A Lure in English Class

I have Pokémon Go on the mind tonight.  That and the fresh batch of students who sat in my new rolling chairs at tables scattered throughout my classroom.  Not surprising from the woman who bought a bottle of perfume simply because it was called Poetic Rebel, but I find both topics equally inspiring as I sit, unplugged from both worlds, still among the crickets and the evening glories.

I resisted the craze from its conception.  I dismissed the buzz, noting the tempting addiction that accompanied my exposure to Candy Crush.  Even after a four-year-old taught Charming how to play on our road trip in July, I kept my eyes and ears out of it.  Until last Friday, I was clueless and contented to be so.

Until Friday.  A day off in Old Town Alexandria.  A walk down to the riverfront at King’s Street, book in hand.  An app on Charming’s phone that changed our plans.  Not a single page was turned.  Instead, I was intrigued by his argument that in order to relate to my new students this week, I should have a basic understanding of this game that’s revolutionized technology’s ability to get people walking and connecting with others nearby.  Apparently, since there were half a dozen “lures” down by the water, this was a prime spot to hunt for Pokémon, the ideal teaching ground.

I agreed to a morning of Pokémon.  In a couple hours, I was sure I’d have a sufficient handle on the game to pass for proficient.  If you’re as clueless as I was, here’s my 100 word game description to bring you into September 2016 with me:

Pokémon Go is a free game that uses your phone’s GPS and clock to make different Pokémon characters appear in your game.  Like on the old Nintendo, your goal is to catch all the Pokémon, but in an augmented reality game that makes you get outside and walk to catch more.  There might be a PokéStop at your local firehouse where you can pick up items to use in your quest and meet up with other players in real life who are doing the same thing as you.

For me, the excitement of catching a new Pokémon paralleled how I felt before the first day of school today.  Charming schooled me in the game as he has in so many areas outside my purview, and let me be his partner in his quest.  We walked at least a few miles, back and forth over the same terrain, one hand in his and the other on my phone, glancing up and down between it and the real world.

And after an hour, I could identify that rapid eye movement in those around us.  We passed a father and son, each with a phone in hand, pointing off to the right.  I called out, “You playing Pokémon?”  He laughed as he replied, “Of course!”  The son then informed us he had just caught the elusive Pikachu and sent us on in that direction.  There was a lure in the area, and we could conclude that the man on the bench, late thirties, had set the trap that would attract Pokémon… and people, like us, who were on the prowl.

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It quickly evolved into a weekend of Pokémon.  That night after dinner with a friend, we returned to the riverfront.  A summer storm cooled the night, and we walked and talked and caught virtual critters that don’t actually exist.  Charming’s friend has been in it since the beginning.  He’d shared a  tip that by using a Lucky Egg from a PokéStop, you double experience points earned for a half hour, and in that time, you should evolve little Pokémon into bigger ones.  We sat at an outdoor bar and evolved over drinks.  Sure, it was fun because it was new and different, but for me, I was most captivated by the ability of a video game to impact my reality.

Here I was with my boyfriend, strolling down King’s Street on an itinerary of PokéStops, trolling for new characters, starting conversations with strangers I would have never noticed, much less approached, before Friday.  I was entertained by the metamorphosis of the Caterpie to a Metapod to a Butterfree in the same way as with the Poetic Rebel perfume.  There were strategies that would take time to investigate.  I’d been ready for the first day of school for a week, so I had time.  Pokémon Go had caught me.

And playing this silly game together, I laughed harder with Charming than I have in months.  We had become teammates.  I always wanted to play in a co-ed softball league with my future husband; I think it’s healthy to partner together in a common pursuit where your individual efforts impact the greater good of the team.  Pokémon just manifested itself as an augmented reality substitute.

This morning at 8:00 a.m., I shut off my phone. I spent the day with wide-eyed sophomores trying to figure out if their new teacher is awesome or crazy.  I caught sixty new characters today.  Real ones with human faces and bodies concealing minds with not a single unified thought.   There are no electronic devices in my classroom, no distractions, however inspiring I might find the game.

There was a moment in my third block class where I leveled with them about the frustration of Pokémon withdrawal in the enforcement of the no cell phone policy.  Half the class reacted.  I knew who my fellow gamers were, but it didn’t matter.  We wouldn’t play a game in this room.  At this stop, they will pick up items to help them on their quests to master communication and literacy so that they can succeed in their future careers.

I haven’t learned all their names yet, but if I could register a hundred game characters in a weekend, I owe actual reality at least the same commitment.  Knowing their names won’t be enough to impact their lives.  Like in the game, the more you know, the better your strategy is for achieving your goal.  I’m not meeting them at a PokéStop where we instantly have a connection.

I have to intentionally connect with my students in other ways.  Walking on King’s Street with Charming, I was adventurous in engaging in dialogue with perfect strangers because we knew we had something trendy in common that was always good for a shared laugh.  I saw them because I was looking around.  It’s an odd conclusion, granted, but I have to wonder: how much do I miss when I’m not playing the game?

Unplugged, I walk from point A to point B on as direct and short a path as possible.  In the game, I walk and wander, talk and wonder.  My eyes are open, and I’m looking to see something familiar in the way a stranger walks and looks at his phone.  When we’re in a Pokémon-free zone, what do we miss because we’re focused only on the direct path ahead?

To achieve my goal of positively impacting the lives of each student that enters my classroom for the first time this week, I need to know them.  Each day, I’ll give them opportunities to share themselves with me.  We’ll find that we connect in some unexpected area, like my young bloggers last year.  I’ll see them all tomorrow in Yearbook, Rapunzel, Snow White, Merida, and Young Beauty, and we’ll write some more stories together this year.

A weekend in virtual reality lured me into an awareness of the interconnectedness of all the individuals in a certain locale.  I might know who’s catching characters, but I have no clue who is using the same credit score monitor or accessing Google Drive or browsing a Facebook feed at the exact moment I am.  And just as there are other electronic hobbies, there are possible shared interests in music, literature, theology, and sports that could bring us together if only we knew we had them in common.

I want this year with my kids to be the best PokéStop ever, not just because I help them, but because I will learn their strengths and weaknesses so that I can give them exactly the items they need to achieve their goals.  Maybe that means I take note that of the kid in the Orioles shirt in the front row and start a conversation about attending a game this summer.  It’s no more difficult than a brief exchange with a stranger, and this is someone who will be navigating my classroom for ten months.

He’s going to come to my class hoping to catch a new bit of relevant, applicable learning, so I’m going to give this stop a permanent lure.  Here, he will catch a little bit of everything. There will be such abundance, like down at the riverfront on Friday morning, that he’ll forget all about the fight at lunch and want what I’m offering him.  Like Charming’s friend, I’ll help him figure out how to get the most out of the skills he has and impart tips and strategies that will find him successful.

It’s just a game, I know.  The characters aren’t real, but somehow they matter to so many.  In my classroom, that’s real life.  These kids aren’t a product of creative technology.  They wear shirts boasting their favorite teams because they crave interconnectedness in an increasingly isolating media-dominated subculture.

I’m going to look at them, really look at them, these kids, like I do the strangers on King Street.  And my mission this year is to find a way to connect with every one, individually, in some way.  There might even be some future young bloggers and Disney Princess muses among them.

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