As I walk away grinning from the best, and the liveliest, junior English class I have had in years, it occurs to me that a good class is a lot like a happy family. There’s lots of laughter, and sometimes everyone is talking at once, but behind the eyes you see lots of flashbulbs going off. There’s also a clear sense that, even if everyone doesn’t actually like everyone else, everyone is accepted and everyone’s views are heard. Futhermore, my students are reading difficult material--we just finished As I Lay Dying--with perceptivity and enthusiasm, and their writing continues to soar both in content and form.
Why is it, I ask myself, that such classes are such a rarity? I could flatter myself by concluding that this class’s success results from the efforts I have invested in planning lessons that appeal to the students’ imaginations and challenge their intellects; in assigning lots of writing and returning it quickly; in letting them know that I take a personal interest in each of them as individuals, not just as students in my English class. But that’s what I do with every class I teach. Why is it that classes like my present group of juniors constitute the exception, not the rule?
Part of the problem, I believe, stems from the barrage of cultural distractions that clamor for our attention. As Saul Bellow observed in his 1990 essay “The Distracted Public” (collected in It All Adds Up: From the Dim Past to the Uncertain Future, Viking Penguin, 1994), virtually every one of us is subjected every day to an endless stream of media pitches intended to capture our attention, our emotions, our money, our votes. Given the public’s insatiable craving for entertainment, and given the nihilism that characterizes much of that entertainment, what we are confronted with on the various screens we walk by or sit in front of every day tends to be sensational in content and tone. Charles Dickens’ motto, “Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry!” has for many of today’s filmmakers become “Blow their heads off!” From the rapid-fire pace of “Sesame Street” to the choreographed mayhem of the World Wrestling Federation; from the instant replays of guests leaping out of their seats to physically assault other guests on “The Jerry Springer Show” to the maximum-intensity production of Baz Luhrman’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the entertainment of the 1990s has created in students the expectation of a thrill a moment.
Resourceful teachers have always had to devise strategies for luring adolescents into the delights of reading good books. In spite of the odds, on good days at least, we persist in believing that the task is still “doable.” Compounding the difficulty, however, are proliferating distractions that derive from within schools themselves. Just as there necessarily exists some quality, some sort of emotional gravity that holds a happy family together, so there must also exist a sort of centripetal force that makes a good class cohere. By counteracting stresses traceable to the dysfunctional family lives of an increasing number of our students, or to any of the other personal or cultural elements that confuse, agitate, cause commotion in the minds of the young people we teach, we make the classroom a “safe place,” what within the context of poetry has been called “a temporary stay against confusion.” When, within the classroom itself, the student’s attention is constantly competed for on behalf of athletics and other programmed activities, the teacher’s resources for creating that safe place are even further diminished.
I am not arguing against the existence of a strong athletic program. Within the past decade, however, just as we have witnessed the progressive professionalization of college sports, so are we seeing parallel developments occur at the secondary level. Increasing numbers of students participate in only one sport, rather than in two or three. Practice for those sports begins earlier for each season, and when “playoffs” are involved, lasts later. As the prestige accorded to athletics both within the larger culture and the school community continues to balloon, larger numbers of students are excused from academic classes, and they are excused more frequently. Athletic competitions that formerly were conducted after the conclusion of the academic day or on Saturdays are now scheduled with increasing frequency before the end of classes; more and more teams are excused from class for competitions that run all day, any day of the school week.
The effect of these group absences on those unfortunates left behind is anything but helpful. “Do we have to do anything today?” and “Why do we have to do anything? No one’s here” are not uncommon responses. (The necessity for athletes who have been absent from class to make up missed work, their sometimes falling behind, as well as the extra burden placed on the teacher in having to deal with these matters, are pressing and very real problems, but ones that lie outside the concerns of this essay.) And I don’t know that I blame these kids. When there are a million and one things clamoring for one’s attention, when you didn’t get much sleep last night, and it’s spring, and a third of the class is gone to play baseball or run track, why should you have to sit in a classroom and think?
Likewise, we cannot disparage students for involving themselves in school activities. Such involvement provides opportunities for leadership, and for helping others less fortunate than oneself, and for ... well, having fun. And that’s OK. Besides, as everyone knows, competitive colleges and universities look with favor on excellent students who construct strong records of involvement in activities. What is “excessive”? My definition is a simple one: whatever unwarrantedly detracts from academics. It is a fine thing for a school’s pep club to raise funds by selling roses on Valentine’s Day. It is not so fine when pep club members interrupt classes to deliver those roses. Outings taken for the purpose of backpacking, or riding in horse shows, or officiating in Special Olympics, or attending full-day workshops in Shakespeare are all eminently worthy activities. But when a student or a group of students become so heavily involved in activities that they frequently miss class, not only is the academic progress of those students likely to be affected, but also the cohesion necessary for a good class.
How do we reconcile these competing intramural influences for our students’ attention? Do we simply allow the classroom to become one more offering available to them in a marketplace of ... what? Not a “marketplace of ideas,” as the phrase traditionally has been completed, but of diversions? To do so is to trivialize academics by inferring that they are of no more intrinsic importance than, say, basketball or backpacking. I realize that some people would affirm that notion. As one who teaches in a rigorous college-preparatory program, I would not. I persist in believing that the primary reason for our students’ being in school is for the sake of their academic development. Finding just the right balance between academics, athletics, and activities constitutes a considerable challenge. But then, so does devising ways to make one’s classroom a place of lively and cohesive student involvement. If the primary reason for students’ being in school involves academics, then anything that works against that intent needs to be scaled back.
Perry Oldham teaches at Casady School in Oklahoma City, Okla.
A version of this article appeared in the March 03, 1999 edition of Education Week as Contending With Distraction