Friday, November 12, 2010

A Plight of Passion: How Schools Kill the Excitement Factor in Learning

"Are you guys excited about this?"
"Not really."

This is the exact reaction I heard last week in my classes as I introduced the first major language project for the students in the 2010-2011 school year. Our school has adopted the project-based learning model, which allows students an opportunity to work in small groups in order to create a project that has real world applications. The idea behind the model is that the majority of professional work in the 21st century is done in small groups which a goal and a deadline in place. It is up to the group members to divvy up responsibilities and to create a product that is efficient and purposeful. At our school level we will have an exhibition night where students will showcase all of their project-based learnings to staff members, parents, as well as members of the community. We hope to instill upon our students the work ethnic and cooperation techniques they will need to succeed beyond their high school days.

This is one of the reasons why it is so disheartening to hear student responses like the one above. We as teachers try our best to come up with innovative and exciting project ideas. The beauty of working at a charter school is that we can do this without district personnel breathing down our necks and wondering why we aren't following the standard course of study to the T. For my language project, I am having my students create an educational video to post on YouTube about anything, I repeat, ANYTHING having to do with the Spanish language. Students can do it on a musician, actor, country, city, movie, song, grammar topic, whatever they fancy. They can do a song parody, a satire of a television show, a mock interview, or even a traditional teacher-centered lecture. The possibilities are endless. And yet, there my students were after being presented about the project, nearly all of them with the same unenthusiastic response to my query.

Normally, I wouldn't think twice about my students' response to the project. I mean, they are high schoolers after all, and apathy seems to be the norm, even in charter schools. However, last week put me in a situation that I had never been in before: A situation of teaching elementary school children. I was fortunate enough to come into contact with one of my professors who needed a Spanish teacher for an eight-week enrichment session from now until winter vacation. I offered my services since my tutoring gig had expired and the fact that I was looking for teaching opportunities outside of my regular day job. Last Tuesday, I taught nine elementary school children from first to fifth grade the Spanish alphabet. We sang songs, made flash cards, and ended up by playing hangman on the board. Here were students who were excited and animated and wanting to learn, even though it was past the end of the regular school day. It was a stark contrast to what I had experienced just hours before with my high school students.

So these two instances got me thinking: What causes excitable elementary school students to become apathetic high school students? For me, the first thing that comes to mind is the peer pressure and adolescent component. Nobody wants to be seen actually "enjoying" school when they get to high school. Even if you do enjoy it, you keep it to yourself and shrug it off if somebody asks you about it. The most important thing is to be accepted by your peers and the only way you can do it is to appear to be just like them. Granted, there are exceptions, but for the most part the idea of having and maintaining an image is most critical to high school students. This is why the prom king and queen are traditionally the star athlete and head cheerleader as opposed to the valedictorian. I don't think I was even more proud of my high school class than on the night of my junior prom where they selected my friend Matt as homecoming king. Matt was a quiet, but academically gifted individual who would go on to become student body president and eventually graduate first in our class before heading to Harvard. Unfortunately, feel good stories like this one seem to be the exception rather than the rule.

The second thing that causes apathy is a lack of choices in high school curricula. This is an ongoing problem especially in today's high-stakes testing environment where electives are often the first thing to go. Imagine how fun high school would be if you could venture out and choose a class you might not have traditionally taken. I remember my freshman year in high school where I had signed up to take a class in small engines technology. I was all set to become the resident mechanic in my household. Unfortunately, as is the case with most of these kind of electives today, the class got scrapped due to low enrollment numbers. Think how great it would be if schools offered classes in drama, art, music, and film. How much more well-rounded would our students be in they had the ability to take a variety of classes before setting foot on a college campus or joining the military or work force? Giving students choice in their classes would help alleviate some of the apathy that eventually rears its ugly head.

The last thing that kills student excitement is the sheer pressure we put on kids starting about halfway through their elementary school experience. Nowhere else in the modern world are students expected to perform well on high-stakes tests at such an early age. Should a third grader's promotion to the next grade really hinge upon how well he or she does on a single year end test? Of course not, yet this is the case time and time again in today's high-stakes testing environment. Whereas once upon a time every hand would shoot up when the teacher asked a question, now only a few of them shoot up as the rest begin to doubt themselves and their abilities for the very first time. Sure you thought you were good in math, but when you got that failing score on the state exam last spring, now you're not so sure. You think you know the answer to the question the teacher is asking but to be safe you just sit back and wait for one of the "smarter" kids to jump right in there. After all, it's a lot safer that way.

There is no doubt in my mind that all three factors are equally important reasons why student excitement levels wane as they get older. One thing I struggle with on a daily basis is trying to get my students to actually ENJOY their learning. Even if they are doing individual work, I encourage them to carry on a conversation with their neighbor. They look at me like I have three heads. The problem is they have all come from environments where the fun has been sucked out of learning. Where test preparation has replaced recess. Where student schedules are set for full years with no other options. Where those that are smart and can critically think are immediately ostracized. High schoolers quite simply have forgotten how to have fun when learning. It's not their fault. They are products of a system that sucks the life out of its students and leaves hollow shells of what the students were when they first started school. Students want to have fun in school. The problem is they have forgotten how. So it is up to us as teachers to reignite that long-lost fire.

Now, who wants to go and make a super fun video?