It's called "When Student's Don't Play the Game" by Jessica Towbin, and it talks about students who are disengaged with school. Towbin's vignette centered around her experience in an urban high school classroom with students who did not want to do the work required in her class. This hit home for me as I've come across many kids, even at the elementary level, who exhibit a similar disinterest. Sometimes they're bored with the material, other times the concepts are too hard so they simply give up. A few of my students have also convinced themselves wholeheartedly that they are not as intelligent as the others in their class. All of this leads up to a lack of motivation that I have been trying to tap into and change all year.
The article highlights a pedagogical philosophy that most teachers are familiar with: "start where the kids are". I've always looked at this statement from an instructional mindset to mean starting at the level of the student's background knowledge, skills, and abilities. This could mean that if I have a student who is in 3rd grade but reads at an early Kindergarten level (which I do), then my time spent with him will be working on building his reading level starting at beginner's phonics, while the rest of his class is entering chapter books. It's focusing my instruction on the child's immediate needs rather than forcing him to produce work that is way beyond his current abilities.
However, the article has also given me a new idea to think about when it comes to starting where a child is: his/her interests and views about his/her own education. I conducted interviews at the beginning of the year to get to know my students better and learn about their interests, and I also try to buy books for them to read based on what they've told me they like. But there are still those days when getting through a lesson seems painful because they're just not into it. This shows me that I still need to do more to motivate and engage them.
One of the things Towbin did, which I believe to be a necessity for teaching, is to tell students why the work is relevant. Kids need to know how schoolwork matters to them in the real world. There are times when it's easy for me to build those connections and times when I honestly have no idea why they need to learn it other than there's a standard that says I have to teach it. Or I may have a reason for why it's important, but the student still doesn't buy in to that explanation. Let's face it, my real world experience is very different from theirs and I need to think even deeper about why the material matters for their lives. This is a challenge that I am choosing to give myself for this reading unit we are about to start next week.
Another thing Towbin tried was to let one of her students do a writing assignment in a way that interested her instead of how the teacher wanted her to do it. I thought this was very interesting and now I'm wondering how I can apply the same concept into my own practice. My position doesn't offer the flexibility needed to do big projects with my kids (another reason why I really want to be a gen ed teacher), but there are a few students that come to mind who would probably appreciate me asking if there's another way they'd like to do something.
As we go through the rest of this year, I'd like to make more of an effort to have a dialogue with my students about the learning we are doing, why it matters, what keeps them interested or makes them not interested in it, and how can it be more engaging for them. This way, I can really see where the students are at that given moment. Since their level of knowledge and experience is always changing, their starting point for a given lesson will always be changing as well, and it's my job to stay aware of that.
I encourage you to check out the article (linked above) and have a similar conversation with your students. Keep Towbin's words in mind as you reflect on your efforts to start where your kids are:
"When I am effective, I don't meet students where they are just once at the start of the year, or even just at the start of each new unit. I meet them where they are every day, and rarely as an entire class. To engage these students in learning that matters to them, I need to repeatedly ask the question, 'Where are you?' and be prepared to step back and listen."