Don't Get Off the Bus, and Other Holiday Advice

One time, twenty years ago now, I was returning to college on a Greyhound bus after a perfectly fine Thanksgiving with my family. It was raining, my head against the glass watching the rain trail down the windows. As we pulled into the Albany station - still a good three hour drive from my college in Hartford, CT - a thought came to me: Get off the bus.

Of course, it made no sense to get off of the bus. I was three hours away from my destination and had little money. I was perfectly safe on the bus and had mandatory classes to attend the next day.

But I did. I got off the bus. I left my duffle bag behind thinking I could recover it in Hartford later. I took my Sony Walkman, a handful of cassette tapes, my nearly empty wallet, and hit the road.

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It was, of course, a colossally stupid thing to do. In the hours that followed, I hitchhiked on I-90 singing "Old Man" by Neil Young at the top of my lungs, fought my way out of one tractor trailer when the driver decided I owed him more than my gratitude, got another ride from some gas station guys smoking something illegal as they drove, and accepted a final ride from another truck driver, who remarkably resembled Charles Manson, but wound up being a kind father of three girls. After he dropped me off at my dorm and I waved goodbye, my body turned to liquid with the realization of the danger I had faced. I was terrified.

But earlier in the day, when I was safe and warm on the bus, the idea to get off the bus felt so right, so compelling, that I didn't have a choice but to listen. I craved an experience, I craved a risk - something much more vital than rows of plush seats, the steady drive of 55 miles per hour, and the classes I was to attend. It seemed at the time like there was nothing for me on the bus - like I had been there, I had done that.

There are kids in our classrooms who feel like I did twenty years ago - kids who suddenly wake up one day (usually in middle school) and notice the plush seats and steady pace of their school life and think, 'I've got to get out of here.' For them, it seems as though there is nothing for them in school. We want to be on the lookout for the kids who want to "get off the bus" and examine why. Can we make our schools a place where kids want to stay, a place that feels safe and secure, but also provides adventures and risk - real things that many students (and many of us) crave?

When students want to get off of the bus of their school careers, they make it perfectly clear. It may look like disengagement, it may look like disruption, or it may look like dropping out. Whatever the outer sign, we have a choice as their teachers of how to respond. We may not be able to convince all of our kids to get back onto the bus at every moment, but we can find ways not to push them further away.

Of course, the safety record and comfortable seats of school are not going to be viable selling points for students who are craving something faster. We need to change in order to stay relevant to younger generations. To help kids stay on the bus, we need not so much strategies as mindsets that can help them to see the worth in keeping the faith, even staying on the road of school. Here are a few mindsets that have worked for me with my kids:

1. Understand.

When we have lost faith in something, whether it be Greyhound or graduating, it does not help to have someone tell you that you are wrong or dumb to feel that way. The feeling is real. It even makes sense. School is weird. If you grow up not seeing educated adults around you happy and fulfilled, or if your deepest interests have absolutely nothing to do with school, it's tough to stay motivated to do your homework and show up for math class. When talking to kids who are getting off the bus, you may not want to say, "I get it, school stinks," but it is important to communicate that their perspective is understandable. Try letting them vent their frustrations with school without you editing or clucking in disapproval. Many of us have said that teachers are teachers, parents, coaches....and therapists. For our students who need us, let's embrace that role a bit more actively and show our students that we are listening.

2. Shift.

As educators, it is in our nature to get wrapped up in our own rules, our own guidelines. Don't get me wrong, I love rules. I am an avid rule follower. I also get kind of persnickety when others don't follow the rules. But in my classroom, I had to understand that if I wanted to reach my kids who were getting off the bus, I might have to bend the rules a bit. Not that Jimmy should be allowed to do whatever he wants with no consequences. But perhaps there are some kids who might write a literary essay on a movie they love, or a video game, and not always on a text, especially if the skill I'm most hoping kids practice is the skill of essay writing. Or perhaps my kids could choose what book they will read on book club. Or I could let some kids listen to the book on tape while they work.

There are countless opportunities to find individualized ways to get to the same destination in our classrooms - in fact Universal Design for Learning (UDL) pushes us all to think more about what it is we want kids to learn or be able to do, and then to consider all of the ways that we may invite them to get there. The choice of pathway, according to UDL, should be theirs to make, not ours.(Future blog posts on UDL forthcoming, especially if we can convince Colleen Cruz to guest post!)

3. Expand.

If, when I look out into my classroom, I see a sea of faces in danger of disconnecting to school, I need to rethink my curriculum and stance on how to teach the young people of this generation. Perhaps my kids need more project based learning, or internships in the community. Maybe I could launch an independent writing project unit, where students get to choose what they will make and what their schedule will be. Maybe I need to step back and ask students what they want out of school, what would feel relevant to them. When students don't see the relevance of school, I need to help them find it. I also need to expand my vision of what school is for my students, especially in these days of high-stakes testing and standards. I may need to use a wider lens at times, pausing to ask: how does this activity fit into my students' world?  What would help them navigate their world a little better?

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For many of our students, there will come a time when they feel frustrated with school. They will not see the point, beyond following the rules and behaving. Some of these kids will try to get off the bus, like I did (quite literally) twenty years ago coming back from Thanksgiving. How we respond to these kids - to these classes of kids - will determine whether they keep walking down those dangerous highways, or whether they will find a reason to get back on the bus, plush seats and all.

Big Idea: Engagement     Tiny Detail: Trying on different mindsets to reach students

-Kate and Maggie