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Jocks and Burnouts

October 28, 2010

I just finished reading Jocks and Burnouts:  Social Categories and Identity in the High School by Penelope Eckert.  I read it in two days because it’s a book I ended up half choosing and half forced to choose (i.e. the first book I wanted was chosen by someone else, as were a number of my other back-ups, but I’m flexible, and this was definitely on the list of titles that intrigued me) for a presentation in my secondary education class.

Right now, I’m trying to wrap my head around this extremely fascinating ethnography.  It dates back to 1983, which is actually even before I was in high school, but it was weird.  It’s like I had a peripheral awareness of things that were mentioned in the book, but I didn’t experience any of it first hand.  I was one of the extremely small percentage (I don’t remember the exact number) of the population who really was a weirdo without having any kind of mental/developmental disability.  And I was completely unaware of how different I really was.  I mean, I knew I was different, but I thought that, to a certain extent, everyone was.  But I was missing really important vital signs concerning social life that I’m only now finding out about.

It’s making the thought of being a teacher both more exciting and more daunting.  How do I reach kids who’ve essentially been taught that teachers will never value them?  How do I get them to see that I’m not “one of them” . . . especially when they need to see that/believe that of me in order to maintain the little power they have with their peer group?  How do I negotiate this strange realm where peers are everything when . . . well, when my best friend at that age was my mom?  How do I teach them to value their individual creativity and vision, when the more powerful institutions of school culture and peer groups resist that?

I just feel so powerless now.  When I was in school, my biggest problem was that people thought that the fact that I was shy meant that I was insecure, and that if I just worked on being “outgoing,” I’d suddenly have masses of friends.  (In reality, it went the opposite way:  first, I decided that it was okay to be shy, and that relieved my major insecurity, which in turn allowed me to make friends in a shyer, but less stressful, way).  That’s a pretty minor problem to have, when I see the issues surrounding kids in these other social categories, even the In-Betweeners.  In a period where peers are everything, I was committed to my inner visions.  I see now that that’s so rare it’s almost a luxury.  I am glad I didn’t have to go through some of that other stuff, but at the same time, I wonder how out of touch I will be with my students, having never gone through that kind of thing, and being able to experience it only vicariously.  Will I only be able to connect to the few who are weirdos? They need someone, certainly, but so do all the other kids.

I went into teaching with the notion that teachers accidentally and/or deliberately veer students away from their creative visions, and wanting to be the teacher who would encourage them to remain true to those visions.  But now, I see how big an impact peers play, *especially* among the very people I think I need to reach most, and I just don’t know how to work with that.

One thing I do know I can do, though, concerns competition.  I don’t plan on having a lot of competition in my classes, at least not between students.  I want to have writing plans that I make up with each individual student, so I can grade them based on their own progress in regards to those goals (while also, of course, paying attention to the state standards where I’m teaching . . . but I don’t think these things are mutually exclusive).

At times, I think I’m way too idealistic and that my ideas are just too grand to really work, that they’re bound to cause me profound disappointment in myself.  At other times, I think I’m too cynical, that just because I can’t see a way out of this mess doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

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