Today’s post comes from an email I received from a fellow English teacher. I’m sharing our conversation with her permission and honoring her request to change her name for privacy.
I’m a second-year English teacher, and I just got dragged into the inevitable “Why is school even important?” fight with my students. Their argument was that with smartphones, the need for actual knowledge is obsolete. This attitude drives me crazy; I know I probably shouldn’t have fallen for that one, but I couldn’t resist. However, I don’t really feel like I made a good impact on those students, and I came away from it feeling pretty frustrated. Do you have any tips for dealing with the “too cool for school” attitude? I’m at a loss with how to deal with these kids. Nothing I try really seems to work with them.
Oh, Cassie, we’ve all been there. I even share some of their frustrations, especially when it comes to the lack of efficiency in the school’s management of the limited amount of time we’re given to teach our students all of the things they need to know. The need for public education is obvious – we need a literate population to participate in government and to solve the problems facing our society. I’m sure there’s no real argument there from your students.
Instead, their point about all of the information they need being on their smartphones and, therefore, “the need for actual knowledge is obsolete” is where they lose me. In one way, they are correct. All of the facts, dates, formulas now live on our phones. In a much bigger way, they are incorrect – knowledge is not the random accumulation of facts. Instead, it is the ability to gather those facts from reliable sources, reflect on them, find a new way of viewing them, see a solution to a current problem, write down that solution, and then communicate in a way that others are able to absorb and build upon those ideas. Student need to know how to present their new ideas in a variety of communication modes, from spoken words to visual/art/infographics to written words.
In English class, we’re not interested in creating human encyclopedias. We should be driven to create better readers, writers, listeners, speakers, and – most importantly – critical thinkers. If our students aren’t able to discern truth from fiction and if they aren’t able to think logically during emotional times, I fear for their (and our) future.
In addressing these concerns with a group of students, I would do the following:
1. Acknowledge that they are right to be frustrated with the disconnect between a lot of the academic work they’re given and their actual daily lives.
2. Ask them what they want to learn in English class that they haven’t yet been taught.
3. Admit that you’ve been hired to teach English and you need to meet certain standards that’ll allow you to keep your job and continue to buy food for your family. After all, Cheerios aren’t free.
4. Find a way to fold in some of the skills the students request, which are probably real-world business communication/email language, resumes, YouTube scripting, current events, etc. Privately, I’d also examine what I’ve been teaching them and what is not essential or lessons they view as “fluff.” Be forewarned – you might find yourself cutting some stuff you love to fit in the stuff your kids are asking for.
5. Use 20Time, a student-selected passion project. Frame it as a direct response to their complaints/class discussion about the value of education when you launch the project. It’s getting a bit late in the year to use the full 12-week program, but you could modify the project to fit the time you have available. Lots more info. about 20Time and free forms/slides here:
I know it’s hard, Cassie, but try not to take these complaints personally. The fact that they’re complaining to you is actually a compliment (I know, I know…) because they believe you’ll hear them. That’s more than many adults get from them. If you walk the campus during your prep period and peek into classroom windows, you’ll likely see a lot of kids sitting zombie-like as they are talked at by adults for most of the day. Have mercy! One of the most exhausting days of my teaching career was when I shadowed a student through a typical school day, navigating the strong personalities of seven teachers and sitting for w-a-y too long in a series of uncomfortable chairs.
Finally, you also need to remember that teenagers complain. A lot. About everything. These years are a distinct stage of psychological development; they think most adults are stupid and that they know best. (Actually, some adults I know still haven’t moved out of this phase, but that’s a discussion for a different day.) The trick is knowing which complaints are just noise and which ones have merit. If we really listen, we’ll see that there is some validity in their criticism of our education system.
We can’t fix that whole system, but we can make things better in our classrooms. Hope this helps.
Okay, English teacher friends, what advice would you give Cassie? Why does school matter, anyway? Leave your ideas, comments, commiserations in the reply box below. And, as always, teach on.
Image credit: Pixabay, Public domain