“i am enthusiastic about everything i like”*

“I am enthusiastic about everything I like.”
Me too, kid. Me too.

This quote has summed up the school year thus far. It was written on an introduction sheet my high school students fill out in the fall. The answer was in response to a question asking about students’ hobbies, interests and things they enjoyed outside of the school day. When I first saw the response, it made me laugh.

I have been struggling with a most important work issue this year: my students.

The year started off as a dream, my new students are kind, polite and well-behaved. They are nice to each other and seem to enjoy attending class. They are rule followers and I have no attendance issues.  I see fear though as new concepts are introduced and some students freeze, refusing to attempt an assignment because they might not be The Best. When I give an “experimentation” assignment, (where one tries something ‘new-to-you’ over a period of time) some look at me with tears in their eyes while frantically explaining, “I just don’t know what to do! I don’t have any ideas!”

I teach teenagers. They should be creative and crafty. They should break rules. They should be inappropriate and weird and push every boundary set before them. They should be making mistakes and stupid decisions so they have the opportunity to learn from them before they get much older.

According to my informal data collection, I’m not the only teacher who is perplexed by what is occurring (or not occurring) in the classroom. In response to the question, “How are your classes this year?” the teacher-answers align with what I am experiencing. Everyone I ask says something similar to the following:
Great!” “The kids are so nice.” “I have really good kids!” “My students this year are really…sweet.”
And then, there is, a very  l  o  n  g  PAUSE.

No one likes to speak of what comes next so we either exchange knowing looks in silence or avoid eye contact when the subject isn’t changed. Eventually someone will ask the next set of questions:

Compared to other years, how much material have you covered with this group?
(a little more than half of what is typical)
Do your students absorb written information?
(not often)
Do your classes listen to/follow/comprehend verbal directions?
(not at all)
When you model or demonstrate do they pay attention?
(when they are not checking their phones)
How is their long-term memory? Short term?
(not good at all) (a little better)
Do they ask for help?
(rarely and when they do, they can’t seem to form full sentences)
Can they write?
(not well or they seem to think anything they discover online already belongs to them)
Are your students depressed and anxious? And medicated for these things too?
(Yes.) (Yes.)

We all know the kids have changed. Very quickly. Over-the-summer-quickly.
And WE, the teachers, haven’t changed fast enough.

Will starting a twitter account so kids can follow me, in the hopes that a quick tweet may sink in more than eye contact and the sound of my voice, solve anything? Why would one not be bored if one only participates in pre-experiences tried and found to be successful or nice? How can the absence of creative thinking, as a result of incessant standardized testing, be undone? How can we unfreeze fearful young people and get them to try something, anything, new? How can I motivate them to push harder, do better and surpass what they have done before when they don’t know how good a true success feels? How can I communicate that one can do better— especially if one has not tried— without hurting their over-sensitive feelings? How can they understand that, despite everything they have been shown, one doesn’t get a medal, a ribbon or an “A” for just showing up? How will they ever appreciate success if they never attempt (or are allowed to attempt) something they may fail? How will they value efforts and struggles if everything one may be motivated to work for is placed directly in front of one before they even know what they desire?

I am enthusiastic about my students, whom I like. I just feel I no longer know how to teach them.

*alternate titles considered for this post:
the zombie apocalypse is in my classroom
the kids are not alright

it’s not you, it’s me


18 thoughts on ““i am enthusiastic about everything i like”*

  1. Very astute observations…and very scary. All my suspicions about robo-sapiens plugged into communication gadgets seem to be confirmed. How do we show the urgency of engagement before it’s too late for these young people to become anything other than corporate cogs? *shudder* All the best super powers to you on the front lines! And a million thanks.

    • I need all the super powers I can get—thanks!!! I teach studio art, so I’m fortunate to still have freedom in my classes: we don’t have standardized testing (yet), I can stop, re-teach, do something completely crazy to get their attention, introduce wild ideas and wacky artists…but none of it seems to matter. The “bag of tricks” is becoming quite empty…

  2. Coming from a not-so-average high schooler who works with younger children, I can say that it’s only going to go downhill from here. From what I’ve observed back at my public school, the students are losing their attention span and their ability to communicate sufficiently through anything that isn’t obnoxious texting lingo (I only call it obnoxious because sometimes it takes longer to write than simply writing the usual word).

    Some blame parenting. Some blame an increase in technology and a societal focus shift in values. Some blame standardized testing. I’m not one of the variety to blame the tests themselves, but as the real issue seems to be a lack of creativity, of original thought, perhaps the tests could be to blame. Certainly the teachers aren’t.

