Reflections on teaching

I have mentioned previously here that I am in a secondary education program, and the particular program at the university I attend includes a block of classes that incorporates an internship during classroom hours in a school functioning in a pseudo-teaching capacity. Because I felt oddly drawn to it (and because I’m seeking special certification), I requested to be placed in a middle school/junior high environment. The experience has been interesting to say the least. That’s not to say it’s been bad; in fact, it has been exceptionally good given the fact that I’ve been placed in an inner-city school with a high percentage of low socioeconomic students (80-90% are on free or reduced lunch) in a district with a high dropout rate (something like 50%) in an economically depressed area with a disproportionately high amount of crime, especially murder, for the population. I attribute a large portion of that to placement with a skilled language arts teacher (who is, incidentally, a Christian and a pastor’s wife) who the students respect and (I think genuinely) love.

But even this relatively ideal environment is not perfect, and I was confronted with something that I did not expect to find in a middle school.

During the time I am at the school, my cooperating teacher has two seventh grade language arts classes, and as part of the practicum, I am required to teach a total of three lessons during the eight mornings in the school. A week or so ago, I taught my first lesson on word-building (roots and affixes), and yesterday, I taught a second lesson on palindromes. This latter lesson was prompted by materials the teacher had available, and it gave me a great opportunity to have the students listen to the song “Bob” by “Weird Al” Yankovic. (Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the video in a format that I could play for the students.) The kids enjoyed the lesson and got a fair amount of work out of this seemingly insignificant aspect of wordplay; it even gave me an opportunity to test their problem-solving skills and ability to see contextual clues in sentences – the sort of things that middle schoolers need to know for that ever-accursèd standardized testing.

In the second class (which I’ve come to know as the more easily distracted group), my co-op had to leave for a short IEP meeting (for the uninitiated, an IEP is a special ed accommodation plan), and I was left in the classroom with a sub and an aide. Since I was teaching the lesson anyway, I took charge and got kids started on their normal routine: a journal prompt with integrated vocabulary and reading time for Accelerated Reader (which is big in IL middle schools – I’m not sure about elsewhere). The kids all knew the routine – they never deviate from it, as far as I know – but I observed that one student in particular (we’ll call him David) was clearly not doing what he needed to. Feeling like I needed to intervene, I walked over and confronted him nonchalantly.

He was drawing a skull and crossbones instead of journalling, and I caught a glance of one sentence on the reverse side of his paper that struck me as a bit depressing (I forget the actual sentence offhand). I tried to be jocular about the confrontation and told him that the skull didn’t exactly look like a journal response, and he tried to joke in return about how “a picture is worth a thousand words,” to which I replied, “Well, I don’t think the vocab words are in those thousand.” After some attempts to get through, he turned a little more serious and asked me, “If there’s nothing after you die and there’s no meaning to life, why should I do this?”

Now I can’t quite emphasize here how taken aback I was at this comment. I knew that this student was exceptionally bright from having discussed him with my co-op and from observing his behavior in class, but even so…I did not expect to encounter nihilism in seventh grade.

I tried my best (and hopefully succeeded) in not letting through my amazement at the levity of the comment and attempted somewhat unsuccessfully to underscore the fact that, regardless of metaphysics, there was a purpose for him right there – to learn and to follow the disciplines set up by the teacher. In hindsight, I realize how fruitless an effort this really was.

A friend who I discussed the situation with afterwards suggested that I could have highlighted the pragmatic and even materialistic importance of doing the work: doing well in seventh grade is a step on the road to having nice things and living comfortably before you die. This is, in my estimation, a better approach, but I am still not convinced that it would do the job.

