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About 13 years ago, I had a student in my 7th grade English class I characterized as lazy. On the rare occasions he contributed to class, he was remarkably articulate, mature, and insightful. But he seldom did homework, his exam grades left a lot to be desired, and since he didn’t do assigned reading, he was ill-prepared for class discussions. He was earning a C-. “If only he would apply himself,” I said to his mother at parent-teacher conferences. Why was he so lazy? I wondered.

And then came the school play. He was the male lead. He showed up to school early. He helped build the sets. He read lines with every cast member, coaching them toward better understanding of character, motivation, and projection. He was the opposite of lazy.

What I attributed to a character flaw was actually boredom. Though I worked hard to design engaging lessons focused on interesting texts, my class wasn’t reaching him.  And it wasn’t because the texts were boring (they weren’t!) and it probably wasn’t even because I was boring (though I can be). It was because I somehow failed to connect the learning in my classroom to his life and emotions. My class was a chore.

After the play, he and I sat down together and talked about it – how passionate he was about the play and how absolutely blah he felt about my class. I wish I could say we turned things around completely. We didn’t. He shrugged a lot, and told me he was sorry, but he just didn’t find the reading that interesting. And it’s tough to work hard when you’re not that interested.

Neurological research by Dr. Immordino-Yang shows that “meaningful thinking and learning are inherently emotional, because we only think deeply about things we care about.” Her research uses fMRI scans to show what good teachers have known for a long time. An engaged student is a learning student. It takes time and effort to figure out how to connect algebra, geography, or grammar to students’ lives. But since it’s true that “neither learning nor recall happen in a purely rational domain,” we can’t afford to focus only on our subject matter. We have to focus on making it matter.

It is a real challenge to figure out how to make content relevant to every student. There’s material we want them to know and skills we want our students to acquire. Unlocking each individual student’s interest can make the already-difficult task of lesson planning seem impossible. But let’s move in that direction. Let’s start by remembering the words attributed to Plutarch, “The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.” What’s the match and what’s the kindling for your students?

 

For further thinking:

Reread this post. Everywhere it talks about a teacher, substitute the word “administrator.” Everywhere it describes a student, substitute “teacher.” In our professional development, are we connecting to our teachers’ emotions? Are we thinking of them as learners and connecting their learning tasks to what they care about?

For further reading:

To learn more about Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang’s fascinating work, read: