“I’ve just given up. The pressure is too much. I need to feel numb in order to block the pain.” The haunting silence was suffocating as the air escaped the classroom.
Ever wonder what’s on the mind of a seventeen-year-old high school student? Ask one. Then listen. If enough trust has been established within a classroom community, juniors will share. But be warned. Prepare for a dose of reality the adult world tends to overlook or ignore.
Arguably the most significant question I have ever asked a class was a simple, spontaneous journal prompt earlier this year: What are the top ten sources of stress in your life?
The common responses included: grades, constant homework, high school drama, the upcoming ACT test, expectations of AP courses, prom, need money, pressure from parents, job responsibilities, time management, friends, stereotypes, college searching, being judged, extra-curricular activities, and lack of time. There is not enough time to balance everything—including sleep.
Third quarter is ideal for this conversation. The class has likely conquered the challenges of first semester and everyone’s voice has emerged. This is when I facilitate a thematic unit focused on “the quest for personal fulfillment,” which promotes highly reflective thought in World Literature and Composition. We begin the unit with a study and analysis of our individual learning styles—particularly, how our learning styles impact our educational experience.
The literary study opens with Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” one of my favorite literary pieces (thus the reference to Form of the Good, the title of my blog site). As we read and share insights about the dialogue, I urge students to release any preconceived notions about their mindset and approach learning from a new perspective for a glimpse of enlightenment. The guiding questions include: “What are some ‘caves’ in your life in which you might be or feel ‘imprisoned?’ How might you be liberated from the restrictive limits of the cave?”
How can we expect students to invest in our class for 50 minutes before a bell signals another mindless transition in their day—a day in which they must also face the stress of a job, expectations of parents, social pressure from peers, and the workload of each class, including advanced placement courses? Add the anxiety of time restraints, lack of sleep, and grades, and the picture becomes clearer. Adolescents are caught in a race to adulthood, where external forces rush their emotional maturity, but offer little choice in the process.
We might complain about students’ apathy and their lack of engagement (How can they not care about anything?), but it is not to be taken personally (they assure me). My students recognize the efforts of their teachers—passionate educators—and the attempts to create exciting lessons and fun class activities.
Classroom learning is simply not a priority in their busy day. According to my juniors:
We have experienced years of seeing no success, no reward for our efforts, and are not held accountable—especially on standardized tests. Why even try? In class, we are commanded to be quiet and learn. Then told to talk to others and learn. [The voice of teachers] loses effect over time. We need down time that is not dictated…and not be preached at by hypocritical adults. So, it is just easier to go through the motions with a sense of numb…it’s easier when I feel numb.
Powerful words. They trusted I would listen and I did. The next day, I greeted class with this prompt.
Genius hour was officially launched in Room A15.
I have since monitored progress and collected feedback from students. I will post student projects and the positive response to genius hour soon.
Proud Father…Concerned Teacher
Naturally, the father in me is proud to share a photo of my 3rd grader lost in a book. Although my son excels at math, understands numbers, and absorbs statistics, Maddox loves to read. He is a logical, rational, concrete thinker, so my English teacher persona smiles every time Maddox says he is going to bed early to read for thirty minutes.
The English teacher hesitates to admit the unorthodox methods used to instill Maddox’s early success as a reader. Many of his first words were read off the ESPN ticker scrolling across the bottom of the television screen (we skipped most educational programming in favor of sports in our house…guilty). After mastering team names and major universities, Maddox moved on to the sports page of the morning newspaper. He would find an article that looked appealing and circle all the words he recognized. Of course, he kept word count stats at the bottom of each column. Who needs lexile scores?
Of course, my wife and I read stories to Maddox and introduced him to traditional children’s books, but reading was and continues to be something he explores independently because he wants to. Maddox is also a role model for his sister, a kindergartner who aspires to do everything like her big brother. Watching her follow his lead is most encouraging from a parent’s point of view. My children should be avid readers and healthy learners, yet I anticipate conflict along the way.
I am grateful for Maddox’s positive elementary school experiences with teachers who instill a love of reading beyond carpet-time sessions–educators who invest the time to introduce my son to new books based not only on reading level, but on their knowledge of his interests. They provide opportunities and present challenges, knowing he will reach and likely exceed their expectations.
As soon as Maddox’s third grade teacher recognized his competitive spirit, she challenged him to select from the shelf of higher-level, more complex chapter books; predictably, Maddox attacked it. He began with one series at a time and has not slowed down. I know this sounds like parental bliss, so what’s the problem?
The experienced (realistic, slightly cynical) English teacher in me fears the worst–a gradual decline in my son’s love of reading as a result of misguided motivation and purpose. I have witnessed this downward trend in so many students as they approach high school and no longer want to read books (even given freedom to select an independent text). Now that I’m a parent, I am gaining an insightful perspective of potential sources of ruin.
Maddox currently selects each Accelerated Reader book according to its points rating, reads the book, takes a ten question quiz, and rushes home with a print out of his performance. He needs six out of ten correct answers to pass, but the competitor expects a perfect score. These recall questions can be unnecessarily fastidious; they do not engage complex thinking or stimulate a reader’s passion. It has been a challenge to convince him that his scores of eight or nine out of ten are most acceptable as long as he is comprehending (and enjoying) what he reads. The magic printer confirms Maddox is reading well above grade level–praise that inspires him to conquer the next book on the shelf–and the cycle repeats.
I encourage and support my son’s third grade quest to read one million words–an awesome milestone–but cannot hide my concern for the day Maddox does the math and tires of the ten-point reading game. He, like so many others, will discover shortcuts to undermine the system. Students of all ability levels master this skill at an early age (too bad that doesn’t get assessed nationally).
My wife and I are well aware of society’s test-
crazeddriven obsessions and will continue to make learning something special in our house. But what about the students and parents who do not have the advantage of identifying flaws in the system from the inside? They are unprepared for and unknowingly persuaded by sales pitches of political and educational jargon spewed in conferences or on the news–bombarded with Common Core speak, standardized test scores, charts, benchmarks, acronyms, lexiles, grades, trend lines, and national percentiles.
With little explanation or background knowledge, this is overwhelming. The numbers couldn’t possibly lie. Translation: apply label to
robot student immediately, accept without question, and have a pleasant day.
Thankfully, I’m a parent and an educator.