This presents to me two equally important problems, one specific and one general:

  1. How do I motivate students to learn? This question is dealt with in our ed philosophy course, which is part of the block (and entitled “Creating Communities of Learners” – an admirable goal), but I struggled with it then, too. The main problem is that, for me, learning is a moral obligation – that is, I learn because I feel as though learning is something I should do in order that I might enhance the abilities I have been given and become a better functioning person in mind and in action. For a large number of people, this is not the case: the importance of learning is in the product, not the process. I learn because I want to become better as an individual; others learn because they want to know how to do something that will get them rewards or benefits. Because my conception of learning is an ethic, I have a difficult time seeing it only as something pragmatic, even where I can see tangible benefits in learning some things. (On the other hand, I enjoy trivia, and there is very little benefit to that except at winning games.)
  2. How do I confront worldviews that are so obviously empty? I reflected afterwards that this exceptionally gifted student could have intentionally tried to throw me off guard with his comments, but I don’t believe I could have treated it as anything other than a serious question. And how do you answer a question that reflects such disparate values? On the other hand, don’t I have a responsibility as an educator to try and promote healthy values in my students? More importantly, don’t I have a responsibility as a person to model healthy values for others to emulate if they so choose? When it comes to value – and value and meaning are such an integral part of language – I can’t get away with letting students act in the classroom as though the universe is devoid of meaning.

These are problems to reflect on, and I can only hope that I can find the right answers – for David’s sake.

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5 Responses to Reflections on teaching

  1. amelo14 says:

    The conversation you had with your 7th grader sincerely touched me quite a lot. Such radical pessimism is truly worrying and difficult to respond to. Of course the age itself has to do somewhat with it as we seek to find a more “definite” response to the question who we are . But I think that you partly answered yourself by asking how to motivate your students. I think your being able to convey the idea of learning for learning’s sake is surely at the core of the solution for some of your students. However, I would not see it as something bad if other students could only come to see learning as a means to an different end. So long as one can see that not all students will seek these higher ends one will accomodate one’s teaching somewhat.

    Thank you for your post,

    Andrés

  2. Brody says:

    That’s a very encouraging approach to the questions I posed. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Prof. R. says:

    I was pleased to be a visitor to your blogsite and encouraged by your goal of discussing this incident on your site. Something else that occured to me as I read your musings about the young nihilist was this–a compliment to him that acknowledged his quantum leap in deep thinking would have been yet another option–something that sets him off from his peers who were antsy and attempting to misbehave. Then, follow that up with a recommendation to read something insightful–perhaps even copy something for him and bring it the next day. You might find that you could begin a very interesting and special relationship with that student that would grow in the years to come. He would always know that you recognized this “spark” in him and took a special interest in him. What you said to him was still appropriate, showed a sense of humor, and made an important impression. Take what you learned from it and use it in the future. BTW, you did an incredible job with that age group!

  4. steve says:

    Brody-
    As a 7th grade Science teacher, I have experienced very similar interactions with my students during my 10 years in the classroom. I suggest that many adults would be surprised to find that “David’s” world view is very common amongst his peer group.
    I thought you handled it very well (I realize this interaction was over a year ago) and I’d bet that this has made you a better, more reflective teacher. Your sense of humor is a resource! Continue to use it…
    In terms of your questions, motivating a non-motivated learner has always been one of the biggest challenges to your new profession. I suggest something similar to Prof. R., as his ideas are sound. Find something that the student(s) already have experienced or enjoy and tap into that. This will -in turn- build a relationship with said student that is valued by them because it is about them. A certain amount of selfishness is an expected reality to middle schoolers.
    The second answer is akin to the first. Namely, if you have a solid relationship with a student, then your world view -which is a positive one- can be appreciated by that student more readily. In fact, if your world view is not empty, then theirs might shift because they simply like and respect you. Your sphere of influence can be a powerful one…and not one only limited to a Language Arts lesson.
    I simply love your blog, please continue putting your time and energy into it.

  5. Brody says:

    Thanks so much for the feedback and advice, Steve; I appreciate it immensely. I do find it a little disconcerting that you have had similar experiences (I was hoping it was just an exceptional student who wanted to avoid real work), but it’s good to know that there are good methods to try and counteract that.

    Thanks again.

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