Monday, June 9, 2008

Keeping Kids Motivated

When Kids Don’t Care

I believe that there is some truth to the statement that kids today just don’t care. As I am sure you have heard time and again, the latest generation of kids is the most hooked in to the latest technology and pop culture. Things, like your lesson plans, have to be quick and entertaining to keep their attention. If your lesson plans are supremely boring, the kids check out fast.

Last time I posted, I talked a bit about juggling teaching duties while facing a classroom of apathetic students. It can be very hard for a teacher to find the energy to “wake up” kids and get them interested in learning. Some days I just want to throw in the towel rather than try and get through to all of those blank faces.

Finding a Balance

I do think we do kids a disservice by constantly feeding in to their “need” for everything to be fast and exciting. How are they going to be able to sit through long lectures and read dense textbooks in college? How are they going to be able to sit through a long, dry board meeting when they’re adults?

On the other hand, how can “boring” textbooks compete with the latest video games like Grand Theft Auto IV? There has to be a way to find a balance, to add some excitement and sensationalism to learning.

Getting Their Attention

One of the things that I do – and I fully admit this – is play up the lurid details of the stories we read. I am a fairly young teacher and my students are teenagers and we are comfortable in discussing human relationships – without crossing the boundaries of good taste. The more shocking something is in the story, the more excited the students get.

For example, in the fall in American Literature, we read The Crucible, a story of how a young woman scorned starts the Salem Witch Hunt. In one scene toward the beginning, Abigail reminds John Proctor of how he clutched her back like a sweating stallion. In every one of my classes, my students were practically leaping out of their seats yelling “No way!” After that, we referred to John Proctor as the Stallion, and any time someone was to read his part in the play we all called him the Stallion.

Creating Meaningful Activities

Of course, not every subject will be able to take advantage of the “sex sells” scenario and it is tough to play up such literary naughtiness day in and day out. What you, and your students – yes, they can help – is create meaningful activities that connect the reading or the lesson in with their own lives.

One way to make connections is to tap into current events. When teaching Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” (i.e., good fences make good neighbors), my classes talk about actual walls like the Berlin Wall or the border fence along the southern United States. We talk about hypothetical walls like racism and prejudice. Then, to tie it all together, I show them a video clip from the Comedy Central website of Carlos Mencia, a Latino comedian, ranting about the border fence and racism. Chances are good that most of the students have seen his show on TV and are familiar with his rantings.

Another way to make connections is to tap into students’ own thoughts and feelings. When we read The Catcher in the Rye, I have students create personal scrapbooks inspired by elements from the novel. For instance, the main character Holden has a red hunting hat that he uses to show his individuality. The students have to select an article of clothing or item that represents them as a person, that makes a statement about who they are.

Make Learning Relevant

Whatever you choose to do, it has to be relevant to the students or you will lose them. Yes, there will have to be days of lectures, of reading out of the text, of writing essays. Neither you nor your students can get out of them. Not every day can be a lively party. I think you can find a balance, to space out the activities among the lectures so that you can keep the momentum going.

The most important thing, however, is to stay positive and interested – interested in your students and interested in your subject. Kids can tell when you don’t care and they can tell when you do care. If you earn their trust and respect by showing you care, it is much easier to get them to go along with whatever you are trying to accomplish.


Dana Huff said...

You hit the nail on the head. Students get much more into it if there's a hook. My hook this year was to try to make everything real-world relevant. For example, you have to watch how you use commas because an incorrectly placed comma cost Rogers Communications in Canada over $2 million. Death of a Salesman is relevant because we are living in a global economy, and folks like Willy Loman are getting left behind. The Crucible is relevant because we are still, in some places in the world, systematically rounding up and persecuting people.

Todd Bussard said...

Good point about Holden in The Cather in the Rye. It sounds like you are getting through by not being so "phony." Holden would be proud. Dry material will be dry no matter what, but your passion for the subject will be the example.

Sally Kilpatrick said...

Have you taught on more than one type of schedule? If so, do you find that it's harder to keep kids engaged in a 90 minute class than in a 55 minute class? What would be your suggestions for the two different class lengths?

Molly B. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Molly B. said...

I substitute teach at the local elementary school. I am curious how you would recommend handling those children that are acting out so that they can get more of your attention. I have used techniques like giving that child a special task, like handing out papers or other busy work that allows them to get my attention without misbehaving. However, I sometimes get concerned that my behavior is rewarding theirs. What about the other students in the class that don't make a fuss or act out if they don't get special assignments? I want to be fair. Any advice?

Chris said...

I think you could add in "Be Real" as a way to engage the students - be interested in their lives, get to know them, ask genuine questions. It'll serve you well in the long run...