Recently, I read a discussion on a FB page for educators and social action (the Bad Ass Teachers) that hit home for me. The discussion was about the omnipresence of student apathy and the expectation that teachers were responsible for entertaining and freeing their students from this curse. I remembered this exact feeling from 20-30 years ago. Not only did I have to shape lessons to fit a wide variety of student ability levels and interests. I felt I had to be as clever and exciting as the tv or movies they were used to watching. (There were no or few cell phones then.)
The situation has become even worse today. One teacher-author, who had written a post about the situation, spoke about teachers being expected to “be all things to all people” and students have become “consumer learners.” She described a workshop where she was encouraged to design her teaching to be like a video game. How else could she expect to hold student attention? She questioned if a video game is the best model for how to shape a lesson.
Teachers face a long list of problems every day–the corporate and media attacks on public education, the detrimental effects of standardized testing, the tremendous inequality in school resources and funding, the poverty, homelessness and increasing anxiety and depression experienced both by young people and adults, etc.. And, of course, let’s add the addiction to drugs or digital devices.
But should we also add apathy to this list?
Student apathy is not the main problem. It is but a symptom of all the problems listed above–all of which can reach deeply into a child’s psyche. Many students can’t find the motivation to engage in their own education because they can’t find themselves. They don’t see themselves in their own lives or are afraid, or too traumatized, to do so.
They have been taught to think their emotions come from someone or somewhere else, not themselves. When they feel anger, they think the object of the anger is the cause of it. Or they experience love or jealousy and feel the object of their love is in control, not them. When they get bored, they think someone other than themselves is responsible. They do not understand how their emotions arise.
Students feel apathy and boredom when a wall has been constructed between what they feel, think, or yearn to engage with and what is presented to them as the possibilities of their life and education. They have been conditioned to not let anything too real get too close; or their lives have been too real and frightening, and they can’t or don’t know how to face it. This might help explain why one of the biggest concerns for young people in this nation today is safety.
Many students spend so much of their time, certainly out-of-school time, on social media or digital devices that they are more comfortable with an emoji of a face than a real one. They might fear their lives are meaningless or feel the world is a foreign land to them, unstable and threatening.
According to researchers like Jean Twenge, using cell phones has become an addiction that is leading to what she calls “the worst mental-health crisis in decades.”
As educators like A. S. Neill, Herbert Kohl, etc. have made clear, children are naturally curious unless curiosity has been conditioned out of them. They don’t feel power over their lives because their time has been planned for them, not by them.
A Syllabus of Questions
Teachers can’t, by themselves, end poverty or racism. But they can provide students with an education in better understanding themselves and the social-historical forces surrounding them. To be motivated to actively engage in their own learning, they need to be given meaningful work, centered on questions that are real to them. This way their own hearts and minds become the intellectual material they study. They need to know that intellectual work can stir them.
This can be difficult to do. There are political-social-corporate groups out to stifle the discussion of any controversial subjects in schools, but the undermining of a meaningful education must be opposed.
I taught a high school class called Questions. It was a class in philosophy but also English literature, psychology and cultural studies. We started the year asking for student’s deepest questions and made answering those questions the syllabus of the course. The first quarter of the year was always about death and dying, the last quarter almost always about ethics or how to direct our lives. In between, we studied questions about love and relationships, reality, honesty, the self, freedom, mind, power, etc.
In any secondary school class, students can undertake a personal essential question project where they chose their own question that was somehow related to the course material. And they spend the year trying to answer it, mostly on their own, with the help of a small study group, and teacher coaching. I could only do this with one class a year, because of the time it took. Some questions asked were: Is society merely a way for humans to deal with death? Was there ever a time of real equality between men and women? What are the causes of racism/anti-Semitism? What is happiness?
Many of these questions have deep emotions attached to them, especially with today’s threatening political situation. Finding the question and being able to face it requires sensitive support from the teacher. So the teacher needs to practice the exercise before asking it of students. Teachers could ask themselves: What are my questions and what experiences, beliefs, understandings or needs underlie them? Can I remember the questions I had as a teenager?
If doing this in your classes is not possible, try one of the following:
A Mindfulness, Inquiry and Visualization Exercise
Ask students to take a moment to get comfortable in their chairs, put their hands in their laps, and relax.
Just settle into wherever you are seated. Close your eyes now, or in a moment or two, if you feel comfortable doing so. It’s good to feel comfortable, isn’t it? Especially in doing school work. Focus on breathing in and out. Just follow the breath in. Do you feel how your body expands a little as you breathe in? What happens as you breathe out? Does your body relax, settle down, let go?
Pause between each sentence of the directions. Read in an easygoing, comforting yet focused voice.
Now think of a time that you had an illuminating, educational experience, where you felt truly alive, in or out of a classroom. Just let come to mind any experience where you felt engaged, that had a sense of meaning and depth to it. It could be a walk you took, a trip, a conversation. Just see it in your mind. Let whatever comes to you be there for you. Where was it? Who was involved? When did it occur? What was around you?
What made the experience so engaging, illuminating? What did you learn from it?
Now, just sit for a moment with the feeling of being engaged, of finding meaning. Sit with the feeling that your life is meaningful and full.
Take one more calming breath, open your eyes and come back to the room.
Process the experience afterwards, allowing the students to share what they feel comfortable sharing.
Questions to Discuss with Students
What do you need from me and your fellow students to make this class a supportive community?
Why do people feel apathetic? Is there any segment of U. S. society that benefits from student apathy? Who? Why?
What would it be like to understand where your thoughts came from, what your physical skills could be if you developed them, or how to avoid being deceived or swindled?
What are the biggest problems in today’s word? Ask this question at the beginning of a history class. And then have students work on questioning and supporting their own theories on why the problem is of central importance and what gives rise to it.
Lessons to Teach
How to read literature to better understand themselves and others.
What are anxiety and worry, what purposes do these emotions serve, and how can students find relief from them?
Writing as a way to enter the deep regions of their own mind.
How to use cell phones mindfully and to create more community.
Responsibility is taught not only by asking children to do chores at home but help maintain their own school.<
What I am advocating is an education utilizing inquiry practices combined with mindfulness, compassion and social-emotional learning to directly teach course material. Such an approach makes teaching easier for teachers, learning easier, more engaging and yet more challenging for students. It can help turn the classroom into a compassionate community where students and teacher work together to advance learning.
Teachers can’t fix the whole society, even though they’d like to and are often expected to do so. But they can give students the care, skills and understanding needed to face their own life situation and emotions. When students better understand themselves and the causes of apathy, they can find ways to remedy it.
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