Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Assignment: Media Fast

I did not blog last week because I was engaging in a week long media fast with my Broadcast Journalism students.  I created this assignment approximately five years ago after I read the book Fast Media Media Fast by Dr. Thomas W. Cooper (Emerson College).

Dr. Cooper poses questions in his book such as:

*Are your thoughts truly your own, or just recycled sound bites from the news?
*Do you experience the fullness of life firsthand, or are you separated from life by the endless barrage of media and marketing messages which tell you to speed up and catch up?
*Are you losing nourishing connections to other people by looking at a screen all day?
*Have you become a consumer instead of a creator?

Dr. Cooper cites many benefits of the Media Fast; here are a few listed here.

*Saving time as in regaining several hours in your day for play, work, sleep, catch-up, family, hobbies, etc.

*Thinking for yourself, rather than recycling slogans, jingles, and cliches.

*Creating music, poetry, art, fiction, crafts, rather than over-consuming media

*Freeing yourself from enslaving habits, schedules, mindsets, etc.

*Turning off the "speed-up" world long enough to slow down and take personal inventory.

*Bringing the family or group back together around common activities or discussion
(pages 5-6)

He also shares his personal experiences of engaging in a media fast/diet and then describes his research regarding his own college students' media fast/diet.  Dr. Cooper notes that he has seen the negative health effects of media overstimulation, including anxiety, insomnia, depression, mental exhaustion, and attention deficit/hyperactivity syndromes.  I, too, could relate in observing my own students' symptoms and comments.  Heck, I could relate personally.

Like any new idea, invention, and/or discovery--there are pros and cons.  I believe a lot of us could easily cite a handful of pros and concerns re: social media.  For example, I am grateful for an app called Whats App as I can text with one of my dear friends who lives in Hong Kong.  On Facebook, I can see pictures of other friends from high school and college.  I now Facebook message with my cousin Patrick who lives in West Virginia.  I stay informed about education, politics, and entertainment on Twitter.

I grew up in a time when the biggest technological worry was:  am I watching too many hours of The Brady Bunch (which we could argue that point in another blog)?  And for context:  I didn't have internet access until I was in my senior year of college and I could only email people on my college campus.  When I first began teaching, our school had some computers in one computer lab.  I didn't buy my first flip cellphone until the early 2000's.  Flashforward to 2017, my students have never known life without the internet.  Most of my students were given their first cellphone for their 10th birthday.  My school is now a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) school.  Things have changed--fast.

So just like my dad used to talk about what life was like pre-television, I talk to my students about times pre-internet and pre-cellphone.  A common question is:  how did I know where my friends were going to be at any given time on a Friday night?  Well we planned ahead of time in school.  Or we used our landlines (a.k.a. house phones) to make plans.  Or if we were out, we used a dime to call on a payphone.  And get this idea:  sometimes we didn't always know where our other friends were--and we were okay.

The Media Fast Assignment

For this assignment, I narrow media to social media with the following definition:   forms of electronic communication (as websites for social networking) through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content (as videos and games) (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). 

My students read multiple chapters from Dr. Cooper's book and then they individualize their fasts.  I ask students to choose something to minimize and something to eliminate for seven days.  We discuss as a class what students choose because if you aren't a sports fan and you tell me you are eliminating the ESPN app on your phone--the class and I will call you on it.

It is amusing to hear how the students define and individualize their fasts.  One student said, "So I will watch two Netflix shows on the weekends and one during the week."  I repeated what I heard and another student said, "Wait.  Do you mean watch two shows on Saturday and two on Sunday or two total for the weekend?"  The original student replied, "Yes, two on each weekend day." She said it with a tone as if the other option didn't exist.  Then another student said, "Well then you mean during the week, you'll watch one episode per night versus one show for the whole week."  Again, the original student said, "Well yes!"  To be honest, sometimes I can't keep a straight face listening to the students hold one another accountable.

The majority of my students either gave up or minimized their use of:  netflix, instagram, snapchat, youtube, facetime, ESPN app, online games, and vsco.  I choose to eliminate Twitter and minimize Facebook.

Each day students record in their journals their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors surrounding the fast. Each day we discuss how students are managing.

And as one might imagine, students go through withdrawal (note:  Digital Addiction is real.).  About two days into the assignment when we are discussing how we are doing, students are often irritable and agitated with one another and me. (I no longer take it personally.) During last week's class discussion one student snapped, "Yeah this isn't working for me.  I am using vsco again, so I will focus on minimizing instagram."  I said, "So you broke your fast and aren't planning on trying to start over again today?  The student said "No." I read in her journal in more than one entry about breaking her fast: "I felt like I was missing out."

Below are some more student comments from their journals.

"I don't want to miss anything that people are doing!"

"I did find myself to be irritable and critical because I couldn't do what I wanted."

