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Teaching Those Who Don't Want To Learn

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It's a Sunday night and I am preparing my lessons for the week ahead. It astonishes me how much I have yet to learn about effective teaching practices, particularly with students who are not successful at school. These are the students whose faces haunt me on Sunday nights, who trip me up as I try different ways to frame questions that will get them thinking, who will not let me sink into that strange state of mind--complacency--for even a minute. The more I practice its disciplines, the more I begin to see why teaching is considered an art.

I have 15 different classes of middle school students every week, each meeting for one, 90-minute class period. Most of the time, the setup is good. Having a longer stretch of time that allows for several different activities revolving around the same theme is efficient in many classes. I can, for instance, show a 20-minute video on a topic, then facilitate a small-group activity that challenges students to work with the material in the video, respond to it on poster paper or on the blackboard, and then have a worthwhile large-group discussion based on the work they did in small groups. This is educationally sound, and often my classes think through issues in just this multidimensional way. I'm getting better at juggling a variety of strategies in the classes that come to school expecting to learn and do well. They like it when school is interesting, fun, and active.

But then there are my other classes. I am thinking of at least four groups out of the 15 I am assigned to teach this semester. Some of these are students repeating the grade. Some are those dealing with learning disabilities, emotional problems, behavior problems, and classified perhaps as needing "special education" (which is why they refer to each other derogatorily as "Sped"). Some are just plain fed up with school and are waiting to turn 16 so they can drop out. These are the kinds of classes usually provided with paraprofessionals (formerly known as teachers' aides) in the major subjects, to help the students organize their work and keep on task. Since my subject, health, is not considered major, though, I work with these students alone. But that is not the problem. The problem is, I don't know how to reach them.

When my students are restless or chatty, I sometimes remind them of the work we need to accomplish that day. If they fool around too much, I say, it will end up being homework. This tactic, successful in most classes, carries no weight in this group: They don't do homework. Coming up with exciting ideas for projects and indicating that everyone needs to hand in a completed project in order to pass health for the semester doesn't motivate this group, either. So they fail health? So what? Sending these kids to the assistant principal may work temporarily. Keeping them after school is a classroom-management tactic that can work, too. But keeping them quiet is not my goal. Teaching them--reaching them, engaging them in the pursuit of learning--is what I'm interested in, and that goal continues to elude me.

I wonder how it would feel to be one of these students. I think I would hate school if I were never recognized as one of the smart kids; if my talents and gifts were not in the verbal and mathematical domains; if my home life were chronically problematic, if school presented me with humiliating and disappointing experiences in not quite making the grade, day after day after day.

I wonder how it would feel to be one of these students. I think I would hate school if I were never recognized as one of the smart kids.

I am not a believer in "self-esteem" curricula. I believe that learning and working hard to earn something worthwhile give us self-esteem. But how do you help young people who do not dare trust another grown-up who wants them to live up to their potential? Where do you start? Because this is middle school, I know that these kids have had seven or eight years of academic experience already, half of their lifetime to date. The experience they've acquired in school so far has proved to most of them that the limitations they live with are powerful enough to keep them forever in the dark, and forbidding enough to make them seek the shadows. Many of these students prefer to be invisible, rather than to create a meaningful, purposeful life. After seven or eight years of failure in the biggest institution they know, what can make a crack, a dent, in the hopelessness?

I read the research. I know that this is the last, best chance to get through to a young person. After middle school, their paths are often set. I know, too, that many of the students I have problems with are at high risk for choosing self-destructive paths to addiction, violence, and criminal behavior. And although I know that I cannot save them, one of the reasons I chose to teach again was a deep desire to make a difference in their lives.

But wishing doesn't make it so. And none of the classes I encountered in my master's program in education dealt with these issues. I had methods courses galore. I can plan a lesson, outline a semester, create an exciting and original approach to any given subject. And students in my other 11 classes benefit from these skills, and from my passion and the fun I have with them.

But what about these others? What about the ones who already think I don't like them because their behavior requires me always to act as disciplinarian? What about the ones whose difficulties with their peers prevent them from paying any attention in class? What about the ones who have to wear such a tough hide that they cannot afford to really listen to a class about the dangers of alcohol, the reasons to quit smoking, or the value of nonviolent, peacemaking approaches to the conflicts in their lives? When all students want to do is get the negative attention that disruption and acting out can give them, how do I teach?

I honestly don't know. I'll continue to ask the professionals in my building. I'll search for better and better methods and for colleagues wiser and more seasoned than I am. And maybe, just maybe, I can look to my students for some of the answers. Maybe they can teach me better ways to teach, if I can keep practicing how to learn from them.


Eileen Kalinowski is a middle school health teacher in Malden, Mass.

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