I gathered some objects on a table in the classroom–modelling clay, bread dough, a crumpled plastic bag, rubber bands, pebbles, a plastic mug and a ceramic mug, keys, a few fresh green leaves from the tree outside the classroom–and asked students to come and examine the objects and sort them into three categories–plastic, elastic, and rigid, vocabulary we had already encountered in our science unit.
They all came and grouped themselves around the table, but no one reached out to explore the objects. I thought they hadn’t understood my directions, so I explained again, and picked up a couple of things as examples of what I was asking them to do.
They remained standing, mostly looking at the floor. It seemed like they weren’t interested. They appeared not to care.
Given the situation, I went into motivational mode–I enthusiastically demonstrated with more examples, picking things up and trying to bend or crush them; I put objects into the hands of individual students and asked them to bend and crush; I made a table on the board that was the same as the one on their sheets, and showed how to classify each object under the appropriate heading; I wondered out loud about how long the list would be under each heading; I made funny figures out of the modelling clay; in short, I put on a performance.
Eventually, everyone got their table filled in, either by touching the objects themselves, or watching me or another student touching the objects, or by copying the table from the board or from another student.
I was disappointed–I thought they would have fun as well as learn something. I had had fun gathering up the objects, poking and watching and thinking about the difference between a metal key and a metal twist tie, between warm wax and cold wax. Why didn’t they dive in?
Later, with time to reflect, I knew I had been wrong in my assumption that they didn’t care or weren’t interested. In my enthusiasm for the science, I had forgotten that these were students who had had the curiosity crushed out of them by years of school failure. Some of them were raised in the aftermath of the residential school system, whose legacy reaches down into the present generation–don’t touch, don’t talk, don’t question. Some had developed a survival strategy from abusive childhoods–go somewhere else, mentally. Most had learned that in a stressful situation, it is not a good idea to put yourself forward; better to hang back.
I think my reaction in the situation was a good one. My talking, showing, breaking the assignment down into small parts, asking individuals who trusted me to do one small thing, instead of a large thing, all made the situation less stressful, and made it possible for everyone to complete the assignment, even if more passively than I had hoped.
But I was wrong about motivation. Adult literacy students come to school motivated. We know that because their presence is proof of their motivation. So much easier to stay at home, watch bad TV, or hang out with the gang. So much harder to find a way to get to school, deal with the nay-sayers in their lives, and cope with family responsibilities in a shortened day.
If they come, they care. Every student cares.
- Every Student Cares (katenonesuch.com)