    I know my motivation in school is self-driven but sometimes the enthusiasm of a teacher wakes me into thinking, or sometimes it’s the topic itself (granted, you’re talking to a 17 year old who devotes an hour a day laughing at Jon Stewart and Colbert). I came into this comment hoping to be helpful, but I don’t have a slightest clue how to make someone creative. I honestly think it has to do with society rather than the teaching. And if that is true, then we will have a problem far larger than an inability to teach to students when my generation finally reaches adulthood and enters the workforce…

    • Thank you for your comment, Sarah, I appreciate your honesty and it’s refreshing to hear from such a self-aware young person. You mention many good points and it’s helpful for me to get a younger point of view since these issues aren’t the easiest to discuss in class with my students—though I would love to do just that.
      Best of luck with your studies… and there’s nothing wrong with watching Stewart & Colbert!

  3. How great to have a young reader comment here! And she brings up a great point. How do you make someone creative? Maybe that’s not necessary; we may already be innately creative, but what society does is make it unsafe to express and explore that creativity. As a teacher, you try to create a safe place for your students to be creative…you don’t have to do standardized testing, but you do have to give a grade. All the fears about being judged really become obstacles to creativity, though. We have that all over: “like” me on Facebook, get the “Tea Party” approval, get 3 “yes” votes on American Idol. A big group of people is easier to control when they are not creative. An individual is easier to control when he is not allowed to be creative. “Helicopter parents” who are suspicious of unstructured time contribute to this stifling, too. And it is all fear-driven. Why are we afraid of raising free thinkers and creative people? Why do we make it unsafe for people to be critical and questioning and to live “outside the box”? Why do we support mono-cultures and compliant systems?
    So, as a studio art teacher, would your class have the feeling that it’s safe to be different inside your classroom? That might be a huge addition to a young life, a breaking out point. If that’s not possible because of the school environment, maybe you can invite them to create a “studio” of their own somewhere…some place where they can feel safe to experiment and be different. I used to play in the woods across the street. The forest preserve was my “studio”, to dream, to pretend, whatever. My parents were not hovering around. How many kids have that anymore?

    • You bring up so many good points and I also was so happy to see Sarah’s comments!
      I realize some of the “slacking” in my class may be because of the subject I teach—electives do take lower priority to the “core” classes. I am fortunate in that many of my kids have told me they feel more comfortable, can relax and be themselves in my classroom—which is wonderful—but fear still stops so much potential…
      I too used to spend childhood days running, playing and sitting quietly in the woods and exploring a nearby creek. We turned those places into hospitals, outer space, war zones, prehistoric times and the wild west just to name a few. I bet we seemed quite wild ourselves, but we did have soooo much fun.

  4. I have no advice or wise comment, but I thank you for trying to spark creativity and articulating the challenge. You have some great comments here – that’s a good sign! My own best HS teacher was my art teacher, Mr. Fox, who let us call him “Foxy” though he appeared quite straight, in his dark pants and white shirts. He pushed very hard for creativity, not for attractive results. In a conservative middle class school full of kids destined for the Ivy leagues, he would throw a chair upside down onto a table and speak to the school principal through the chair leg, as if it were a microphone. Not that you should do that, it was a different time…but he embodied rule breaking and a passion for questioning authority, and for some of us that allowed our already fairly free spirits to breathe easier.

  5. This should be a national dialogue. I’m glad you’re out there interacting with these young people. Teachers have influence that can last a lifetime, it sounds as if you will wield that power wisely.

    • Thanks, Maya. I cannot understand why education isn’t discussed more since it directly impacts every person (on so many levels). May the conversation begin in earnest before it’s too late. I really appreciate your comment.

  6. I am glad there are astute teachers like yourself in the system, still engaged with teaching and with the students. I find your observations disquieting and disturbing, putting words to some generalized feelings of my own. I know that each generation of parents says, “When I was young we …” but, really, there are legitmate and very real concerns of where this is all going to lead.

    • I really appreciate your comment, Lynne…I am very concerned not only for our future as a whole but all the frustrations and obstacles each young person may struggle against, when we could have done some things differently.
      In response to your post (pingback below), and your daughter’s observations… there have been many studies that suggest young people should severely limit the use of tv/cell phone/computer screens as their eyes develop (instead of looking at them more often). The extended focus on a 2D screen is hindering real-life depth perception in developing eyes. As a result, young people will better see and understand a virtual world instead of the real one in which they live.

      • This is extremely disturbing, R, Why is this information not more widely known? Can you direct me to any of this research informantion? This should be shouted from the roof tops. I empathsize with today’s parents – I was a working Mum too and I havent forgotten all that entails in terms of family life – but where indeed is this going to take us?

        • A quick search just lead me to find research on how prolonged, close-up viewing of any screen can damage anyone’s eyes. (I’m mostly finding research that the benefits of technology outweigh the risks…) I know this has been discussed in education groups. When I find something more concrete I will absolutely let you know.

  7. Pingback: The new babsitters | Beyond the Brush

  8. As a parent of a disengaged 16 year old I empathise with you. From my (Australian) perspective standardised testing and and an out of date curriculum don’t help already disconnected students. We try to get our son outdoors as much as possible. Camping, fishing, travel, going to the beach are what motivates and keeps our son happy and fulfilled. Not much help for his teachers though!

Comments are welcome and appreciated.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s