“What’s the point of a time capsule?”
There wasn’t an answer.
These are the worst kinds of situations for a teacher. When your forced into doing something and end up endorsing it with such half-assed passive-aggressiveness your students can’t help but question your sincerity.
Your gut instinct is to respond, “there is no point. It’s a waste of time.”
That, however, means having to speak with them.
No, not them. Them.
You rarely if ever see them and they wouldn’t recognize your sorry ass if you stood right in front of them with a nametag.
They, however, are the top of the pyramid.
They decide the curriculum.
They live in a pre-COVID world of social distancing from all the people they are attempting to “save”.
They can fire you without cause.
There are plenty of schools where this is true. Many an educator can be fired without cause at a moment’s notice.
That’s what happens when you mix a cocktail of anti-union sentiments and the roaring calls to “corporatize” education.
Time to engage in their little project.
“Well, the point of a time capsule is to give future generations a chance to see what life was like during a different time period. Kind of like a mini-museum with artifacts.”
The blank looks. I don’t blame anyone for giving me that look at this juncture.
“Mr. A, we have the internet now. We have video. We have recordings. We’ve got so many ways to record everything, why do we need any more?”
The urge. The urge to say, “I know, right?”
Like a good teacher, suppression is there.
“All very good points and I agree. This, however, forces us to widdle down all considerations to a small sample.”
“So, instead of using the boundless cloud of info, we have to pick something concrete?”
“Exactly. Couldn’t have said it better myself.”
“Mr. A, what does this have to do with anything? We were learning about the Carlisle Indian School yesterday and now this?”
“I know it’s an interruption in what we’re doing. I understand what you’re saying.”
“Then why are we doing this?”
“Because the school….”
Eyerolls and exasperated hands all around. The kids trust me enough to know this is code for, “I didn’t decide this”. They know it’s coming down from somewhere, especially when its this abrupt and random.
I may be many things as an educator but spontaneously off-topic is not one of them
“Really? This again?”
“Seriously, Mr. A, this sh-“
“I mean, this…. Stuff-“
“Why’d they do this again?”
The practice of inserting a random assignment, project, goal, or whatever is not a rare occurrence. The kids are as attuned to the song-and-dance as much as anyone in the building.
How does The Board not realize how poorly this all goes?
Because they’re not here.
Oh, sure, you’ll see a few members come through and tour the school during the day. They’ll peak through the windows, wave, and then smile at the school COO.
That’s right, our school has a Chief Operations Officer.
The kids catch on to this at an early age and play along. There’ll be the occasional joker who decides to mess with the audience and, to be honest, I usually let it go. Kids are kids and if you expect them to “perform”, well, sometimes a little improvisation occurs.
“Okay, so, Mr. A, how long do we have to do this? Is this like homeroom?”
With mandatory homeroom activities, you can chalk up the activity as a one-day necessity. We all get it over with and then get back to normal the next day.
Cost of doing business.
“We are being asked to spend the next two days-“
Audible groan? No. This is McNabb coming off the field after another worm-ball on third down.
This is fine grade booing.
“Alright, alright, I hear you, I hear you.”
“What if we just get it done today?”
“There’s a follow-up assignment-“
Upgrade to Kobe at the 2002 All-Star Game.
Thundering. An echoing disproval.
“Okay, okay, I more than hear your objections. I’m literally feeling them in my chest.”
“Mr. A, how can you agree to go along with this?”
Agreed? When did anybody say anything about agreeing to this? Then again, as both an adult and an “authority figure”, I guess there’s some complicity on my part.
I still, however, will not say “we”. Nope, they were the ones who wanted to pull off this stunt and they are the ones who’ll never hear the dissatisfaction. Once the whole ordeal has been completed, a couple of them may come to see the final result (after school hours, of course) and the rest will see some photos or a video during the next board meeting.
“See! Look at how happy the children are! They’re so engaged! We must give ourselves many pats on the back!”
I can see it now. They’ll finish congratulating themselves, head on over to the local micro-brew, and toast their “vision”.
Boy, would it be grand if they spent less money on $6 IPAs and invested more into our healthcare plan.
“Here’s how we’re going to do this. We’ll break into groups. Everyone will have 15 minutes to discuss what they believe should go into the time capsule. Each group will then present their argument to the class for 5-7 minutes. We will then reopen the floor for a debate.”
“Mr. A, can we change our mind once all the groups have presented?”
“You can’t switch up on your group! That’s betraying the cause!”
“That’s a fair question, Ty. Yes, if you hear all the other groups speak and decide you want to switch for the final vote, that’s perfectly fine.”
“So, the final debate means we can, like, ask more questions about another group’s item?”
“For sure, yes.”
