Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Student Apathy or Six Simple Sentences

The whiteboard in the front of my classroom has several enigmatic messages written in my best cursive:

Help others learn.
Jack Sparrow’s Secret
Looking Smarter on Paper
Are you here to learn?
Are you here to change?
Is your life a P.O.O.G.I.?

These six sayings are permanently posted in my classroom. I teach mostly 4th, 5th, and 6th graders. I work mostly with groups of 6 to 14 students at a time during the day. Some I help with math and some I help with English/Language Arts.

My students learn a lot of Math and Language Arts, but they also learn about life.

My only class rule is, Help others learn. (If you’re interfering with the learning of another, you’re breaking my rule. If you’re neutral or better, great!)

My students are generally 2 to 4 years below grade level. They need to catch up. Captain Jack Sparrow (think Pirates of the Caribbean) was asked by a crewmember why they were sailing hard, at night, and in a storm. Captain Jack replied, “Because we’re catching up!” That’s what we do in my classroom. We work hard, we work smart, and we don’t take many breaks, because “We’re catching up!”

Everybody wants to look smart, especially on paper. They want to gaze down upon their work and be proud. They want others to see their work and be admired. I can help students achieve that goal. I can’t make them any smarter, but I can teach them strategies and methods that will help them look smarter on paper. (I can even teach them how to look smarter sitting at their desks!)

As we hit the mid-year point, motivation lags for some students. Student apathy is one of the chief complaints of teachers. I run into that problem as well, but from day one of class, I seek to inspire my students to co-create in our classroom an “Accelerated Learning Zone.” This goal has led me to post the last three questions on my board:

1) Are you here to learn? Learning is a choice and it requires a decision. If a teacher assumes student buy-in, they are going to be consistently disappointed by many students. I actively seek and get buy-in from my students. If they don’t buy into what we’re doing, which is working hard to catch up, then they are going to be a drain on our classroom culture.

2) Are you here to change? I recently added this question because it more clearly defines what learning is. Learning is changing. Much of student failure comes from students not practicing the habits of successful students. So if these students are going to get closer to achieving at grade level, then they are going to need to change. This too requires buy-in.

Both of these questions put the student in the spotlight if they answer, No. If they answer, No, then they will not catch up. They are at an impasse, but my message is: You made the choice. You’ve decided you don’t want to Accelerate Your Learning, Catch Up, or Look Smarter on Paper.

3) Is your life a P.O.O.G.I.? This addition to my board always elicits questions. Pronounced pooh gie (hard g), POOGI is an acronym for Process Of On-Going Improvement. Eli Goldratt, creator of the Theory of Constraints, coined this “word”. Goldratt is an internationally renowned business consultant who helps businesses improve. (He also makes much of his training available to educators via TOC for Educators.) My life is an enjoyable POOGI, and I model that for my students. Slow learners can catch up: they just have to work hard, work smart, and see that life can be a process of on-going improvement. Perfection is not the goal, improvement is.

Effectively educating youth is not for the faint of heart, nor is it for the unfocused. I help kids see themselves as capable learners, who are co-responsible for their learning. As a result, over time, most of them become strategic, life-long learners. Those who buy in, generally catch up. My six simple sentences help us focus and move forward.


  1. Can I be in your class?? What you do makes so much sense. It makes me want to be a student in your class. From what I've seen, you have a gift. Your students are so lucky to have you!

  2. Yes, you can be in my class as a guest teacher, and you can teach us about poetry, observation, reflection, following your dreams, adventure, the importance of family, and determination. (Those are some of motifs that run wonderfully through your blog.)

  3. I love the Jack Sparrow quote! It reminds me of the Princess Bride quote ('you only say that because it's never been done...')

  4. Saphron, You're right, both quotes contain a "can-do" optimism. I try to live it, and teach it! (It's somewhat contagious.) PS: You owe someone an affirmation, and someone else a poem, if my memory serves me. ;-)