Tuesday, July 12, 2011

I NEED a C! (Part 1)

The more I write about education, the more I am coming to see how the multitude of issues, challenges, and methods really seem to coalesce around just a few core ideas.

One of them is the perspective of students toward their own education.

I encounter a variety of these, as you might expect, having taught everything from AP courses to those mainly serving as credit retrieval.  Yet within these different contexts there exists a wide range of student perspectives.  Not all AP students think the same way; neither do all students in lower level classes.

In fact, let us start off by once again debunking the myth that “honors” and AP classes (and therefore the students who take them) are “better” than other classes.  This poisonous elitism exists I think more in the minds of parents than educators, yet it conveys a false sense of superiority that is built upon the fallacy that education is the answer to all the problems of the world.  In other words, if all students took AP (which some people advocate), we would still have most if not all the problems in the world today.  Some of our most highly educated citizens engage in the most egregious of crimes, ranging from financial extortion and exploitation, embezzlement, sexual exploitation of minors, spouse abuse and infidelity, and everything in between.  So let’s stop kidding ourselves about education being equivalent to moral improvement.  All it does is provide an opportunity.  It guarantees nothing for nobody (including good grammar).

But, that aside, what goes on in the minds of students?  How do their worldviews shape their attitudes toward learning?

The title of this post speaks to one common view I want to focus on here. Let’s consider a common scenario:
During the long semester, a particular student has exhibited a passive, uneven, relatively apathetic approach to learning and mastering the content of the course.  She talks a lot, in spite of repeated and varied efforts by the teacher to corral this.  She has spotty attendance, in spite of the teacher calling home and continually reinforcing the necessity of being in class.  She doesn’t use her class time well, and doesn’t finish assignments by the time they should be, even when ample extra time is given.  She underperforms on tests because of her poor work ethic.

All of this results in a pretty shabby grade with a couple weeks left in the semester.  I once had such a student sporting a 58% with a couple weeks to go.  She was capable of much better, but approached her schooling much like the description above.  When she asked if it was possible to get her grade up to a C (70%) by the semester, I told her it wasn’t.  With a semester’s worth of work behind you, and the number of assignments, labs, and tests we’ve done that you’ve not done well on, it is mathematically impossible to raise the grade by twelve percentage points in just two weeks.  Her response was the emphatic declaration, “But I need a C!”

She repeated it several times because of how much she thought it mattered to her.

And here we have the classic disconnect of so many students between what they think they want, and what it takes to actually accomplish it.  Students like this do not seem to perceive the relationship between what you do in class and your level of achievement and understanding.

I like to put it this way: If something matters to you–really matters–your life reflects your concern over it.  Someone who wants to go to prom, and is told by their parents they must have certain grades to be allowed to go, will do everything in their power to get those grades.  I think of Shia LaBeouf’s character in the first Transformers film, whose dad promises him a car if he gets a certain set of grades.  His desire for that car drives him to desperate negotiations with his teacher when his current grade is just short of what he needs.
If you want something, you work for it.  You pursue it.  You put sweat into it.  This is not a new concept.  It’s not a brilliant philosophy uncovered by some revered chemistry teacher on top of a mountain in Seattle.  It’s pretty obvious stuff.  Just look around.

Yet we have students who will consistently disregard the daily exhortations, pestering, nagging, reminding, encouraging, and berating (whatever you want to call it...any teacher who does it just wants students to reach their potential), and they will waste hours and hours and weeks and months, accomplishing far less than they are able.  And then this moment comes when it’s time to harvest the paltry fruits of their labors, and they react with this panicked, frantic, do-anything silliness that says things like “I need a C.”  As if they didn’t see it coming.

(Check out Part 2 in the series, where we explore how this type of student fits in with the big topics like standards and accountability)

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