“Know what this is? It’s like jury duty.”
“I think I know where you’re going, but do you mind expounding on that Ms. Minnie?”
“Well, we’re meeting in groups to discuss our ideas, right? Well, once our group picks an item, we present it to the class like evidence in a courtroom. We try to make a persuasive argument-“
“Look at this one using the key terms!”
“Let her finish, Chris.”
“As I was saying, we try to make a persuasive argument and convince everyone else of our point-of-view. Everyone in the room hears everyone else’s’ argument and then we deliberate. Kind of like jury duty mixed with the role of prosecutor/defensive attorney.”
“There is some overlap. Who’s the judge?”
“We are. Our voting acts as the judge, in a way.”
“Mr. A, can we wear some of those wigs like they do in… which country was that again where they wear those curling iron wigs?”
“There’s a few.”
“You talking about Zimbabwe, Chris?”
“Yeah! Can we get some of those?”
“Unfortunately, I don’t have them on stand-by. Maybe next year.”
“Oh! My bad, I meant, ‘shucks’!”
“Okay, three groups of five and two of six. If you can’t form a group in the next 15 seconds, I’m putting you in one. 15….”
“Wait! Mr. A, does the object have to be super specific or anything?”
Count on Ms. Minnie to come through in the clutch.
“Yes, okay, wait, wait. Here is your prompt; the object needs to show future generations what life was like for this specific class.”
“-frick a frack does that mean?”
“Okay, here’s something to consider, real quick. How do we know what life was like at the Carlisle Indian School?”
“Yes. Like what?”
“Journals, interviews, testimonies.”
“Absolutely. These are some of the pieces of evidence we have that tell us, meaning future generations, what life was like as the Carlisle Indian School.”
“Is the school still there?”
“The building and the land are, yes, but they’re used for different purposes.”
“Man, Mr. A, why can’t we just learn more about that? The moment we finally start learning about Native Americans, people be pulling this BS-“
“Sorry. This nonsense out.”
“Can I offer one piece of unsolicited advice here?”
“Think about what you just said and try to apply it to this assignment. That feeling you have, how much you want to learn about the experiences of Native Americans in this country, and not just the negative ones. Think about what you want future generations to know. What should they know about this class? The people in it. Keep in mind, you don’t have to only consider the positives. You can just easily put something not-so-flattering.”
“How much time do we have?”
An obligatory glance at the clock.
“Let’s go for 20 minutes. I’ll set the timer up.”
Fiddle with a button or two aaaaannndd we're off.
If nothing else, breakouts are a nice way to break up the monotony. The kids can take a moment to relax, regroup, and get down to business, and often will get back on topic because, as Shae once put it, "we might as well make less work for ourselves."
The principal says I rely on breakouts too much.
“Less vocal kids don’t get to feel comfortable.”
“How do we quantify success?”
“Why aren’t you monitoring on your feet the whole time?”
“When are you going to sit in?”
So, here’s the thing. When you know a class really well, you know whether or not to “monitor”, “hover”, and all those other annoying weak-kneed verbs they shove down your throat during PD.
This class will be insulted if I “hover”. They’ll stop talking and ask, “Mr. A, is there a problem?”
Ms. Minnie, Ty, and Chris are the most vocal and almost never partner up. There simply isn’t enough oxygen. Each ends up forming their own group and pools together some combo of friends and strangers.
Now, before dismissing this as a too-good-to-be-true fantasy, listen closely.
Sometimes, the combinations do not work. We’re talking hostile. Crossfire circa early 2000s hostile.
Fortunately, at least for today, the groups are in sync. Ty’s involving the quietest kid in the whole grade, Melo, by asking him to illustrate what his thoughts are. Ty knows Melo doodles all the time during class, yet, probably has the best grade of all his peers. He may not vocalize his thoughts, but he illustrates them brilliantly.
Chris did a check on Amirah and immediately recognize she wasn’t ready to go. He’s not pressing. He asked how she liked to contribute and, initially, she said she didn’t want to. Fine. Chris knows that you have to give Amirah her space every once in a while. She’ll come around.
Ms. Minnie doesn’t do a thing. Nada. She recognizes how some of her peers may view her as a ticket to an easy A. What they don’t anticipate, however, is her capacity to sit back and force everyone else to get the ball rolling. No way she’s going to do all the heavy lifting. Not every day.
“My mom used to tell me how amazing it was that AI dragged the Sixers to the finals back in ’01”, she once told me. “Then I learned how busted up his body became and how it cost him later on. So, I figure, ‘why drag everyone else up and make dead weight for myself? Sometimes the Eric Snows and Aaron McKies need to step up.’ And you know I won’t be fooled by some bumass Chris Weber or Glenn Robinson, Mr. A.”
