A psychologist and educators' collection of stories on 60 years of practice with children, teachers, administrators, and parents. Principles of brain research and cognitive psychology underlie implications for practice.
Dear Reader, I have a confession to make: I disliked high school. A lot. A real lot. In fact, I disliked it so much I stopped going my senior year. Eventually my truancy caught up with me, and to graduate, I had to run laps in PE class, one for each day I “cut” school. It took three weeks of running before I erased the days skipped. I was marathon-ready after that experience. Perhaps you, too, disliked school? For me, it was my inattentiveness, what we’d term today as ADHD, and common family stressors. Regardless, high school was a boring, tedious experience for me and many of my friends. Are things different today?
Data from a Pew Research report on social trends (2018) suggests things may not be too different. For 920 teens, ages 13-17, who responded to an AmeriSpeak survey which informed the report, students’ excitement for what they studied at school was less than 50%. Girls (33%) more regularly got excited about something they learned at school than boys (21%), partly explaining why 33% of boys say they never get in daily trouble at school versus 48% for girls. Reasons for the numbers are varied, and speak to the many challenges of our complex, digital world confounded by a divided nation. What’s an educator to do given these data?
My suggestion is to practice the Three Rs: Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships. Balancing rigor with students’ abilities is a fine dance, akin to the Goldilocks phenomena. Content can’t be too easy lest one lose student’s interest, nor too hard, sparking student anxiety and disengagement. Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development captures this idea in a more scientific manner. Relevance, the second “R”, is what excites me as a former curriculum director. Taking learning standards and developing lessons and units that both match standards and motivate students is a true creativity thrill. We all know students get excited when they are doing work that interests them. Relationships, the third “R”, is honoring what drives our species. We are social beings, and thrive working in concert with others. Problem solving, debating, strategizing, celebrating, etc…are things humans like doing with one another. Let’s honor our brain’s hard-wiring for challenging, relevant work that involves others by practicing the Three R’s: Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships. Let’s get kids excited about school. We can do this.
The unorthodox teacher was many things to many people, but for one 14-year-old boy, the unorthodox teacher was a “cook”. Yup, clearly etched into the top of his wooden oak desk read the line, “Mr. Danna is a cook”. To be honest, the engraved declaration was not as pedestrian as his Earth Science teacher working as a cook. Rather, the boy had creatively proclaimed in bold black number 2 pencil stained wood etchings, “Mr. Danna is a cock”. It was only through thoughtful editing by a colleague who chiseled the second “c” to an “o”, that the unorthodox teacher transformed from sexual organ (cock) to someone who could make a good burger (cook).
Kids scrawl into wooden desks the darnedest things, particularly when they are forced to be with an adult they detest one hour each and every day of a dreadfully long school year. Micah was one of those angry struggling students during my first year of public school teaching. He saw me as part of a rigid and uncompromising institution, and I saw him as a pain in the “bass”. Truth is we earned each other’s disdain for a lack of understanding and trust. I had set an unrealistically high bar for him, and he rightfully put me in the same box he had put most of his teachers. We didn’t click. We didn’t understand where the other was coming from, and since I was the one in charge, he was forced to communicate in more subtle, creative ways.
During my two prior years at a small Catholic school, students called me “Dr. Detention” for the amount of after school detention I doled out on a daily basis. I had no tolerance for students not doing homework or goofing off in class, and “punished” any rule breakers with an hour after school cleaning “dishes” (lab ware) and completing assigned work. Detention with me was, in my humble opinion, a pretty good deal. St. Mary’s Academy students liked soaping up Erlenmeyer flasks, beakers, and other glassware while I graded papers and made small talk with them, and they appreciated leaving with their class work done. Micah didn’t see things that way, and detention for him was a bad thing. He and I would have a bumpy relationship for most of the year, and eventually I grew to realize how little I knew of the boy’s difficult home life. And with that realization, I stopped assigning Micah detention, and Micah begrudgingly played the game as best he could. I would instead make calls home to chat with Micah’s mother, a woman who was rarely available to take my calls. The unorthodox teacher would learn a lot those first few years about poverty’s impacts on children, and he would become much more sensitive to the burdens of poverty on children.