of negative consequences. Elementary students do not yet have the skills to dig deeply and realize the embedded advice that Brooks actually provides to her audience in this short, valuable poem. My students do possess those abilities, and they responded with ferocity, which made me proud and satisfied that my little assignment worked to get them thinking about the lasting value of education contrasted against only the temporary satisfication of rebellious behavior.

One student classified this poem under one of this year's most well known phrases: YOLO! (For those readers out of the pop culture loop, that means "You only live once!") He insisted that the young people in the poem are only exploring their options and testing their boundaries. They, he said, are doing what much of young America still does after obtaining drivers' licenses and a bit of freedom. But another student pointed out quickly that having no polished plan for the future is simply being reckless. She noted that most everyone has a friend or relative who had potential but who chose the wrong path that led to his/her academic and/or professional destruction.

Much of the students' opinions revolved around peer pressure and the fact that many young people struggle with defining self; thus, they allow stronger influences to direct their paths.   One of my favorite reactions, in fact, was a student who proclaimed that the pool players' situation is representative of a long line of rebels who teach new recruits to keep acting like "complete fools."  Another student remarked that some people unfortunately have the attitude that "school is for fools." Many students then commented sadly on the opportunities that they have seen missed or even destroyed by friends and family members who have given into peer pressure.

In the classroom, I was reminded today that our students are listening to us although we, as educators, may sometimes feel as though they are not, especially when we are caught up in our whirlwind of anxiety over last minute quizzes and final grades. Our students are realizing the importance of education; they are seeing, and some are even regrettably living, the results of reckless abandonment and of decisions gone awry.

One of the students' statements that I treasure most from today's writing and discussion is this:

"You can be real cool in the classroom while doing some work."

Right, you are. Right, you are.