I Am Responsible

I recently overheard a conversation in which two teachers were discussing a particular student that came to school and simply "existed." He didn't engage, didn't turn work in, and didn't seem to have any interest in learning. The conversation ended with: "Why does he even come to school?"

It is easy to jump into teacher mode to answer that question. We see the value in life-long learning and the intrinsic value of education. We know that sometimes, the stuff we learn in school does come back to haunt us. But, many times, much of what we're teaching kids (the curriculum) won't come back around, especially in the sciences.

So, my question is, who is at fault? Is it the student's fault for not caring, or is it my fault for poor teaching?

Why are the mitochondria important? What does it matter to me if plant cells use sunlight to smash carbon dioxide and water into sugars? What is so special about DNA?

These are questions kids ask every day in their heads, and they're questions we tend to gloss over.

I believe part of the answer to this problem lies in choice. When content is dictated and isolated, we're taking away opportunities for deeper questions. But, part of changing that paradigm is giving up some control. We have to be okay with kids asking hard questions...even questions we don't know the answer to. Push learning by taking seemingly unrelated concepts and asking the kids to synthesize and theorize the connections. Celebrate mistakes and failure; encourage collaboration and debate.

We are partially responsible for the disengagement of many kids in our schools. The plow through finals week has been bringing me back to that truth. I keep asking myself why we put kids through a multiple choice test to see what they know. Even essay questions are limited in scope as they still rely on recall of facts.

I would much rather see what they can do. But, that transition is difficult...and scary.

I don't know the student from the story at the top of the page, but I do have students that are in similar places. Disconnected, irrelevant information isn't interesting to them...why is that such a surprise? The times I've given choice and freedom are when I've gotten some great response. I'm still responsible for dragging a few through the mud, but at least they're more open to letting me drag them.

6 thoughts on “I Am Responsible

  1. Jude says:

    I just spent two months as a long-term high school English sub, and it made me even more convinced that students, especially high school students, choose how well they’ll do (when they’re able to make the choice, which some students aren’t able to do). I liked all the students and wanted them all to do well. I’d tell them, okay, for those of you who want to make up points, here’s an assignment that will help you do that. I’d say, okay, if you write 5 sentences on the vocabulary words, you can get 15 extra credit points. Since that activity would directly help them on the vocabulary quiz, I thought that was a good idea. I didn’t plan the curriculum; I didn’t plan the activities; and I was left feeling as though most of what they were being taught was a waste of time. As an adjunct college prof, I didn’t give multiple guess tests–I gave take-home short-answer essay tests, designed to get students to learn more beyond what I was able to cover in the classroom. At college, students liked those tests; in high school, I’m pretty sure that at least a third of the students wouldn’t have bothered completing them. I had one new student who did *no* work during the 10 days when I was his teacher. I went over everything that was required, but he chose to do nothing. We got along well, he was in one of the smaller-sized classes, but he did no work at all. I’m not sure why he made that choice, but I doubt that he’s doing anything in any of his classes; he comes to school because it’s required, not because he wants to graduate.

    • Brian Bennett says:

      That’s part of what I’m seeing now. But, don’t take my post as “let them choose willy-nilly and it will all work out.”

      The bigger issues are that we aren’t teaching kids HOW to make those choices. Parameters are still important, but I’m not dictating the entire course.

      What I really want is more input and student voice and less of my own.

  2. I think your last part of “I don’t know the student” is potentially the biggest issue. Chances are no one knows the student. No one knows that person’s full story. Perhaps even the student doesn’t know himself or herself all that well, either.

    Somehow relationships and trust have to be a part of the solution.

    • Brian Bennett says:

      I agree. While I don’t lecture in class much, I still find it difficult to connect with many of my kids. Relationships build trust, which will help us find mutual solutions to issues in school.

      I don’t think teachers and kids are that far off from one another…we just need to start communicating more effectively.

  3. Brett Clark says:

    Brian-

    Another great post! I agree that we need to continue to move towards performance assessments. I don’t want to know what you know. I want to know what you can do with the knowledge you have!

    I want to be blamed when things don’t go well. Because if I am responsible for the problem, then I have the power to fix it. If I blame somebody else or “the system” for my problems, then I have no power to change. Change starts with me.

  4. Brian, I can’t agree more. But in this day and age of high stakes standardized tests we are being required to create “look alike” tests that mimic the Michigan MME and ACT and to some extent AP tests. While MC tests are easy for teachers to create they are mind numbing for the kids and myself. I feel like I am opening their brains and pouring facts in. Although in science you need that background there has to be a better way. My experimental solution will be period short MC quizzes, blog posts that require them to critically think and analyze, finally labs that make the show what they can DO and at the same time include data analysis. Great piece got me thinking.

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