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.