Tuesday, May 13, 2014

On Enthusiasm

Teaching Middle School after years of teaching older students has been an epiphany for me.  While it is new and the comparisons are fresh in my mind, I’m making note of some of the biggest distinctions between middle schoolers and older high schoolers.  These thoughts of mine are sometimes open-ended; I don’t have any big answers.  But I do have plenty to mentally chew upon and I intend to do so.  Today’s topic is the end of the school year.

When I began teaching 6th graders, I was charmed by their easy enthusiasm for learning.  It’s not that 11th and 12th graders aren’t enthusiastic, it’s that a teacher must earn it.  And some days, no matter how good the classroom culture is, teenagers are simply exhausted and overwhelmed.  A day like that can drag.  The end of the year is typically the most obvious example of this experience.  As the end of the school year approaches, 11th and 12th graders are school-weary.  This is especially true for 12th graders, for whom college acceptances have been received.  They really are checking out come the end of the year and it shows in class, no matter how terrific the kids are.  As a teacher, this is a challenge.

Contrast this with the 6th grade, where enthusiasm abounds.  At the start of the year, if I asked a question to get our lesson going, nearly every hand went up.  It’s the same in May, and I find their energy and boundless curiosity inspiring.  Today is our last quiz of the year and the students will begin to construct their final projects tomorrow.  They are excited about this and can’t wait to receive the assignment and get started.  That’s really the charm of middle schoolers ——— they expect that school, like much of the rest of life, should mostly be fun.  They are determined that it will be.  As I planned their final project, which places them in the position of organizing a time travel tour of history, I was aware of their mindset and kept thinking about how much fun they would find this assignment.

I think that high school can and should take a page from middle school and do more to nurse along the natural enthusiasm of kids.  Among other things, this would mean less high-pressure exams and more creative project-based writing assignments.  I know that the obvious objection is the usual canard about high school needing to prepare students for the pressure and reality of college entrance exams, college applications, and college itself.  But I think that is a poor excuse.  Learning happens most successfully at the intersection of interest and excitement.  Curiosity is a terrible thing to waste.

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