"I am nervous."

"It makes me feel uncomfortable."

"I am realizing how hard it is to follow through with my media fast.  It is such a routine, a part of my life.  I wish I had more will power but will continue to try."

"It is also funny because last night my mom took my phone so I would study for my micro test and I almost felt relieved.  But the truth is that I would never have self turned off/taken away my phone on my own."

"I have actually found that 30 minutes is more than enough time for me to scroll through vsco.  Last night I spent almost an hour and a half just sitting with my family and talking about our lives."

"I don't know what I'm going to do this weekend."

"I thank the human to human interaction was good for me. It kind of makes me realize the importance of talking to people in person, rather than over the phone."

"Got to be honest--I broke my media fast...I wasn't going to get through the weekend so I just quit.  Sorry, Mrs. Stoker. :( "

"I learned that you don't need social media and netflix in your life.  I also learned that the less you're on social media, the more you have time for schoolwork and not rushing it just to watch netflix afterwards."

"I did around 4 hours of homework that I'd do on facetime, in almost two hours not on facetime. I WAS SO PRODUCTIVE!"

"My mom wasn't home to tell me I can't continue watching shows.  Not that she should have to tell me."

"I also saw how much my family used electronics."

"I am fortunate that I went through this media fast as it made me realize my real addiction to my phone and social media."

For me, I was fine eliminating twitter as I know I can get my news in other places.  Facebook was a bit more difficult as I quickly realized how often I mindlessly scroll through Facebook. I found myself having at least ten more minutes in the morning to myself and in the evening I was more mindful of spending time with my family.  I also chose to text with friends versus staying on Facebook.

Each year I assign the media fast, I am seeing more and more how dependent students (and adults) are on the social media apps on their phones.  Henry David Thoreau said, "Men become tools of their tools."  Scary how true this quote seems to be in the beginning of the 21st Century.  I have learned by personally participating in the media fast that it is essential we continue to create breaks and balance with media. Thoreau also said, "We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us even in our soundest sleep."  And so perhaps that is the true lesson here:   to stay awake--to trust ourselves without feeling like we have to depend on the phone in our hand to make our decisions for us.  To know that by thinking we are missing out on someone else's experience we are actually missing out on our own in-the-moment lived experience.  To understand it's okay to feel discomfort and fear.  To recognize our time is precious because we have a finite amount.  And to love real human connection is why we exist.

Cooper, Ph.D., Thomas W.  Fast Media Media Fast:  How to Clear Your Mind and Invigorate Your Life in an Age of Media Overload.  Gaeta Press, Colorado, 2011.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A white carnation, drugs, and Chris Herren (Part 1)

For every year of my twenty+ years of teaching, I have worked with students who were either struggling with drug abuse or addicted to drugs*.  I also have supported many students who have shared about a family member(s) who was addicted to drugs.   I have visited students in rehabs, hospitals, jails, and funeral homes. And I know I'm not alone in this epidemic--as many of my colleagues have cried too many times over the physical and/or emotional loss of a student to drugs.

Teaching a student who is involved with drugs is extremely heartbreaking and challenging to say the least. However, as a colleague many years ago reminded me:  Teachers teach everyone:  future presidents, CEOs, lawyers, doctors, plumbers, nurses, gas station attendants as well as future thieves, murderers and sociopaths.  We teach students who are in "good" health and we teach students who have cancer, diabetes, and addiction.  Yes, addiction is a disease just like cancer and diabetes are.  And just as I am loving, compassionate, and empathetic to my students with cancer and diabetes, so am I with my students who have an addiction.  I emphasize this point because still in 2017 the stigma around addiction and mental health is prevalent.  Addiction is not a moral choice; it is a disease.  As Chris Herren, co-author of his memoir Basketball Junkie says, "It's the only illness that I know of that you wait for people to get as sick as possible before you pick them up to help them."

Here are a few abridged stories I want to share:

Early on in my career, on Valentine's Day the student council was selling carnations as a fundraiser.  I remember receiving a beautiful white carnation with the card signed by Mike.  Receiving a carnation from a student was like hitting the jackpot, especially as a rookie teacher.  It was a sign that I had "made it"--had been accepted and approved of by a student.  Because let's face it:  the teenage population can either approve or reject you in a matter of seconds.  I asked a couple of students whose name was Mike if they had sent me the carnation.  They said they had not.  It was then that I asked a student named Mikie who was a student in an adjacent classroom if he had sent me the flower.  Bingo! He smiled and his eyes lit up as I said thank you and it meant so much to me.  He said I was such a nice person because I said hi to everyone and he wanted to thank me.  (Yes, I did say hi to everyone because when you are a rookie teacher you often feel invisible, taken advantage of, and often inept.  So you say hi to anyone with the hope of being noticed.  And of course, I say hi because I want other students and teachers to know that I see them as well.) And this was the kind of young person Mike was:  sensitive, caring, fun, funny, and smart.  Mike was an adorable teenager with eyes that truly were windows to his soul.  His grin was contagious as I would watch others instantly smile when they were around him.  He was goofy and immature like most adolescents.  He didn't always apply himself in classes, although he was very intelligent.  He was athletic and interested in sports. And Mikie was addicted to drugs.

