Inspire That Student! (To Do Something! Anything!)

To hear some people tell it, all teachers need to inspire and motivate students is to clearly state the day’s standard and objective. Students will obviously feel energized knowing what it is they are responsible for and will work diligently to “Create equations in two or more variables to represent relationships between quantities; graph equations on coordinate axes with labels and scales” or “Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.”

The sad truth of the matter is, besides the standards sounding really boring, many of our students do not have the vocabulary to understand what the standards mean. However, that is for another blog post. The happy truth of the matter is that most students are nice little worker bees who want to do well (or at least slide by) and respond to the objectives. They also respond to the lesson plans and classroom management expectations; they may even go so far as to catch the teacher’s enthusiasm and love of the subject– all of the things that help motivate and inspire them. But what about those other bees? You know, the “lazy” bees, the “screw you and Jane Austen” bees, and the “I don’t care what you do, I’m not gonna do it” bees? Every year they fly into the classroom, and instead of squashing them as we are tempted to do, we have to get them to make honey. We live with the knowledge that they don’t/won’t. And it stings.

So what do we do to motivate and inspire them? I mean beyond calling home, setting up appointments with school counselors, and setting up an IST. My school in particular is on its journey to becoming a Professional a Learning Community (PLC) to help strengthen instruction, collaboration, and response to intervention, but the full implementation is a few years out (this is a slow process). How do teachers, as individuals, get students to do something (and maybe learn a thing or two)?

It’s a crapshoot, really. In my experience those who don’t do anything have reasons for doing so that go beyond the classroom walls and have problems much greater for one teacher to bear. This doesn’t preclude that we just give up, and it also doesn’t preclude that once we reach a spark, that the student will be suddenly transformed. It’s a day by day process, and I try to celebrate each success in the moment knowing that tomorrow could land me back at square one. The kicker is finding that spark.

I teach US History, but I hate packet work and work sheets. Instead I have my students write paragraph responses, read primary documents, do creative projects, and analyze and respond to document-based questions among other things. In one class I have two boys–both who refused to do the work. One flat out told me that he didn’t like it and wasn’t going to do it. He then criticized me for not having a packet; a packet is easier, why do I have to make things so hard, blah, blah, blah. We both left that discussion heated and upset. I stewed. How dare he, that lazy bum, criticize me and my teaching when he does nothing, NOTHING? I bet, I thought, he wouldn’t even do a packet if I made one! Yeah, that’s what I’ll do! I’ll make him a packet! Then what will he have to complain about? That afternoon I made him a packet. The next morning when he sat at his desk, I plopped the packet in front of him. “Here.” I said, “Here is your packet.” He picked up the offensive packet gingerly in his hands and gave me a wide-eyed gaze. “You made me a packet?” he asked, “Thank you.”

While I thought I had been calling his bluff, he really wanted a packet. We decided that I was still going to teach the way I planned, but he would work out of the book and do packets. This requires him to bring his book everyday even when the rest of the class doesn’t need it. He is still a lazy kid who still tries to beat the system and has violated my trust, but he slowly does his work and cares about passing the class, because he knows there’s a chance.

The other boy called my class a “farce”. I didn’t know whether I should be annoyed or impressed. However, I did know that the response was aimed to blame me for his inactions. I had asked him why he didn’t answer the essay portion of the test (when I knew he knew the answers) in order to determine what we could do so he could do better next time. He flatly refused to do anything, but with the attitude that he was too good for my farce of a class. But he would talk to me. We share a love of reading and the classics. He constantly checks out books from the library and shares his opinions with me. The one thing we would not discuss is history.

One day he decided to write a poem for the library’s poetry contest. He kept telling me about it. The day he finished it I tentatively asked if I could read it. He said yes, so I asked if he would allow me to comment on it, and yes again. It was quite good. I highlighted the especially poetic phrasing and made comments on how he could tighten up areas. After class we discussed it in order for him to understand why I made the suggestions I did. He submitted it to the competition and received a positive response. Wanting to capitalize on his new found interest, I asked if he would consider writing poems about what we were studying in class. He thought that an “interesting prospect”. After a couple of days on his own, he finally asked for help and guidance, “I don’t know where to begin.” With the rest of the class working independently, he and I discussed Shakespearean sonnets and how to write one. He took down notes, asked questions, and looked up some sonnets on-line. Once he felt like he had a grasp of the sonnet form, he cracked open his text book and started to read. That night he wrote a sonnet on Imperialism and then another just for fun.

My students had to do a creative project at the end of the semester, so he chose to do a poetry book. He wrote four sonnets, two villanelles, and a sestina covering the themes learned so far in American history. The room took on the feel of an author reading as he pulled a chair up to the front of the class and began reciting his work. He read well and with passion; the class was floored. His face beamed with pride at their applause.

