Thursday, January 15, 2009

Stuck in the Middle: Finding Ways to Inspire and Motivate Adolescents

The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be ignited. - Plutarch

As I returned home from teaching the first class of a new semester of pre-service English teachers at Niagara University recently I was feeling inspired. I love the energy that a new group of students brings to the classroom and their willingness to learn, try new things, and absorb as much as they can motivates me to do my best in leading them into the reality of teaching today. When I returned home, I sent them all an email welcoming them to class and telling them how happy I am to have them under my wing. Simple communications such as these go a long way in building relationships and classroom community. It also fosters sharing and building a personal learning network (PLN) among my students.

In the past my pre-service teachers have been quiet and shy, lacking confidence and afraid of what awaits them in the classrooms of their future. Granted, there have been some who have been more eager to learn and outgoing, and there always seems to be that one who knows everything and assumes the attitude that there's nothing you can't teach them that they don't know already, but this new group, however, seems different. They're excited to be there, eager to share their ideas and beliefs about education, and they're asking more questions than any class I've had before. And I am loving it! Just when I was contemplating how much longer I can manage to teach along with my administrative responsibilities, I am inspired to find ways to make it possible.

Nothing can compare to a classroom full of students eager to learn and try new things, ready to be challenged and chomping at the bit to share their thoughts. My new group of pre-service teachers fit this bill and so do my four-year-old Universal Pre-K students. Both are excited to walk in the door everyday to learn new things, try something different, and share their thoughts with one another and their teacher. Why is that those students in between these two age groups have lost that spark and excitement about learning?

Having been a secondary English teacher in both middle and high school for fourteen years, I can attest to the fact that the spark for learning begins to fade somewhere at the onset of adolescence and tends to last until the excitement and uncertainty of applying to colleges begins to set in. Even though there are some great teachers who do some great things to motivate and challenge students "stuck in the middle," that spark essentially alludes both teachers and students for quite a few years. It's sad. It's criminal. And it's our reality. But what causes it to happen?

Is it the emphasis on standardized testing and benchmark assessments? I think there's something to that, but I don't think it's the sole cause. What I do think is that, somewhere along the line, the emphasis changes from the exercise of skills to the demonstration of knowledge and this is what stifles the natural inquiry inherent in students. Although the world, students, and the expectations of schools has changed dramatically since we were young students, many teachers continue to teach the way they were taught when they were kids, with desks in neat rows, very little interaction among their peers, and very few assignments that foster constructivism and the creation of a new original product.

So how do we challenge teachers to move away from the way they've always done it and, in turn, challenge their students to engage in content in new ways? We must help teachers to become confident in relinquishing some control and allowing students to take the reins once in a while. Some wonderful things tend to happen as a result. Just read this blogpost by friend, Crista Anderson, to see what can happen. It's our job as administrators to provide opportunities for teachers to learn new strategies to tap into that spark and motivation that seems to be missing in students who are stuck in the middle.

1 comment:

Mrs. Anderson said...

This is such an interesting talking point. There are times I feel I inspire my fifth graders, yet fail to motivate them. Other times I motivate them, yet fail to inspire them. The most successful lessons/experiences I've had in the classroom certainly proved I had done both. The challenge is how do we do that consistently k-5 and provide students the skills to inspire and motivate each other and themselves? Perhaps it is the students that will ultimately inspire and motivate their teachers to provide appropriate challenges. In order to assess skills appropriately, we talk about the need for gradual release of responsibilities across the curriculum; how do we assess proficiency in goal setting, work ethic, and life application of mastered skills?

Even with great teaching, gaps emerge. Have we created a fractured system which sets too many students up to fail? The question I've pondered often lately is: What can we do to scaffold the transition between elementary and middle school...the little experience I've had at this grade level has convinced me that we are failing in providing students and families the support they both want and need.

I am confident we are currently moving the right direction in education; at least, I personally feel progress is being made. However, I don't think I would have said that before becoming a part of the online network of educators. Entering the Web2.0 world has opened my head to a new way of thinking...I only wish I knew how to introduce these resources into the lives of more colleagues.

Hmmm...maybe I'll contact the sixth grade teachers at the middle school we feed into...perhaps they would be interested in a collaborative wiki or something...

Thanks again!