[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.