Both of these ways to get these boys to work are flukes; there’s nothing in the teacher guide that says “give the kid the packet” or “teach history through sonnets”. My class is still not rainbows and kittens. There are other students who weigh on my mind, and I wonder if I will find that spark in them during the last semester of school. One has told me that he prefers summer school, because, “Ms. L, the teachers are so chill, they don’t care what you do, and it’s so easy.” I don’t know what I am going to do about him. Another responded to my request for suggestions for things to do once we get back from break: “I don’t like creative projects. I like book reports and essays.” Hm. It looks like my students will all be reading more next semester.

Teachers: What do you do to find that spark in your unmotivated students? I’d like to hear about your experience.

15 thoughts on “Inspire That Student! (To Do Something! Anything!)

  1. I know you didn’t aim your question at me, but I think you should write a book about your “success” stories. They are nothing short of amazing, and I think they deserve to be read by a broad audience. And other teachers could benefit from what you call “flukes.” I beg to differ on your choice of words. You are paying attention to what particular students need. You even ask them questions. You find a crack and wedge yourself in there. These examples are show that sometimes persistence and attention to students as individuals pays off.

    1. Thank you for your kind words and support! I think there is a struggle in teaching as to what extent we help students versus preparing them for the real world. Fortunately most kids come to class intrinsically motivated or are motivated by a pat on the back. For those that don’t, it just seems to me that any way we can make a connection we should take advantage of and use it for success. Oftentimes, not always, they rise to the occasion.

  2. If we are talking high school students, it’s as you are doing (very commendable)–find what is their interest and direct their energies towards it. It’s draining on our part to do do and I’m not sure if it helps them or hinders them. My feeling these days is that college and career doesn’t always allow a person the luxury of refusal without consequences. So that’s the big question. Do we the teacher teach the book lesson in a palatable way

    1. It is a big question, and in the “big” picture, I do not know if I am helping or hindering them in the long run. Since they are in high school, both know the consequences of refusing to do work. The students I discussed still are only marginally passing or not at all. The upshot is one boy is less of a distraction to the class and the other is more motivated to participate in class discussions and be more engaged in general. To do this for each student is not that much work. I use the text book worksheets to make the packets, and since our school has a copy center, I don’t even have to make the copies. The student often asks me to check his work, so when it’s turned in, it’s complete and correct. For the budding poet, I write down a different poetic form and have him look it up on the Internet. I touch base with him to make sure he understands it, and then he reads the material and transforms it into a poem. When we get back from break, I plan to challenge him more, but I already have the resources at hand to do this. As for making the bookwork more palatable, I am using what I know about my classes as a whole to help drive my instruction for the next semester. But it is a tough question of how far we go to help a student, because I know this doesn’t translate in the “real world”. In my view, though, if a non-responsive student is responsive to something, we should take advantage of that opportunity.

      1. It’s truly admirable to do so. When I taught freshmen I spent more time getting them into their studies. Now with seniors I feel they should know the “real” world (like graduation isn’t real enough) isn’t so benevolent. It’s a tough call: empowering or enabling. I’m glad to hear of your sticktuitiveness. Some kids need that little extra nudge.

      2. This is a huge and systemic problem in education– this discussion over empowering and enabling. I often wonder when things are helpful versus enabling, not just in my class, but in my school and education in general. There are just so many scaffolds and safety nets for them, and not to mention they seem to get pushed through elementary and middle school with the bare necessities. It’s ridiculous.

        My students are juniors, but I can see where you’re coming from by teaching seniors: they should have it figured out. Reflecting on it, I usually do not have to go to such lengths for seniors.

  3. Nice Amy! Those are such great examples of creative teaching, teaching to the whole child and recognizing that each student is unique. You inspired me.

    Kids are good. Even teenagers. Way to help bring out their best.

    1. Thank you, Jenny! I appreciate your support and thoughtful comments. You’re right; in order to reach some students, we need to consider who they are as individuals (this should be done for all students, but some require greater scrutiny than others!).

  4. What a dedicated teacher you are to go out of your way to try and engage the challenging students. (I especially enjoyed the poetry book example. How creative and what a neat ending to that story.) I think I would get frustrated and throw my hands up. Probably good that I’m not a teacher…

    1. Thank you. There are some students that I have had that caused me to throw my hands up in the air before, or they make me wish that I had.

      I noticed that you did a potty challenge. How did you like that experience? Did it impact your songwriting in anyway?

  5. I just wish all schools had administrators and teachers that supported such a flexible, creative style. The fact that you found ways to reach these students shows what a good teacher you are.

    1. Thank you for your encouraging words. Some of the teachers I know really go out of their way to reach students, but I wish more did.

      Today we came back from our spring break, and my poetry boy was so happy and talkative. He participated in class and told me what new poems he was writing. My packet boy, on the other hand, lived up to being lazy and totally blew off the GROUP assignment that provided a lot of support and scaffolding and my help. He was randomly selected (truly) to report out to the class and it was a complete joke. So even reaching out and making accommodations for him cannot overcome the fact that he is his own worst enemy.

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