It was late on a Friday night when I got a phone call from a parent of a student in my sophomore English class.
“Mrs. Caneva, I’m sorry to call you, but Zoe’e is pretty upset,” Mrs. Jordan said.
It was my second year as Zoe’e’s English teacher at the now closed TEAM Englewood Community Academy on Chicago’s South Side. Zoe’e was a bright student with a strong work ethic. More than this, though, Zoe’e was kind. Need a pencil? Ask Zoe’e. Need help on your homework? Ask Zoe’e. Need a hug? Ask Zoe’e.
She always delivered.
But I was worried about Zoe’e. She lived in the middle of Englewood, a neighborhood often referenced for its violence instead of its residents’ perseverance, and plywood took the place of glass in her home’s windows. When Mrs. Jordan called to say Zoe’e was upset, dozens of frightening scenarios ran through my mind.
Mrs. Jordan continued, “Is ‘Of Mice and Men’ fiction or nonfiction?”
“What?” I asked. Anticipating the worst, I couldn’t comprehend the question.
She repeated, “Is ‘Of Mice and Men’ fiction or nonfiction? Zoe’e just read the ending, and she’s devastated.”
“Oh, Ms. Jordan, it’s fiction,” I said. “The story isn’t true.”
“She’s going to need to hear it from you,” Ms. Jordan said, handing the phone to Zoe’e.
Between sobs, Zoe’e managed to ask, “Is it…fiction?”
Between sobs, she said, “But it seems so real. And the end…”
I won’t spoil for you John Steinbeck’s great novel “Of Mice and Men“, but I vividly remember this phone call ten years later. I often tell people this story when they say that poor, African American students can’t read and spend their Friday nights up to no good.
It’s also a story that signals a different time in the Chicago Public Schools. As of this year, I am no longer allowed to give my cell phone number to my students or their parents.
For the first time in my 15-year career at CPS, I did not include my personal phone number on my class syllabus. After last summer’s Chicago Tribune bombshell documentation of more than a decade of sexual abuse cases involving students and adult employees, CPS has attempted to rectify the problem with a multi-pronged approach. Limiting outside-of-school contact via phone calls, texts, and social media posts and messaging is just one part. I also had to be re-fingerprinted and attend a professional development meeting on the warning signs of sexual abuse.
At the meeting, CPS outlined “grooming behavior.” This includes giving presents to students, verbally complimenting their appearance and giving them pet names. It was clear to me, as I listened, that if I witnessed such behavior, I should take steps and not look the other way.
Phone calls and texting also were on the list of grooming behaviors, and CPS’ response has been to fully prohibit them. Students and parents can only e-mail teachers or call us on our school phones, a luxury that many CPS teachers don’t have.
There are logistical and relational issues created by these kinds of limits on communication.
Many CPS teachers coach a team, host field trips or lead clubs. Before the new limits on communication were put in place, I would group text with students in my after-school club to schedule, share ideas and connect. I’ve chaperoned groups of students out of the country and out of state, texting to be sure they woke up and arrived on time for our first meeting.
Communicating via email also requires Wi-Fi, which isn’t available in many of these out-of-school situations.
Wifi also is an issue for some students at home. In CPS, where nearly 77 percent of students are designated as “economically disadvantaged,” we cannot assume Wi-Fi capabilities exist at a student’s home, especially when neither CPS nor the City of Chicago provides it to all residents. Many students rely on their phones when outside of school.
I’ve overheard students telling others that their Wi-Fi at home “went out,” and they couldn’t finish a portion of a project. They wouldn’t have been able to email their teacher, either.
More importantly, texting is second nature to my students. Before this year, students texted me to clarify homework assignments or to let me know they were going to be absent. They were always professional, as was I in response.
CPS’ ban on phone calls and texting eliminates a means of communication that builds healthy, education-focused connections. Now students and parents know that I’m available to them only if I am checking my email, and that I probably won’t urgently respond.
CPS should reopen these lines of communication, providing teachers with guidelines on specific language and appropriate usage, just as CPS has for face-to-face interactions with students. As teachers, it’s important that we use every tool available to build and sustain connections with students.
Quite simply, we should be able to answer their phone calls.
Gina Caneva is a 15-year Chicago Public Schools veteran who works as a teacher-librarian and Writing Center Director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy. She is National Board Certified and a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva.
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