Monday, December 11, 2006

Thoughts on motivating the unmotivated

Most of my students are not motivated to learn. In fact, the vast majority care about school only so far as they want a passing grade on the final day of class. I was shocked last year to find how many students regarded a 70 with the same level of acceptance as a 90. My students are not thinking about college, or the pursuit of knowledge as its own reward: they just want to get enough passing grades so they can exit high school. In order to motivate students, teachers must first change this culture of ignorance and apathy.

I have had several students with GPA's in the 1-2 range tell me with a straight face that they plan on becoming a doctor. Many of our students have not had close contact with people who have graduated from college: in fact, fewer than 3% of Hollandale residents hold a graduate degree. As a result of not knowing any better, our students think they can accumulate C's and D's and become doctors after high school. They are in dire need of a reality check, and teachers are in an excellent position to provide one.

In the beginning of each school term, I preach the importance of good grades to my students. I explain to them that in order to go to college, they must earn good grades and test scores in high school. In order to graduate from college, they must work hard and earn good grades there too. In order to become a doctor, or lawyer, or dentist, or other special position, they need to go to graduate school for several more years. When I tell them this, I show a chart that depicts the average income of Americans based on their level of education. The chart illustrates that the more education a person has, the more money they will earn on average. Money is a motivating factor for some of them, but more important than this is the knowledge that what they do in high school determines in part the success they will experience during the rest of their life.

Understanding the importance of grades is the first step to motivating students to try hard in class. The next step is explaining how they can improve their grades. Teachers can breed accountability by demanding students turn their work in on time and making them understand that late work lowers their grade. I teach my students that missing work is like an anchor that lowers their grade. I also grade my students on participation, which motivates them to pay attention, ask questions, and monitor their own behavior.

Praising students is another great motivational technique. People are more easily led than driven, and if someone knows hard work will earn praise and other rewards (like participation points), they will be motivated to do their work. I will make positive phone calls home to my students who do well grade-wise or behavior wise, which is a simple method that doesn't take long but means a great deal to my students.

The best motivation comes from within. It is difficult motivating students to do things they may not initially like (studying, listening to the teacher), but once they understand the importance of these things, the motivation begins to emerge.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Cool Sights in Mississippi

My parents are visiting me for five days in February, so I want to use this blog as an opportunity to share the cool places I intend to take them. Let me preface this by saying I am a little anxious about this visit, since neither of my parents have been in the Deep South before. Okay, here we go.

Saturday evening:
Parents fly in to Greenville Airport. A nice airport, famous for its free long term parking and incompetence in tracking of luggage. Amazing, since it only runs direct flights to Memphis.

After touching down I will take my parents and fiancee to Fermo's, a delightful Italian eatery on I-82 in Greenville. Their loaded, gooey pizzas are among the best I've ever tasted (plus there is a good chance of a John Zarandona sighting at this restaurant).

Church bells beckon us to Leland First Presbyterian. The minister, Ken Landry, is a former attorney from Texas. His sermons are like the knuckle puck from Mighty Ducks: they go all over the place, but 1 out of 5 of them are right on target and a joy to behold.
There's not much to do on Sunday afternoons, though Club Ebony in Indianola has good music playing. Maybe we'll catch a matinee at the Malco on Rt. 1 in Greenville. Sunday night we'll cook at home, and me and Jamie will take on my parents at Spades or a game of Hand and Foot. At night we'll drive around Deer Creek and see the floats all lit up. The water spraying fire truck is a personal favorite.

I going to work today, and I think my dad will tag along for the afternoon. I'm not sure how I feel about exposing him to some of my kids, but I think they will get a kick out of meeting him. After school we'll get my mom and drive out to Warfield Point Park, a cute park off of 82 West in Greenville, MS. This park is nestled on the banks of the Mississippi River, and has a five-story observation deck. There's also a tree with large green nuts nearby. Bring up a few of the large unidentifiable nuts into the tower and drop them from the top. I love gravity.

No school today! I'm going to wake up the folks early, get into the car, and drive down Highway 61 until we reach Natchez. At one point Natchez was home to more millionaires than any city in the world except New York. Then the Civil War happened (or as some Rebels call it, the War of Northern Aggression). Hopefully we can view some antebellum mansions and I can show off my Southern accent. On the way back to Leland we'll stop at Vicksburg National War Memorial. My father, a Civil War expert, will enjoy driving through the beautiful rolling hills of Vicksburg on the 16-mile loop. We'll stop at a few monuments, maybe talk extra loud in our Yankee accents, and compare Vicksburg to Gettysburg, PA, where my dad took me twice as a boy. The two battles were going on simultaneously and changed the tide of war. I love history.

No school today either! Today is a relaxing day, so we head to Indianola's The Crown to enjoy the best lunch in the Delta. Afterwards I will drive them around the rougher neighborhoods of Indianola, pointing out the abandoned houses where people sell drugs and do other illicit activities. This is a day to show them real Mississippi: how the other half lives. When we get home we'll relax, maybe watch a Netflix movie (not technically a sight, but I don't know how I'd survive withouth Neflix in MS) and then have a quiet dinner at home.

Drop the parents off at Greenville Airport, and cry as I drive back to work at Simmons in time for Home Room. It was a great visit, and I am glad my parents got a chance to see the beauty that is Mississippi, as well as the sinister side of Mississippi's segregated past and present.