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"I Don't Care!"

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The challenges rookie teachers face are well documented. They have to design lesson plans, master new curricula, and learn to navigate the oftentimes tricky politics of school life.

But for many, the biggest challenge they face is figuring out how to react to student apathy. Do you punish lazy students by giving them more assignments? Do you devote most of your time and energy to the kids who want to be there, the ones who work hard and pay attention? Or do disengaged students deserve as much attention as engaged ones?

A nicely written piece in American Secondary Education, a scholarly journal published by Ashland University in Ohio, answers those and other questions about how new teachers can reach disengaged middle school students. But the lessons in the article could apply to kids at almost any age.

The article, "A Middle School Dilemma: Dealing with 'I Don't Care'," includes some poignant anecdotes from teachers in the trenches struggling with how to motivate the unmotivated . One 8th grade boy, for instance, consistently fails his history tests, but he's polite, shy, and doesn't cause problems in class. His student teacher offered to provide an extra study session for him. He thanked her in advance for making a special effort to help him, but then he didn't show up for the study session.

Sound familiar? There are countless students in schools all across the country just like that boy. They don't cause problems, but they are completely, 100 percent disengaged.

The author of the article, Foster Walsh, an assistant professor in the department of teacher education at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., offers some common sense advice for teachers dealing with these kinds of students, such as using questionnaires to see what students are interested in and what subjects they like or dislike and why. This gives teachers a starting point for discussion, and even the possibility of a little humor.

But maybe the best advice for new teachers is painfully obvious: Don't take what students say to you personally, Walsh recommends. Rather, he writes, try to see "adolescent disengagement and apathy not as a single case of defiance but as a pattern of practiced defense--a complicated problem, requiring a complicated solution."

4 Comments

The topic of motivation is an important one. I am currently conducting action research to increase motivation in my classroom. As a veteran teacher and mentor, I have witnessed cycles and trends in educational strategies that engage and motivate students. I have also experienced the changing tide that has brought more external influences to the motivational table than the intrinsic motivators of the past. It is my goal to reconnect or connect my current students with personal reasons to be engaged and to grow in their experience with and knowledge of science.

Learning is a dynamic process and learners of science must be engaged in the process to appreciate the influence of science on their daily lives. Science teachers must do more than point to the window of opportunity to learn science. We must open that window and for those who do not willing step through it feet first, push them head over hills into the adventure that lies beyond the safety of the window frame. We must lead students out of the uninspiring comfort of their textbook and into real life connections and hands-on experiences of science. Sharing the processes of science and learning, in addition to the content of our curriculum, engages our student and empowers them into a future of lifelong learning.

Small efforts by a science teacher make a large impact on student motivation and success. Careful planning to prepare lessons that are short and engaging are key. A small bite of content is easier to chew and swallow than an entire plateful. Mini lessons, activities and assessment help a student savour the experience and benefit from gains in long term learning. Mastery of information is more interesting and easier when small portions of content are accompanied by interaction with the concept through demonstrations, hands-on and laboratory activities. Mixing up the daily lesson format and breaking it into three to five segments can be very effective in engaging student interest and desire to be part of the learning process.

I have found student motivation increases with the momentum of the unit when the lessons are well planned and include a variety of presentation techniques and opportunities for students to be engaged in the lesson and experience the science. I promote and monitor student progress by giving them different ways to practice skills or demonstrate mastery. Offering students choices and variety prevents them from developing a dislike or reluctance to be part of the dynamic process of learning. This has forced my lesson planning to be dynamic as well and I, too, have changed and grown as a teacher of science and as a lifelong learner. My motivation to find new and better ways of approaching and teaching science or engaging my students is fueled by their success and excitement as they journey through the school year with me.

I will say that this is the hardest aspect of teaching. After five years in high school, I don't mind the students that hover at the D level even when you know they could do better,at least they are doing something in order to pass. Several who make a concerted effort to stare at the walls, no matter how thoroughly engaged all the other kids in class are, is frustrating. Especially frustrating when lately my job is based on their performance.

What can I, as a parent do, to encourage my 9 year old in 4th grade to not just want to get through the work? I want her to be patient with herself as she tackles a page of math problems. Instead, she looks at the sheet, gets overwhelmed and makes incorrect "guesses" because she just wants it to end. I know that she knows the material but she has no patience with it.

What can I, as a parent do, to encourage my 9 year old in 4th grade to not just want to get through the work? I want her to be patient with herself as she tackles a page of math problems. Instead, she looks at the sheet, gets overwhelmed and makes incorrect "guesses" because she just wants it to end. I know that she knows the material but she has no patience with it.

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