Today, she’s coming off the bench. More Jamal Crawford than Iverson.
Twenty minutes go by fast when young minds work fluidly. If I meddle, they stop. My teaching neighbor across the hall once said I was like a mother bird letting the chicks fly.
I’m just a guy who acts off observation.
There’s plenty of old teachers who’ve scolded me for “putting too much faith” in the kids or “sitting back and not doing anything.”
That’s their problem, not mine.
“Okay, let’s bring it together. Which group will go first?”
Shae’s hand rockets up.
“Shae, you have the floor.”
“We decided to submit a letter. In the letter, we tell the future people what we’re learning about. How we were looking into the history of the Carlisle Indian School. We say how we were also beginning to learn about the different tribes throughout the country. That we were, unfortunately, interrupted by this project, but, with our letter, hope that future people can learn what we’re learning.”
“Why should they learn what this class is learning about?”
“There’s all this history, Mr. A, and no one talks about it. Well, you try to. But even you said that we can only get to so much. That you can’t teach us all of history. If no one, not even one person, talks about it, however, it gets lost. We talked earlier about how we have all this technology, all these resources to archive and catalog stuff, but that doesn’t guarantee anything. We’ve seen all these digital copies of cards and photos documenting what happened in Carlisle, but how many people actually know what happened? Just because we have access doesn’t mean we don’t need a reminder from someone to never forget.”
She was right. A part of me wished I could have recorded her monologue. Shae had summed up one of the core tenets of teaching history better than anyone else I’d met. It means more to hear it from a student than for me to write it down. The voice matters.
“Well said. Would anyone else from the group like to add anything?”
“Alright, we’ll go to the next group.”
The remaining four groups offered up their own unique ideas. Ty’s group offered up a sketch done by Mero showing the group at work. The group exercise in and of itself had been what the group wanted to place in the capsule.
"We not only are showing what we're doing but how we're doing it. Not everyone's doing the same thing but that doesn't mean one way's wrong and the other's right. We still get the job done at the end of the day."
Chris’s group elected to put in a USB. They had decided to read directly from some of the primary sources we had previously pooled together for the unit. Not just those from the Carlisle Indian School, but other firsthand accounts as well. Amirah had observed that the automated voice on the main website was often hard to listen to and an ear bleeder. The group decided to add a more human touch and record the passages themselves.
“That way it’s easier on the ears for when you’re listening on the bus ride home or so tired from reading that you just want to listen. Kinda like what Ty said, we're literally telling people what we're learning about but also adding something extra to it. We're introducing ourselves and the material at the time.”
The fourth group made a short film showing each member of the group and detailing what they believed were the pluses and minuses of the class. Their logic was that future teachers and students may want to learn what worked in the past and what didn’t.
“It might help people figure out what is tried and true. You know, gives the teacher a chance to show their students why they do things a certain way and the students a chance to look at we’re doing and go, ‘hey, see, there were kids who did it this way too.’ They can literally see us and know what our thoughts were.”
“Yeah, but evidence for both sides of the experience.”
Chris was kind enough to share the USB with this group.
Finally, Ms. Minnie’s group was up. Mikel stepped to the desk/podium.
“Before anyone gets judgey, hear me out.”
From behind his back emerged a folder. An empty folder.
“We originally wanted to make something, like everyone else, but what’s there to add? Why do we have to make a choice? Seriously, I don’t know about everybody else, but what good does it do to pick one over the other?”
Bring it home, Mikel.
“With this folder, we’ll put it all together. The USB, the drawing, the letter, it’ll all go in. Can any of you think of a reason not to put any of the objects in? A piece of us went into each selection. Let’s put our whole class in this folder. All of us together. How about that message, Mr. A?”
I paused for a second. It’s fun sometimes to allow the suspense to marinate a little. It’s more fun when the class is awaiting a decision on homework or a test. Now, however, it was more to see if any objections would be raised.
“I believe we’re only supposed to choose one-“
“Forgot the rules, Mr. A!”
“C’mon, Mr. A!
Back were the boos. These were smiling boos, however, which means they know I’ll cave and that victory is only a formal statement away.
“I guess we’ve got ourselves a contribution to the time capsule.”
“Ms. Minnie, this wasn’t a competition…”
“But our object was chosen.”
“Get out of here with that!”
“We all got picked!”
“Your object was a $2 USB.”
“Worth more than a 25-cent folder!”
Five minutes left. I’ll let it all ride out until the bell rings. They’ve forgotten about the follow-up assignment and I’ll pretend to as well.
Outside the window, there isn’t a person in sight. No peering eyes, no IPA-loving smiles. No witnesses to everything that just happened except those in the room.
Just the way I like it.