During my first year of teaching high school, I inherited a remedial reading class that consisted of about eighteen unmotivated juniors.  Having just finished a graduate program in educational psychology with emphasis placed specifically on reading and literacy, I saw this as an opportunity to take all of those research-based best practices and make readers out of these disheartened fringe kids.  I was going to save each and every one of them, and they’d all grow up to be lawyers, doctors—maybe even the president of the United States!

I entered the class like an eager practitioner of Kung Fu, wielding an arsenal of educational theory and case studies like a fighter wields the fabled five animal styles of Shaolin.  For the first month, my enthusiasm carried me through.  My mantra became “diagnose, scaffold, intervene, repeat.” During month two, reality showed up to smack that smug, “I went to grad school” grin off of my face.  It was ugly.  There I was, microscopic and impotent in the face of huge, menacing Reality.

“Using choice and student directed learning to increase motivation are we?” It laughed, “Let’s see how you deal with the student who can’t stay awake because he’s been washing dishes until 3 AM to support his impoverished family!”

“Oh, is that schema theory I smell? Well, let’s see how you activate background knowledge with a student who doesn’t speak English!” Reality was being a dick.

It didn’t take long for Reality’s constant attacks to mount against me, forcing me to retreat into a cocoon of candy bar wrappers and self-loathing.  It was a dark time, but I regrouped.  Regardless of Reality showing up like a lunchroom bully and slapping my research-based best practices out of my hands, I had a job to do.  After accepting the fact that I may have tried too many things too quickly, I relaxed a bit.  Gradually, I sidestepped the prowling specter of Reality and made my class into a place where these fringe students felt comfortable with reading a book that they wanted to read.  I incorporated more inventive activities, such as a comic strip quiz that I downloaded from one of my favorite nings, Making Curriculum Pop, and things became more manageable.

One day, while I was administering the aforementioned cartoon quiz, I had an extremely revelatory conversation with one of my students.  I thought he would enjoy this new type of assessment, as I had seen him drawing all kinds of dragons and goblins while he should have been writing about Of Mice and Men.

I decided to talk to him about it.

He told me that he didn’t do any of his assignments because they were given to him by a teacher.

“It’s nothing against you, Springer,” he was quick to add.  My zombie and superhero posters had put us on good terms, “It’s just that since I got into middle school I haven’t wanted to do any work because I hate coming to school.”  Perhaps I was being naive, but I was shocked.  This student hated school so much, that he refused to participate in anything—even drawing, which he loved—if it was associated with school.  I shelved this comment in the back of my mind while I made an attempt to get him to put something down on paper.

“What if I don’t call this a quiz?” I began, “What if instead of sitting in school and taking a quiz, we call this hanging out and drawing pictures of George, Lennie and their adventures in rural California?” I grabbed my own copy of the quiz and sat at a desk in front of him.

This seemed to have an effect.

A few of his other more talkative buddies joined us, and we talked about how crappy it must have been to go from job to job like George and Lennie, and how they were lucky to at least have one another as friends under the circumstances.  They completed their work (mostly), and, in a short-term kind of way, I felt pretty good about the outcome.  Make no mistake, this wasn’t the moment in which this kid shook off the self-destructive attitude he had towards school, became valedictorian, and tearfully thanked me during his graduation speech.  But it gave me an insight into how he—along with thousands like him—felt about high school.  They were so disenfranchised that they refused to play ball despite the larger ramifications that come with not obtaining a high school diploma.  Granted, I don’t think that “not liking school” is a valid excuse for slacking, but it reinforced the importance of student engagement for me.

Ever since this experience, I’ve felt a strange mixture of enlightenment and despair.  Knowing that some students use failure as a form of rebellion is helpful, but it’s also like discovering that the cause of that headache you’ve been having is a terminal brain parasite.  Be that as it may, it enhanced the way I deliver instruction.  I suppose there will always be students who feel that the only way they can fight the system is by not participating in it, but the simple act of realizing this has helped me become more creative when I plan lessons.  If they’re going to rebel through failure, I have no other choice than to teach them through trickery.

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