And to echo what Chris Herren said earlier...a lot of times we as educators see early signs of potential addiction, but don't always respond.  And I know the same goes for families and society.  Drugs are so ingrained and normalized in our society--almost every day I hear a comment from colleagues, "I need a drink." Or "Can't wait til Friday to start drinking." I hear many adults and students argue that it's fine to smoke pot recreationally.  I hear people say, "Teenagers will experiment with harder drugs, but they'll be fine."  Well you know what?  In my experience, a lot of students haven't been fine.  I do acknowledge that there are people who can "socially" engage in drinking and smoking to an extent.  But I've never heard a student-let along an adult-after a weekend of partying say, "Wow, I developed so many wonderful intimate friendships while drinking/smoking." Instead I get a lot of tears from break-ups, random hook-ups, arrests, and hangovers.  Of course there are the few students who say what an awesome time they had a party, even though they can't remember what they did.  And to that I say, how sad.   And yes, as educators we are mandated reporters when we know a student is hurting himself/herself.  And often we do report, but again, with addiction, it becomes a slippery slope of:  well "how bad" is the student's drug abuse?  Does the family know?  Do they need to be hospitalized or are there are options?  It isn't as black or white as one thinks. Yet when cancer is detected in stage 1, no one says let's wait til stage 4 to help the person.   We do constantly refer students for therapy, but unfortunately there still exists a stigma around mental health.

And so Mikie became one of those students for a while--over time he developed what my colleague Judy calls "sad eyes." And I felt like I could see his brain cells dying from drug use. He would tell me he was fine when I questioned him about my concerns for his health, but I knew he was lying.  As the author Glennon Doyle Melton of the memoir Love Warrior says in her TED Talk "Lessons from the Mental Hospital", "We don't start out as insensitive liars, we are born sensitive truth-tellers." And Mikie had started out as a sensitive truth-teller and slowly was becoming a liar to himself and his loved ones about his addiction.  I was in constant contact with his mother who was beside herself worried about him.  I remember getting the dreaded call from his mom one morning that Mike had overdosed, but was alive.  I remember breathing a sigh of relief that he had survived.  I remember crying because I was petrified he was going to die.  I felt out of control and wished I could say the right thing to make him stop, but as we know when someone has a disease, no matter how much you love them, they still have the disease.

Fortunately, while in high school, Mikie did get clean, but it was hell for him to say the least.  Because imagine how difficult is it to stay sober and clean, when your friends are still using?  During my prep. periods, Mikie and I would go outside and play catch.  It was a way to give Mike a breather from the pressures of inside the school and we could talk and laugh--and I could see Mike's eyes return to lighting up.  Thankfully, Mikie graduated from high school.  And although he has continued to battle on and off his disease, he is in a much better place today.  I am grateful that I was able to reach out to him and his mom and ask if I could use his first name for this blog.  He wholeheartedly agreed.  For if one person who reads this blog realizes that addiction is a disease and that there is more we can do as a society to proactively educate all of us on:   the genetics of addiction, the messages we send in our every day speech about drugs, and the importance of embracing sensitive truth-tellers--then Mikie's battle is not in vain.


Recently a former student came back from college and said he needed to apologize to me.  I asked, Why?  I didn't remember us getting into any altercations.  He said he distinctively remembered having a debate with me during his senior year in our Psychology in Literature course.  I had contended that medicine appropriately prescribed by a doctor was one way to treat mental illness.  This student said a person needed to fix his mental illness on his own.  Yet, ironically he didn't see getting high off marijuana regularly as a form of self-medicating.  Apparently at the time, I suggested we agree to disagree even though sound research sided with me.  Well this particular student decided to self-medicate with pot in college to the point that he craved it as a coping mechanism to deal with an underlying and undiagnosed mental illness.  Through a series of unfortunate events, he was eventually hospitalized and diagnosed with bipolar disorder.  The good news is that he is now on medication and in therapy.  His message was that for some people, pot is a deadly drug.  I appreciated him visiting me and sharing such personal insights.  I also know as an educator, I can present the research, but it is through lived experience that we often really learn.


