Teach Passion

[In my attempt to push my own thinking, I’m continuing to unpack in writing some of the things that I say a lot. I always say that I want SLA kids to be “thoughtful, wise, passionate and kind” — and I do — so I thought it was a good idea to take those words apart a bit. This is part three. Thoughtfulness was part one and Teach Wisdom was part two. ]

One of the critiques of this generation of young people is that they are apathetic, and it is our experience with the students we meet both in and out of SLA that the critique is no more apt in this generation than in our own or in the ones that came before us. The young women and men we teach are looking for a reason to care about more than what society is telling them is important. They are looking for a reason to be more than the stereotype of youth culture that is portrayed through mass media.

We have to ask ourselves — how often does school give them that reason?

In most schools, the things students care most about are extra-curricular – sports, drama, newspaper, marching band, debate – and students across the country endure class for the right to participate in the thing they actually care about. When I coached, I knew I had students who were keeping their grades up for the right to play and little else, and every coach I’ve known has similar stories. And while I wasn’t against using eligibility as a way to motivate an athlete, I have to ask – why is this o.k.? Why is it o.k. to tell students to endure the seven hours of classes and two or three hours of homework so they can enjoy the hour or two of the activity they are most passionate about?

And the thing is, the “soft” lessons we most want to teach are there to be learned in extra-curricular activities. Watch an athlete run sprints to train for the season or the lead of a play work a scene for hours or the editor of the school newspaper edit article after article – this isn’t just about “fun,” this is about passion.

And yet we partition off all of the work to the world of “extra-curricular.”

We have to help kids care as much about the curricular as they do about the extra-curricular.

Make it relevant: If we cannot help students to see how what they are learning in our classes is relevant to their lives, then how can we ask the overwhelming majority of our students to develop a passion for what we teach? And while there will always be a percentage of our students who fall in love with our subject because of its beauty or intrinsic interesting-ness, that’s not good enough. It is the difference between teaching Hamlet primarily through the literary structure devices Shakespeare uses or using it as a text to examine how our own human struggles to figure out who we are and how we should act as part of a continuum  of a hundreds year old struggle to make meaning of our lives.

Make it real: Have students create real artifacts of their own learning that have impact in the world. High school students can create public service campaigns for their neighborhoods around environmental / scientific issues. Students can create documentaries and submit them to film festivals. Students can debate the meaning of historical events and the impact they have on our society today. They can do fieldwork science, getting out of the pre-canned laboratory and doing field research in the world at large. And students can engage in all manner of engineering projects from building apps to building small-scale solar installations. And in all these examples, make sure that students are not just asking the questions we have given them, but that they are asking and answering their own questions, building knowledge and meaning from their own line of inquiry.

Make it live in the world: Whether through leveraging the web, creating opportunities for performance, or simply creating gallery walks within the school so students have the opportunity for peer critique, we must make sure that student work is more than just a dialogue between student and teacher. When students have authentic audience and can therefore see themselves as having an informed – if not expert – voice in the world, students will develop passion for their work. Be aware, that merely blogging to blog grows old, and we must work to create real opportunities for audience, rather than just counting on the somewhat overwhelming nature of a Google search to create audience.

Make it last: When students move from unconnected project to unconnected project, students can lose the sense of urgency and passion, but when students have the opportunity to see a project through multiple revisions, through multiple iterations, it becomes theirs. When students care enough about a project to hand it down to younger students to continue the work, you know that students have a passion for what they have created.

Schools can be places of great passion where students learn what it means to be scholar-activists, fully invested in authentic work that matters to them today, not someday.

When we do this, we will fully realize the promise of the idea that school should not just be preparation for real life, but rather that school can be real life, not just after school, but all day long with students and teachers who are making meaning relevant to the lives we all are leading now, as well as growing thoughtfully into the lives we will live tomorrow.

7 thoughts on “Teach Passion

  1. I’ve always been confused as to why the teaching and coaching techniques from the areas that you mention in the beginning are not more widely regarded as useful in the classroom. We accept the running sprints, hours of practice on the piano, and etc, but asking kids to practice arithmetic is labelled as “kill and drill,” for example. This distinction is something that I’ve never been able to understand.

    Your list at the end does resonate, and I agree completely with the ideas of making education relevant, real, and live in the real world. But there is more. You want to have kids master the fundamentals (which probably means quite different things in different areas) so that the can hit your three points as adults. Often those fundamentals are not exciting – they are the equivalent of wind springs, or finger exercises. I know no better way to motivate kids to work in these areas than your own passion for the subject. That has to come through.

