George Lucas Educational Foundation
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This is part one of a two-part guest posting from my colleague, Kyle Hartung, who has worked in small schools for ten years as a classroom teacher and instructional leader in New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area. As part of the Leadership and Instructional Team at Envision Schools, he coaches and facilitates professional development among school leaders and teachers.

A recent three-part entry, "Emotional Engagement in Education," from blogger Jim Moulton provides some concrete ways to respond to student apathy and rally your school community through project learning and problem-based learning. He really drives his point home for me when he says, "For any of us, whether student or teacher, child or adult, to do our best, to achieve our highest potential, we have to care. Many of you have, at some point in your life, accomplished something you never thought you could do. Had you not cared enough to try, you would never have accomplished the goal. Your amazing accomplishment began with caring."

It is easy to talk about how students don't care about school. However, perhaps it is not that students don't care, but that they may not know how to care about their time in school. Many of our students have never had what they do in school inspire them or allow them to be better, or be relevant to their own happiness.

Experiencing Accomplishment

So, how can we teach young people how to care? Just as Moulton says, we can begin by providing them with experiences and opportunities to care about, opportunities that allow them to shine, excel, and feel a real and deep sense of accomplishment for their hard work. When we ask students to pursue inquiries or questions that only they can answer, they begin to see a reason for the work they do and see that what they do today is relevant to what they will do tomorrow.

However, teaching students how to care goes even deeper than the kinds of projects and assignments we ask them to do. We must give careful consideration to the way we act with students and to the way we build community in our schools. I agree with Moulton that amazing accomplishments are born from a place of caring, and therefore, we must care enough to teach students how to care as well. I'd like to use this point in two consecutive entries to continue the conversation about apathy and motivation in high school students. And I will provide some illustrative examples of what students who are learning how to care do, say, and think about.

Recently at one of our schools, all the twelfth-grade students participated in a formal public debate. The students did extensive research and preparation so they could argue either side of a controversial global issue; they did not know which side they would have to defend at the exhibition.

The morning after, the students and faculty gathered in their weekly community meeting. For forty-five minutes, the students individually celebrated one another's achievements and gave props to one another's work. As they relived the excitement and anxieties of the night before, they thanked their partners and teachers for their effort.

During the meeting, students made comments such as "You really impressed me with your research," "I know I was skeptical about being your partner at the beginning, but we worked great together," and "I never thought I would be able to actually do it." Teachers also took time to celebrate the individual accomplishments of students in front of the community and thank their teams for their dedication and hard work.

This experience is not an isolated one or possible only for high school seniors. It is a way of being together that begins in the first months of a student's experience at an Envision school. Last week, at our newest school, all the ninth-grade students participated in an alternative energy trade show, the culminating exhibition of an interdisciplinary study in mathematics, integrated science, and digital-media arts.

There were 300 people in attendance and you could feel the energy in the room as the students used multimedia public-service announcements, illustrative models of systems, and informational booths to sell the attendees on their energy proposals. Before leaving, the attendees voted for the most viable energy proposal.

Recognizing Their Successes

At a community meeting the next morning, we recognized group accomplishments in categories such as creative expression, scientific thinking, and persuasion. Also, we announced the winners, but all students felt a sense of pride and accomplishment on a job well done. It was clear, however, that it was never about who won or lost, but rather about the success of everyone sharing in a tremendous achievement. The students were able to learn as part of a public exhibition, and the public exhibition served to help build a community of people who care about the work they do together because it benefits them all personally.

How often in the educational experience do we provide students with an opportunity for a public celebration of their accomplishments, let alone create an expectation for such celebrations? These students are learning to see that their combined efforts say something to the world about what is possible when they do meaningful and relevant work together.

In the second part of this entry, I share more examples that reveal the benefits of our careful consideration about how we are with students and with the way we build community in our schools. Please share your thoughts about the efforts you have made or have seen that support teaching students how to care.

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Krystal's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As an elementary school teacher I found the activity in this posting to be inspiring. The impact of this public debate opportunity on those students is priceless. Relevance is the key to learning. As I introduce the objectives of the day to my students I always ask if they have a question about the learning. I want to let them know why they are going to be required to learn, the skills to be mastered, and what activities we will be doing to help facilitate the learning. I love for my students to ask why they have to learn the skill. Earlier in the school year when I taught and reviewed skip counting to my first grade class, some really had a hard time counting past thirty by fives. When I explained that we must first learn to count by fives to one hundred before we could learn to count nickels my students got so excited. They no longer perceived the learning as counting by fives for the sake of counting. When I made their learning relevant to daily uses and furthering the use of counting I saw the light come on and success prevailed.

Kimberly's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Teachers sometimes demonstrate their caring in an unhealthy way. Caring can become an obsession but at the same time caring is a natural part of teaching. We "care for" our students but we cannot always "take care" of them (Kottler, Zehen, Kottler 2005). It's important for our caring to be genuine (Kottler, Zehen, Kottler 2005). As was pointed out by Karl Hartung, one of the ways to do this is to celebrate success publicly. In order for a student to obtain success our caring must provide the "the appropriate amount of support, structure, and expectations they need to be self-directed, responsible learners (Kottler, Zehen, Kottler 2005). I would also like to add that it's important to note that the caring must not only be from teacher to student and vice versa. Caring needs to extend from student to student as well. If you listen carefully to your students can you see this happening?