Lastly, I have had students share about parents and siblings who were active in the disease of addiction and how having a family member with the disease of addiction impacts the whole family system.  I have seen families have their electricity shut off because a parent is using her paycheck for drugs versus her family's bills.  I have seen family members go to jail for multiple drunk driving offenses.  I have been to funerals of family members who overdosed or died of a heart attack due to drug abuse.  And I see what it does to a student's life--often the student becomes a manchild or a womanchild--take on  way more responsibilities than a young person should.  They do a good job of covering up for their family member by wearing a fake smile on their face and saying they are fine.  As the caregivers, our students often then neglect their own self-care.  They misplace blame, guilt, anger, and sadness on themselves for what they are really feeling towards their loved one with the addiction.  We try to encourage our students to seek out Alateen (, other support groups, and therapy.


I would posit that we have all been affected by the disease of addiction.  We need to continue to openly and honestly have the hard conversations about addiction in order to further destigmatize the disease.  There is no cure for addiction; however, there are treatments.  And education is the key to researching those treatments.

I also want to encourage one another to connect instead of isolate when we are in mental pain.  I want us to realize we are good enough the way we are.  I want us to teach each other that all of life is meant to be felt: the pain and the joy.  I want us to acknowledge that our goal isn't to be happy all the time because that isn't what life is about, so we don't need to constantly look for a high.  Glennon Doyle Melton says wouldn't it be better if we were sensitive truth-tellers togther "in the bright, big, messy world"--and I wholeheartedly agree.

*I am including alcohol as a drug. As we know it is a drug; however, I still here people discern alcohol from drugs.

Some resources to check out:

TED Talk "Lessons from the Mental Hospital" by Glennon Doyle Melton

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Cerne and the Corsica

When I first started teaching in NH back in the mid-1990s, I barely made enough money to rent an apartment with a roommate.  I was also in over my head with college loans.  In addition to having a full-time teaching career, I had a part-time job at TJ Maxx,  a summer job as a camp counselor, and an adjunct faculty position at a nearby college.  I worked all of these jobs just to break even with my basic bills.  So is the financial life of a teacher.  I know, I know: I chose my profession based on my passion, not for a financial windfall.  And I do not regret that decision.  But to continue to give you an idea of where I was financially...

It was my third year teaching, and on one particular day I was fulfilling my teacher duty in the cafeteria when a bunch of my junior boys approached me with big grins on their faces.  They had noticed that I owned the same car--including make, model, year, and color--as one of their friends who had just bought his first car.

His name was Matt Cerne. I didn't have him in class, but I had all of his friends as my students.  His friends called him by his last name--Cerne.  He was a good kid:  smart, respectful, and fun.  He was one of the stars of the football team.  He was considered "gorgeous" by the freshmen and sophomore girls, and the boys thought he was "cool."  And he and I owned the same type of car.

So Cerne and his friends were beyond excited--how awesome was it that we had the same car--a 1986 light blue Chevy Corsica. I remember thinking, this is soooo not cool!  Not wanting to burst their bubble, but at the same time needing to give them a reality check, I calmly remarked, "Whoa, whoa, whoa.  This may be awesome for you, but let's think about this.  What does this say about the income of a teacher?  You haven't even earned a high school diploma, Cerne.  I have already earned my high school diploma, associate's degree, bachelor's degree, and master's degree...AND WE ARE DRIVING THE SAME CAR that is over ten years old!"  And just hearing my own voice share the craziness of that statement made me burst out laughing with all of them.

For the next year I had to make sure I was going to the right car--my car--when we were leaving school events.  Underclassmen would come up to me and say, "Don't you think it's so great that you own the same type of car as Matt Cerne?" And I would smile and say, oh yes, when I really was thinking, This is pathetic! 

And let's face it, owning a car when we are in high school is an amazing coming of age experience.  My first car was a 1978 maroon Ford Fairmont.  It had been my grandmother's and when she passed away during my junior year of high school in 1990, I inherited the Fairmont.  Although it was 12 years old, it only had 12,000 miles on it because my grandmother would only drive it to bingo games. Because it hadn't been used much, it wasn't in great shape.  I remember my friends and I wouldn't use my car at night for when I turned on the headlights, the radio shut off.  And who wants to cruise around town with no radio?

So I understood why the students thought the fact that Cerne and I had matching Corsicas was cool.  And Cerne's friends had cars that they loved.  Cerne's friend Shane had a mustang that they even named.  Cars are a rite of passage, but what happens when you've traveled through the passage of high school, college, graduate school and still own a high school rite of passage car?  I'm laughing thinking about it.

As I've mentioned in previous blogs, the Corsica became another way to connect with my students.  And I somehow acquired "cool teacher" points from my underclassmen because I owned the same type of car as the popular Matt Cerne. Go figure.  As a rookie teacher trying to prove myself as a credible, competent, compassionate educator, I took what I could get in motivating my students to learn.

Here is an image that I found on the internet of what the car looked like.

Please feel free to share your high school car stories!  And Shane and friends, what was the name of your car?