    As a quick example – last night, as we do every night, I worked through a problem from the Mathematical Assocation of America’s Minute Math page with my 9 year old. These problems are unlikely to be relevant, real, or part of the real world for my son, but I view them as important because of both the problem solving practice and the arithmetic practice they provide. My son sees a problem about the Pythgorean Theorem, though. I try my best to let my own passion for the material come through so that they think these exercises are fun:

    • Make it optional: I imagine the structure of extra-curricular activities would significantly change (and thus students’ experiences in them would significantly change) if we decided that every student needed to participate in those activities and that it was essential that every student demonstrate proficiency (or excel) in those activities.

    • Mike – that’s why don’t think things always have to be “fun.” Learning is hard work, and there are things that require serious practice, which is o.k. But unlike sports where there is a “if I practice my free throws, I will shoot them better in the game” immediacy, we ask kids to do drill and kill without any connection to why it’s important.

      I’m a huge fan of teacher passion (I know… shocking…) but I also am a huge fan of student passion. Kids can practice writing because they see the power of communicating ideas they care about. Kids can practice math because it allows them to solve problems immediately. (Want kids to learn how to do estimation and probability and stats all in their heads? Teach them how to figure out pot odds and better in poker.)

      I couldn’t get kids to run wind-sprints at 7am if it didn’t translate into winning Ultimate matches. In fact… there’s a limit to pre-season training before playing real games before kids will just tire of the training. Same is true in the classroom.

    • Mike:

      I see one critically important difference between sports/music and math. Even very young children are exposed in a tangible way to the beauty of advanced sports/music skills. Just look at time/space given by media to celebrating sports/music. Every day children see many compelling examples of the rewards of diligent practice in sports/music, and carry these images of glory inside them while they go through the grind of practice.

      In contrast, our society largely ignores math. Last night I happened to catch the tail end of a PBS show on mathematician Alan Turing, who did as much as any other single to win WW2. It was a low-budget “talking head” sort of thing. Neither Johnny Depp or Tom Cruise played the lead. I read two papers each morning – neither of them has a Math/Science section filled with gushing profiles. TMZ doesn’t ambush Fields medal winners the way they do Grammy or Super Bowl winners.

      Even worse, the two TV shows in recent years that featured math/science guys (Numb3rs and Big Bang Theory) depicted the heroes as socially inept and not overly attractive. Beautiful Mind focussed on John Nash’s schizophrenia; Proof may have had Gwenyth Paltrow, but she wasn’t fully sane either. Wall street quants and basement programmers may be rich, but certainly they aren’t celebrated. Instead, kids are labelled geeks and nerds for being good at math (and debating, chess, etc.).

      So in this culture, what’s in a kid’s head when she/he is asked to master a math skill. Certainly not the thrill of acceptance and fame at achieving mastery. If anything, the greater the skill the less the emotional reward. No positive feedback loop here.

      And finally, in our schools and our culture we are blind to the beauty and power that derives from math, and the insight into the world that it brings. Instead of starting kids off with the compelling mysteries of recursion and fractals, we dessicate them with + and – for two whole years, without them ever seeing anything but drudgery and toil.

      I say start them writing simulations in kindergarten – simple ones with interesting graphic or sound output. Let them informally wow each other with the beauty or weirdness of their creations, and compete for positive attention (as they do in every part of their lives).

      Let them see that patterns and geometry and arithmetic and symbolic logic are useful in helping them get what they want – heightened status among their peers – and suddenly the pain of math mastery will vanish.

      The secret to effective learning – harness emotional need to lead wisdom and knowledge.

  2. You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that males the existing model obsolete. – Buckminster Fuller-

  3. “…school should not just be preparation for real life, but rather that school can be real life…”

    Absolutely. I am a former academic and I was completely frustrated with students entering college unable to write a paragraph, let alone an essay. Why? Because school has been a series of levels, to just “pass” and move on, without cultivating a student’s written and oral communication skills. Writing, to me, is a fundamental skill being ignored in schools’ curriculum, when really, it should be a thread of continuity from kindergarten to college. If you can’t write, you can’t fully engage with the course material.

  4. Pingback: “The Root, Stem, Leaves, & Fruit of American Education” [Part 2] | chris.thinnes.me