A year ago, maybe a bit more, I was sitting in my classroom with a small group of students. I noticed that one girl had a history textbook on her desk, and I asked her what she was learning.
She asked me a question, like it was a right or wrong choice. But I was the one who was trying to figure out what she was learning. Not because it really was going to make any difference to me. But because when in doubt, ask a kid about what he/she is learning in school. Instant small talk.
So, I tried again.
“What are you learning about in your history class?” I’m waiting for something like “Revolutionary War.” “Colonialism.” “Stamp Act” or something. “George Washington” would have been fine.
“Ummm…American History?” And then she giggled because she was so sure of herself.
This is a child who, given the books she was carrying, was supposed to be her history class that day. And she had no clue what she was learning.
How? How could this young woman who had been in a history class for at least a month had no idea what continent she was studying. I could have spilled out some information about penguins creating a habitat in the middle of Florida in order to create the original taco stand while writing the Constitution and I wouldn’t be surprised if she would have said, “Oh! Really? Cool!”
Not a clue.
I couldn’t help myself. I asked her why she didn’t seem to care about her education. And that’s when she really surprised me.
“I care about my education. But I hate school.”
Ummmmmm? Say what?
So I asked her another question: “What is the difference?”
Education is about learning and the acquisition of knowledge. School is a box of people and rules and regulations and information that had no appeal to her because she couldn’t see the benefit of school.
By this point, I had been studying student apathy for over a month. I had decided to join an action research group and study a problem that was in my class. Originally, I wanted to study the divisions that existed within the school. But that idea died fairly quickly. So, I turned to my husband who, God bless him, helped me talk out my thoughts and feelings regarding the problems that I saw in my classroom.
Because I taught seniors, I didn’t have end of course testing or state/federal government mandated testing. Therefore, I had a lot of freedom to do what I thought was best. I figured that I should make sure my students were ready for college and the professional worlds. And that idea was inspired by a student, Michael, who vented that he could do the Pythagorean Theorem, write academic essays, find the complement objective in a sentence. But he didn’t know how to pay his taxes, buy a car, write a resume.
I was completely humbled. He could discuss themes, characterization, and symbolism, but he didn’t know how to edit professional writing. He could discuss upper level analysis skills but wasn’t certain about what needed to go into a cover letter or resume. He could argue his analysis but didn’t know how to write a bad-news letter or a persuasive letter.
I was really humbled at that moment. Because I was complicit in sending him out into a world and he didn’t feel prepared. I had taught him information that I thought was important. And if he chose to go to college, he was ready to write complex thesis/sub-thesis statements. He was ready to do upper level research. But if he was going to move into the business world….I had failed him.
Now, I will tell you that humble pie is not very tasty, especially when delivered by a student who doesn’t have a single certificate or letter to stick next to his name. I have a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. I have my National Board Certification. I am endorsed by the College Board in two areas. I have enough pretty papers and certificates of achievement to paper my walls. But they really don’t matter if I can’t even teach a kid how to succeed in life.
But I heard Michael. I heard his words and I thought a lot about what he said. And so when my husband and I were analyzing my classroom to find a project for me to research, I started to hear Michael’s voice in my head. He was dis-engaged from his classes, from school because he wasn’t learning what he needed to learn.
Apathy. Because I taught seniors, I dealt with senioritis. Starting in January, my students would receive their college acceptance letters. And they checked out.
I’m done! I’ve been accepted into college. It doesn’t matter anymore. I have my grades, my GPA. I can coast to June!
Oh boy. That’s no fun to deal with. Because I have about five more months worth of time with them and I am not going to spend that time watching movies and doing worksheets. But because the seniors were checked out, I had to supplement their energy with my energy which created horrific fatigue and exhaustion which led to insomnia which led to feeling out of sorts. And….yeah. Work no fun anymore.
And because the kids were dis-engaged, trying to get to them to talk to one another was painful. I would ask the thought-provoking question. They said nothing.
I referred to this as awkward crickets.
Major hate on the awkward crickets.
So, I decided to research senioritis which eventually turned into studying student apathy and how to engage the apathetic student.
Oh. My. God.
Ask a student a question and they will talk and talk and talk and talk.
I asked that girl why she cared about her education but hated school.
- Repetition: She felt like she was learning the same thing over and over again. Which is actually valid. The English curriculum is teaching students how to read, write, research, analyze. My children learned about similes and metaphors in elementary school. They are still learning about it in middle school. I am still teaching it in high school.
- Rules and regulations: The girl didn’t like all the rules. Dress code, cell phone policy, etc. Okay, here’s where I think she just needs to grow up because life is all about rules and regulations and policies. But, at the same time, sometimes we go too crazy with rules and regulations. The girl was convinced that teachers had been “disrespectful” to her. Maybe they were. At the same time, I can say with absolute assurance that this young woman was not exactly the most blessed of angels. And students do sometimes think that they are a bit more important than the adults who happen to inhabit the same living space.
- Respect: Students sometimes mistook the concept of respect as in being nice and courteous with respect as in equality. But, one thing I heard over and over again was that students wanted the ability to create, explore, advocate for, and then possibly change their opinions. Too often, students realize that they should just keep their mouths shut because when the teacher asks a question, he/she is looking for the right answer (the textbook answer) and not what the students think might be the right answer. True, sometimes the answer is right or wrong only. However, when we are looking at subjectivity, then different perspectives matter and those perspectives need to be heard and explored.
- Repetition: Yeah, I know I already wrote about this. But here’s another thing I saw….teachers repeated the same teaching techniques. Powerpoint presentations are wonderful. But what will happen is that the teachers will bring in the students, turn off the lights, turn on the Powerpoint presentation, and start lecturing, expecting the students to take notes. But the lights are off…so how are the students going to see their notes in order to take notes? And if the lights are off and the room is dark and the teacher is talking in monotone, then who in the world isn’t going to fall asleep? Now, here’s why teachers use this technique: 1. We’re told we have to use technology in our classroom. 2. We are exhausted with everything and this becomes really easy to distribute information and make sure the students are getting all the information the governments say the students must have this information. 3. We’re tired.
- Practicality: The students want to learn. But they want to learn about information that they think will benefit them in their futures. This is really difficult. Because when I was in high school, I wanted to be a fantasy writer and a dolphin trainer. I’m neither of those now. And if I had taken courses that would have been geared towards being a dolphin trainer (besides being non-existent), I would have squandered my time. But when I was in high school, I was taking upper level math courses that made no sense to me and have (sorry to all of my math colleagues out there) made no impact upon my life. Similarly, I can hear my math colleagues saying that knowing that Poe’s raven said “Nevermore” while Juliet fretted about Romeo being a Montague has not been life-altering either. I totally get it.
- Choice: The students are shuffled from room to room, learning information that is similar to what they have already learned in the last three years, and they have little choice. Why are art classes filled? Because the students who are in those classes have chosen to be in those classes. And the art teachers in my school are amazing. They give the students information on style and technique and then turn the students loose. The kids have free-reign over their creations and the creations are stunning. Unfortunately, state/federal testing hasn’t given a point value to the students’ artistic creations. Or, rather….thank God state/federal testing hasn’t touched the students’ artwork.
Students want to learn. But they want politicians out of the classroom and their teachers back. They want their teachers to care about what they are teaching and who they are teaching because those teachers are the ones who change how the students feel about their education. The students want the testing to end and for real evaluations to begin.
In a topic environment, these changes could be created immediately. However, the utopia doesn’t exist. And the students’ form of utopia might include having complete freedom and autonomy. And that will not happen. However, apathetic students can be engaged. And I know how to do that….