Friday, May 2, 2014

Conversations with Teenagers

More often than not, my family laughs out loud at the Sunday newspaper’s comic strip, Zits.  Last Sunday’s artwork didn’t have me rolling on the floor, but it did make an interesting commentary on the texting, snap chatting, status-updating climate in which we’re raising our children. The implication is “Yes, he knows how to communicate.”


I find it interesting that this comic strip was published the same week as this article in The Atlantic by Paul Barnwell. He writes about watching his high school students struggle with an assignment that revolved around taping a group discussion. Instead of a lively conversation, his students offered stilted responses to interview-type questions and were visibly uncomfortable when no question was posed. He acknowledges that teenage awkwardness played a role during the assignment, but his over-riding question is worthy of exploring:

It might sound like a funny question, but we need to ask ourselves: Is there any 21st-century skill more important than being able to sustain confident, coherent conversation? When students apply for colleges and jobs, they won’t conduct interviews through their smart phones. When they negotiate pay raises and discuss projects with employers, they should exude a thoughtful presence and demonstrate the ability to think on their feet (or at least without Google). When they face significant life decisions, they must be able to think things through and converse with their partners. If the majority of their conversations are based on fragments pin-balled back and forth through a screen, how will they develop the ability to truly communicate in person? 

He wonders if tech overload is hindering students’ ability to think and exchange ideas. I think the Zits mom would vote “Yes,” but I’m not convinced the answer is that easy.

Last March, I helped chaperone 168 high school musicians on a trip to Walt Disney World. I was expected to keep in touch with a group of eight or nine students, making sure each knew where he needed to be, what he needed to do, and when he needed to do it. Over the course of six days, I had approximately 15 face-to-face conversations with each student and more than twice that via cell phone text messages.

Some instructions, of course, were more appropriate to communicate in text format: Meet at the front gate at 7:00. Don’t be late. and We’re at the front gate. It’s 7:00. Where are you? Most resulted in short, one-response conversations—k, almost there, getting food—and then ended. But text messages couldn’t convey the excitement behind the gush of words that came spilling out of one girl’s mouth when she recounted her ride on the “totally awesome” Tower of Terror. Nor were text messages sufficient for empathizing with another student about blisters, swollen ankles, and sunburned arms.

The students were eager to share their experiences with me when we spoke face to face, and I could easily keep the conversation going by asking more questions. Here’s what stands out most in my memory:  the students asked me about my experiences -- but not until the end of the trip. 

Only one student inquired at the beginning of the week, but by the end of the trip, I’d had extended conversations with each of the students in my charge. These weren’t deep-thinking conversations by any means, but they were a first step in developing a relationship. I’ve run into these students at several events since our return, and each time, our conversations have become friendlier, more natural, and therefore, more engaging.

Barnwell is spot-on with one of his concluding statements in My Students Don’t Know How to Have a Conversation:   “The next time you interact with a teenager, try to have a conversation with him or her about a challenging topic. Ask him to explain his views. Push her to go further in her answers.”

Just don’t forget to form the relationship first.