Kottler, J. A., Zehm, S. J., & Kottler, E. (2005). On being a teacher: The human dimension (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Danee's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

There are many reasons children do not care about school. For example, they may not feel a sense of belonging or accomplishment. Also, they may not see the relevance in their learning. It is crucial for teachers to incorporate relevant learning into the curriculum. If students do not understand a connection between their learning and real life, they may accomplish the task, but it will not be meaningful to them and therefore not genuine learning.
I feel the most important component to true learning is care. A caring, secure environment must be established in our classrooms for children to truly learn to their fullest potential. Nel Noddings addresses this issue in her book, The Challenge to Care in Schools (1991). She discusses the importance of a foundation of care that learning can be built on. This care must be displayed in student-teacher, student-student, teacher-administration, teacher-parent relationships. In order to build such a caring community, teachers must build relationships with their students, the students' parents, and their colleagues. Trust and honesty, along with care, must be cultivated. Part of caring is also recognizing students' interests and differences. Upon this foundation of care, genuine learning can be built.

Noddings, N. (1991). The challenge to care in schools: An alternative approach to education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Tara's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was inspired by this blog. The activities that the students participated in were so relevant to their every day lives. Shouldn't all school activities be this way? Kottler, Zehm and Kottler (2005)said that students desire for their learning to be relevant to their every day lives. Didn't we all want that when we were in school? Sometimes I forget how it was to be a student.
I know that when I provide my students with information and activities that they are really interested in, they perform better. Last week, I was teaching my third grade group of students to use adjectives to their writing to make it more interesting. It seemed that nothing was working. The students would always choose color words to describe rather than expanding their use of adjectives. The group consisted of four, very active boys. I reflected on how I could present this concept in the most relevant and exciting way. I decided to allow the group to choose what they wanted to write about. After much brainstorming, they chose race cars. I then told each of them to write about their race car in a way that would really make their audience visualize it. Their writing had the most interesting adjectives. They thoroughly enjoyed writing, and the goal of adding adjectives to their writing was met. I am a firm believer that student learning should be relevant and meaningful.
Another wonderful thing I learned through reading this blog was the idea of publicly celebrating students successes with parents, other teachers, and students.
Thanks so much for your blog.

Kottler, J. A., Zehm, S. J., & Kottler, E. (2005). On being a teacher: The human dimension (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Jenna, Walden University's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I found this article very interesting and I agree with Bob Lenz in that not all students know how to care. Children grow up around older siblings and parents who a lot of times express or demonstrate a lazy or apathetic attitude and children catch on to this. Children absorb everything they see and hear; so, if they are observing this sort of unmotivation, they are likely to do the same. I love the idea of creating projects in school that allow students the chance to succeed and to share their successes with the community.
I teach first grade and each of our classes have put on a Readers' Radio. We choose a topic that we have been studying (for example Presidents) and each reading group reads a book at their level. After a couple weeks of practice (so their fluency should be perfect) we have a day where we present to the other first grade classes and to parents. Each group goes up to the front and the kids get to share the facts they've learned. They get so excited for this event and all of them feel so proud of themselves. I believe it's been a great way to show the students how to care. They are responsible for their script and they take it home each night to practice... They love this!
Teaching children to care is a huge step, but it's probably the most important. I can't imagine a successful classroom where the students didn't care.

Jenna, Walden University's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed reading your posting. I also teach first grade and it was neat to read how your students became excited about counting by fives when you explained why they needed to master that skill. I completely agree with you, students must know the reason they are learning the skill in order to care about it. It is true, success will come only if the students care about what they're learning.

Danee's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed reading your post. You made some excellent points! Your observation about how achievement increases when students work together in self-discovery reminded me of some reading I was doing this week for my Masters course. I was reading chapter two of On Being a Teacher: The Human Dimension by Kottler, Zehm, and Kottler (2005). The differences between schooling and learning are pointed out in this chapter. Schooling is compulsory and involves acquisition of curriculum, but genuine learning teaches students how to make decisions, solve problems, and express themselves. Inquiry based learning is one of the best ways for children to learn. Kottler, Zehm, and Kottler (2005) call schooling an "outside-in" approach to knowledge, and genuine learning an "inside-out" approach. Thank you for your insights and examples.

Jackie in Long Beach's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Jenna, I loved your idea of the Reader's Radio. I teach first grade as well, and we do some small plays in the classroom and we put on a big play at the end of the year for parents and students. The students really love being in the spotlight and your idea really ties the curriculum in too. It is truly motivating. I usually find it pretty easy to motivate young children, like first graders, but have talked to 3rd grade teachers where this is much more of a problem.
I really feel it is the parent's responsibility to instill in their children the importance of school and doing your best, but the reality is that these responsibilities are, more often, falling on the teachers. I never considered the idea that the students may not know how to care, and I'm not sure how to go about teaching this. I do know that students will be motivated if we make learning more fun. After all, we are teaching children, and what child doesn't want to play and have fun?

Janis Hunt's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This article was meaningful to me because I think students have to care in order to do any learning. I liked the idea of the debate. I teach 12th graders. I see the debate as an opportunity for students to do research, take a stand, and have successes at the same time. That sounds like genuine learning to me. Recognizing their accomplishments is essential.

Denise's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have found the this article to be very interesting and I think it presents valuable information. Until I read the difference between schooling and learning in The Human Dimension by Kottler, Zehm, and Kottler (2005), I had never even contemplated there was any differentiation. Yet now that the topic has been presented and discussed in this form, I can certainly agree that in order for true in depth learning to take place, students do actually need to make connections to what is being presented. As a high school mathematics teacher it is sometimes very difficult to allow the time for students to make those connections with the concepts we teach because of the breadth of the material we are required to teach for standardized testing purposes. As I read this story, I am wondering what I can do and how I will provide for this type of experience in my classes so that my students can really master the concepts I am presenting to them. I am glad I came across this posting because it has presented me with ideas which I think I will be able to use as I try new approaches in my classroom.

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