Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Conversations that really make me think...



I had at least 2013 meaningful conversations in 2013, which is awesome. I try to have a meaningful conversation everyday, so 2013 of them worked. I will continue to have many conversations in 2014 because dialog is key to understanding, and I try hard to understand things. I'm not a fan of new year resolutions really, but I do like to reflect on my understanding of things a lot, so I'm going to spend some time reflecting on where I'm at with a few key conversations I had this past year, and what I intend to do to grow my understanding.

On student apathy...
An assertion was made that students are becoming more apathetic over time. I disagreed. The statement reminded me of another conversation I had some time ago while teaching in an alternative middle school program. I exchanged thoughts with the head of a group home/counseling agency about whether psycho-social problems were on the rise or not among school age children. I asked him whether he thought they actually were on the rise, or whether this was an illusion based on our growing willingness to accept that psycho-social problems among kids were real coupled with our growing sense of responsibility that something needed to be done about them in support of the kids suffering. With all his experience in the area, I felt he gave me the most honest answer he could... "I don't know." Psycho-social problems have existed for as long as humans have existed, but if you ask my dad he will tell you that just a couple of generations ago, his weren't dealt with readily and in supportive ways. In contrast, they were swept under the rug, so to speak, and kids were left to deal with their issues alone and unsupported, or even worse, kids were removed from the scene and forgotten about. Thankfully we have moved away from this reactive state and are becoming more responsive to student needs.

I thought about this conversation during the exchange about student apathy. Are kids becoming more apathetic, or are we simply more attuned to their apathy? This is a massive question worth further investigation because either way, a call to action is obviously necessary. Hope without action is just wishful thinking. Problems just are if we don't do something about them. We can talk about the state of things all we want, but until we move in a direction of improved states, we're just talking.

A related conversation in a skateboard shop recently rekindled my thoughts on the apathy issue. I was buying a skateboard and some Christmas gifts for my nephews, and talking with one of the sales staff while the skateboard was being built. I was talking about the skate park at our school and he asked me what grades I taught. I told him I taught seventh grade and he replied with "if I had a skate park at my school in seventh grade, I wouldn't have dropped out of school." The rest of the conversation was so interesting. He told me he dropped out because he felt bored and misunderstood at school. Doing a little 'on the fly' qualitative research, I asked him what could have been done to change that. Besides having a skate park at school, he began to tell me about his interests and aptitudes, and it was not a short list. He told me he wanted to be an astrophysicist and how interested he was in anything to do with engineering in space. He was obviously intelligent, and obviously motivated to learn. He told me he loved to learn, and that he learned new things every day. My experience told me that he wasn't playing with me... this kid was smart and motivated to learn, so what went wrong? I can only guess that his intelligence and desire to learn hadn't been tapped into, and perhaps if given a little bit more latitude and choice in his own learning, we may have a budding astrophysicist ready to solve some interstellar questions. I told him I was sorry things didn't work out for him, and encouraged him to finish high school so he could pursue his goals in post secondary learning. I gave him some tips on how to do that through particular university programs that allow upgrading in a blended high school/university context. He thanked me not knowing this was a possibility... he didn't want to return to his traditional high school.

Are students apathetic? Sometimes, yes. Are they more apathetic now than they were in the past. I don't know, and I don't think I need to know. I'm taking the position for now that there are lots of actions I can take to combat this apathy. I can't control their apathy, but I can mitigate it by glaring at student's strengths and their personal interests. By focusing on these I get a glimpse of what could be instead of what is... and it will give me clues about how to engage these kids in the context of my classroom so they feel like it's theirs too.

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