I’m sitting in the school library as I write this, and two seniors are talking in the loft above me. I am not eavesdropping; there’s no need since they are not trying to keep anyone from overhearing. They are talking about how “pointless” some assignment or class is, and one student says, “Seriously, why are we here?” I wish I could say that this is an unusual occurrence, but unfortunately, it’s all too common. It is because of comments like these that I first picked up the book The Passion-Driven Classroom, which I mentioned in a previous post.
I’m only two chapters into the book, but several parts resonated with me despite its emphasis on elementary and middle school students. Of all the passages I’ve found thought-provoking, however, the one that I can’t stop thinking about is this one, which they go on to back up with plenty of studies.
“For most young learners and students, there are not enough hours in the day to quench their insatiable curiosity or satisfy their need to know more. Yet, by the time they reach secondary education, enthusiasm, engagement, and love for learning is at an all-time low.“
If one teaches juniors or seniors in high school, and the students walk into the classroom after years of being disengaged, how in 50 minutes a day can a teacher re-engage those students? It’s not that it can’t be done, but it does become increasingly difficult the longer a student has been without that passion for and curiosity about the world around them.
Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not in any way blaming the teachers that came before a student’s junior and senior year or saying that they do not themselves deal with the same exact issues. I am suggesting, however, that the problem becomes compounded over time, making it harder and harder to solve. So what started as a seemingly small issue in middle school and grew to be a larger issue in 9th and 10th grades becomes THE issue in 11th and 12th grades.
But what if? What if we NEVER let the curiosity and joy for learning stop? Don’t stop reading, please. I know this sounds ridiculously optimistic, but stay with me. Just imagine for an instant what it would look like to see the majority of students actively engaged, interested, and driven in their studies from 6th through 12th grades. What would that look like? What would it feel like for teachers and students alike? For me, it’s the dream.
In the book, the authors talk about incorporating “passion time” into the school week, helping students to pursue their passions and teaching students how those passions relate to the rest of their schooling. I haven’t read any further yet, and I don’t know how the authors imagine “passion time” working over the long haul, but how about this?
Imagine doing “passion time” beginning in the 6th grade and continuing on to the very end of high school. In 6th grade, teachers would advise small groups of students and learn about their interests. Students would engage in “passion time” each week and keep some kind of ongoing portfolio to track their progress. Their passions would change and grow over time, which is exactly what we would want to see. At each grade level, an additional element would be added to “passion time” to increase the rigor to match the students’ growing abilities. Now, fast-forward to 12th grade when students complete a year-long cross-curriculum project of their own choosing and design, with teacher input and monitoring of course. These are no namby-pamby projects, mind you. There’s no, “I learned how to make cupcakes or do Yoga” here. These are academically challenging projects that require students to engage deeply with the material of several disciplines. These are well-researched, well-designed, and well-presented projects. Imagine.
What would it take to get there? More than one or two teachers on board. A single teacher alone can’t do “passion time” and have the kind of effect we want and need in our schools. It would also require strong support from administration, clear communication to parents and students, and a willingness to deal with the inescapable bumps on the road as the program rolls out. It would also require an understanding that not all students will benefit equally; some will get more out of the program than others.
What could be gained? Everything. Students who are engaged and curious, who are willing to do more than go through the motions. Students who see that their French class actually does have some connection to their math class, believe it or not. Students who are willing to put the work in even when an assignment or class isn’t their favorite because they understand that it all works together, it’s all part of one important whole.