Monday, April 21, 2008


I don't know what's going on up at our high school, but I know, for the most part, what's NOT going on, and that's learning. Since I've been in teaching, nine years now, I have seen a slow, but sure, decline in student motivation and day-to-day willingness to work hard and learn. And I'm not the only one to comment on this decline. I guess it's easy to blame our increasing reliance on the latest technology, which allow us to fill every tiny "void" in our lives with an .mp3 file, a text message, or a hand-held video game. Everything is readily available at our fingertips in the time it takes to click a button. It's no surprise that our acquired desire for instant and constant gratification comes at the cost of learning, which instead requires the patient pertinacity and self-discipline to invest thankless time that is only possibly rewarded later with a potential good grade, no to mention the acquisition of some valuable piece of knowledge that can help us later in life.

However, this year, especially the last 6 weeks, students have been exceedingly recalcitrant, apathetic, and content with being a few rungs below mediocrity. With a relatively comfortable desktop on which to lay their head, fresh oxygen circulating in the room, and free textbooks in their locker, the plurality of the students are floundering in a classroom environment, where they are forced to go without the flashing gizmos for 90 minute stretches at a time. Like a junkie going through withdrawals, I see the listlessness in their expressions and the jitters they suffer as they sit "trapped" in their desk listening to the man in the front of the room ranting and raving about "x's and y's." Even many who force themselves to participate by taking notes, are merely copying down without processing, and soon tire out.

But at the risk of sounding too negative, there still are those bright stars who would shine in any environment. I've got plenty of those again this year, but I'm specifically talking about the general population of students, the average teenager in a public school: they are doing less and less in the classroom, while doing more and more outside of it. Many are overextended in their myriad of extracurricular activities and/or work part-time to earn money (gas is expensive, you know.) Then there are the video games which MUST be fit in somewhere, usually late at night and into the early hours of the morning. I'd like to think that they think to themselves, "No problem, I'll just catch up on my sleep during class," but I don't think they even consciously think that, but rather, their lack of energy is merely a consequence of their poor decision making.

Or is it because they stay up all evening studying or working on projects. This produces a euphoria that they can easily rationalize: "I'm doing schoolwork like I'm supposed to. This is justified." Maybe they even try to convince themselves, "I work BETTER under pressure," but if they're fooling themselves, they're not fooling me. There is no good reason for them to be staying up that late (or early!) in the first place. Procrastination is a devilish master who demands a high price. I actually think that some have adopted the philosophy that they quicker they fall behind, the more time they have to catch up. Besides, catching up is what the last day of the six-weeks grading period is for. The sudden urgency to get things in or done by that final deadline provide them, for the first time, with the excitement and rush of a video game. Many even add to the intensity by asking "Is there anything I can do to bring up my failing grade?" To which I reply, "Yes, do your work next six weeks."

I hate to sound callous, rude, or flippant, but it is very frustrating how, despite my best efforts to teach them otherwise, these students bury themselves into a hole out of which they cannot climb. Then parents get on the phone and want to know why their son or daughter is doing so poorly. I think it is a much fairer question for me to ask them. But instead, I merely end up defending my curriculum and methods, trying to educate the parents (if not the student) that learning is a two-way street, NOT a spectator sport, and should be the most important thing in their life right now. Of course, that's not what anyone wants to hear, because its not pragmatic, requires sacrifice, painful effort, and would require a meaningful change in behavior.

No, instead, everyone just wants there to be an easy way, and that is for the teacher to teach. Teach, teach, teach. If only we would teach, the students could learn. But as the Buddhist proverb says, "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear." I'm beginning to fear that unless learning, especially math, can be made into a competitive video game which we then forbid kids to play, I'll just be some guy in the front of the room, interrupting their thoughts and assigning homework, which at least gives them something else to put off.


Anonymous said...

A tough day for sure!!! Skittles tomorrow. LC

Anonymous said...

Amen brother! But take heart there are those good kids we enjoy and when you get an invitation to a former student's college graduation as I did this week, it tends to remind one why we do this.

kwkorpi said...

I absolutely agree. I'm usually not the one to go around professing negativity and cynicism, but after the consistent lack of performance I have witnessed and endured, it does describe my current, although ephemeral, outlook. I have many, many wonderful students among my classes. We should all be so fortunate to attend the college graduation of our previous students. It's moments like those that erase the negativity and cynicsm.