If They Come, They Care

www.katenonesuch.comI expected it to be an interesting activity. I was sure people would take part, and hoped they would enjoy it. But they didn’t seem to care.

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.

13 thoughts on “If They Come, They Care

  1. Pingback: Wrong Problem, Wrong Solution | Working in Adult Literacy

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  3. Thanks for sharing this. We teachers need to be reminded of this: if they come, they care. Your patience with the exercise was also a gentle reminder for me. I needed this blog today. So, thanks, Kate.

  4. Really loved this one, Kate, another big penny-dropping insight into some of the things I’ve attempted in my own work as mental health worker. I used to plan the odd “fun activity”, at the residence, only to be daunted by the sort of passivity you describe. The woman I work with have also had the curiosity ground out of them by abuse and medications and regimentation before even considering their mental illness. I finally realized the good evening snacks, baking and the like, were the things that carried pleasure and anticipation in an uncomplicated non-challenging way. And their only real daily curiosity is about what’s for dinner or for snack. And fair enough!
    They had an art teacher who used to come on Sundays, and ALWAYS brought a nice snack..and they made great art. and had fun .. I had kind of given up doing any “activity,” though I have found that birthday parties (with homemade cake and good ice cream) have an anticipation and curiosity to them which can generate a small sing-song after “Happy Birthday”….or a lively exchange about favourite cakes and ice creams. Your story made me see more clearly what I already knew, sort of.
    Also, reminding me of the reality of how different their expectations have been forced to bend and twist and shrink compared to my own, is a good thing.

    • Your words are exactly right–to have “the curiosity ground out of them.” When I see that that is the case, instead of labeling them ungrateful or lazy or unmotivated, I have energy to engage with them in a way that makes it possible for them to participate. We’re all happier.

  5. You were asking them to step out of the Expected and Proper Routine… and as you said, their baggage probably has rather a lot of “don’t move forward.” I like that you don’t accept that but strive for ways to teach that sometimes questioning and exploring are keys.

    • You’ve put your finger on the balance point, I think. On the one hand, to help them feel safe enough to step out of their comfort zones. On the other, not to give in to their resistance and to continue to expect, and try to make possible, questioning, exploring, in many modes.

  6. Yup. And there’s nothing wrong with putting on a show. It’s fun. I used to tell my jail students, “I think we have fun in this class. At least I do, and it’s all about me anyway.” I was kidding about the second part, of course, but once the translation got through, they understood it.

    There’s probably nothing more effective than tactile learning which demands weird objects, pictures and lots of room for creativity that students (especially incarcerated students) aren’t used to. And it’s interesting when I asked the class to put things in categories, they often put them in groups that made sense but not ones I might have chosen. I thought that was really cool because I got to see how other people thought and get a different perspective. The way we view the world and how it affects our behavior is fascinating.

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