Students are people too.

Today, I gave a presentation about ancient coins to students at a Juvenile Detention Center.  It was a completely normal presentation.  It went just like it would in any other classroom.

Yes, there were a few things that were different from most classrooms.  The talk was in the gymnasium, which made the acoustics bad.  The students brought their own plastic chairs to the talk.  The students wore uniforms, and there were staff members and teachers present who were trained to drop an excessively misbehaving student to the floor. Students couldn’t have paper clips or pencils.  Students also called me “Sir” and were incredibly respectful and orderly.

There were also many things that were the same as any other class or presentation.  I constantly adjusted the vocabulary level of my words and added background information based on their verbal and non-verbal responses.  I adjusted my speed in response to whether students seemed bored or tired.  And, just like in any other class, there were students who were uninterested and quiet, students who were interested and attentive, and students who were interested and talkative.  At the end of the talk, we reviewed the content to make sure they got something out of the presentation.

The class went completely normally.  After the presentation, the students carried their chairs away to another room and I chatted with the teacher who invited me.  I admitted that I had no clue what to expect when I entered the Juvenile Detention Center.  She said there were definitely things that it took her awhile to get used to–like needing to radio some one to remotely unlock a door–and she also said something very important: some students had court dates this week or were being released this Friday.  For a court date, the students showered before leaving, sat in a cell at the courthouse, attended court where their future may be decided, and showered when they returned.  It sounds incredibly stressful.  Usually, she can tell who has a court date based on who is distracted or misbehaving.  When they are released, the structure of the detention center disappears.  Again, stressful.

My heart goes out to these students and I wonder what effect my presentation could have had on them.  The presentation certainly affected me:

  • It drove home that students’ behavior, be it misbehavior or inattention, do not necessarily mean that they don’t care or are uninterested.  They all have lives outside of class and these can greatly affect how well students can focus in class. It is hard for us to know for sure what is happening in students’s lives unless they tell us, so we should create a safe, respectful environment where they feel safe telling us things so we can possibly make the  necessary adjustments for students to learn and/or take pride in their work.
  • It drove home that we all take certain things for granted, such as being able to move from room to room with ease or being able to go outside whenever we want or go to coffee shops or restaurants when we want or even having regular meals.  Not everyone benefits from the privilege that we have.  Not only should we be aware of this privilege, but we should also try to be aware of how our words and actions affect people who do not have this privilege.
  • Before I went, I was focused on the “Juvenile Detention Center” title of the place where I was going and I wasn’t quite sure what to call the people in my audience there.  Now, I can only call them “students.”  They have hopes and dreams–some realistic, some not–plans and skills–just like your students, just like my students, just like you and me.

Some of these realizations are not new, but they are what I took away from this powerful (and yet routine) experience that certainly left an impression.

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