The theme of my recent Harlem Renaissance unit was "Finding Your Own Voice". The idea was that my students would be able to wrap their heads around the concept of African-Americans being able to express themselves, if it was more personal and relatable.

A couple of days before I presented my 8th graders with material about Harlem itself, I asked them if they had ever been frustrated at not being able to communicate something important - either because someone wouldn't listen to them, or because they couldn't find a way to get their message across. This was something that they could pretty much all relate to.

As a homework assignment, I had them fill out a worksheet where they speculated on what kind of art they would make if time, money and talent weren't a restriction. Then I had them call my GoogleVoice account and tell me about it.

Here's a compilation of their ideas:
I think I may be onto something here.
I've had my 8th graders leave voicemail messages on GoogleVoice three times this year. As with all new projects, it took several tries to trouble-shoot the problems that came up.

Here is what I learned in the process:

Problem - Students didn't bother to call and leave a message.

Solution - I shared the recordings I received with the rest of the class and had them try to figure out who each message was from the weird, extremely faulty transcriptions of each message. Surprisingly, this made calling in seem fun enough to get most of my guys involved the next time around.

Also, I started a new policy of making up work. Since it was pointless to have students call in after I'd already made a movie using voicemail messages, in order to make up the missing work, they had to complete a textbook assignment for me that was WAY more work than making a fifteen-second phone call.

Problem - "No, Mr. Fladd. I DID call you. If you didn't get the message, it's not my problem!"

Solution - It turns out that several of the students who I was ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN were jerking me around actually did try to call and leave a message. The problem was one of inter-generational communication.

As it turns out, many of my 8th graders have never had to make a long-distance phone call. They don't generally talk to or text anyone outside of our state. If they do, it's generally a grandparent, in which case, they just hit "reply" on their cellphone history. Several of my guys had no idea what an area code is. They have always assumed that the digits in parentheses in a phone number were like the "http://" in a web address - discretionary stuff that only adults care about. A good number of my students did call my number, but not in the right area code.

(When I signed up for a GoogleVoice account, there weren't any New Hampshire telephone numbers available, so I took one in the Detroit area. Somewhere in New Hampshire, there is a confused - and increasingly irritated - customer who is getting a lot of nonsensical calls from 13 year-olds.)

Explaining this and demonstrating it with a borrowed cellphone cleared it up.


Problem - "I tried to call, but it wouldn't let me!"

Solution - Cellphone calling plans work on the concept of minutes, rather than distance and land-lines are generally the way old people like parents communicate, so some of my students didn't know that you have to dial "1" before the actual phone number, on your home phone, if it is out-of-state. Also, a couple of students had tried calling from the telephones in school classrooms, which won't allow long-distance calls.

I addressed this by explaining the problem, then having all my students add a "1" in front of the telephone number they had written down in their notes and planners.

They all felt that the concept of long-distance was pretty stupid, and I find that I don't particularly disagree with them.