Monday, September 27, 2010

The Problem of Motivation

Students' motivation or lack thereof in the academic arena has been on my mind in these first weeks of school.  Like many semesters,  I have had conversations with numerous students about motivation and lack of work completion.  My colleagues have shared the same concerns.  As always, I find myself wondering what I/ we might be doing wrong where students' work completion lies. 

My thinking about this topic was, again, prompted today as I read Alfie  Kohn's recent article, "Schools would be great if it weren't for the kids".  Among many issues, this article begs the question of why kids don't enjoy school, a question Kohn answers by detailing our reliance on grades and test scores.  By removing intrinsic motivation and making students' rewards and punishments external, we have sucked the joy from learning, he argues. 

I enjoy Kohn's writing as, oftentimes, I am incensed by his opinions and they challenge my thinking.  I kept thinking, as I read the article, about a quote from Romeo and Juliet published in 1597, obviously a text that doesn't fit in the contemporary education realm.  Romeo describes his feelings as he departs from Juliet's room:  "Love goes toward love as schoolboys from their books,/ But love from love, toward school with heavy looks" (Shakespeare II.2.156-7).  Romeo goes toward love, embodied in Juliet, as schoolboys go away from their books, but moves away from her as he goes to school: downtrodden and dismal.  A later Shakespearean text published in 1623 captures the same melancholic attitude toward school:  "the whining schoolboy, with his satchel/ And shining morning face, creeping like a snail/ Unwillingly to school" (II.7.2.145–147).  Shakespeare describes this 17th century English schoolboy as whiney, slow-moving and unwilling as he walks toward his educational realm.

Now I'm not saying Kohn's ideas don't possess merit.  I certainly wouldn't contest that schools rely heavily, perhaps too heavily, on grades and test scores.  Some of our struggles with student movitation probably do stem from their tiredness with extrinsic motivators, but I question whether, as Kohn claims, this is simply a modern American problem.  Over four hundred years ago, Shakespeare and his culture seemed to possess that same lack of motivation, that same lackadaisical attitude toward school.  I am sure it was because of students' frustration with CSAP scores...

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Creating my personal learning network

As captured in my last post, one of my primary goals for the semester is creating a network beyond my students' classroom walls with which they can share their work. 

I began this goal at the semester beginning by emailing admissions' offices at Colorado schools with the hope that I could have those who actually look at college essays during the application process give my juniors' and seniors' college essays some feedback.  The schools I emailed included University of Colorado, University of Northern Colorado, Colorado State, and Denver University.  I also emailed the admissions office at my alma matter, Trinity University in San Antonio, hoping I could guilt them in to helping me.  I heard back from the office at T.U. and at U.N.C., and have two kind people willing to help me with my project.
I also emailed a contact at the Oxford English Dictionary online and the Hero Project, a foundation created by Philip Zimbardo, in the hopes that they would work with me on a couple other projects with my seniors.  Alas, I have had no reply. 
The most exciting contact I've made, however, is to the Salem Historical Society in Massachusetts.  I contacted them in the hopes that I could get a foundation member to Skype with my Honors American Literature class about the history and myth of Salem as we read Miller's The Crucible.  After speaking with someone who co-founded this organization, however, it is clear she would like to do more.  She is hoping my students can work on a video project that would go on the foundation's opening page in the hopes of attracting a younger audience to join their society.  Needless to say, my students are very excited about the idea.  We are not quite sure how all of this will look, but will be back in the touch with the Society at September's end.
After just these beginning experiences developing my network, I feel fairly encouraged.  Of course, it would be great if I had heard back from all these contacts.  I can tell, though, that my students are already excited about having a bigger audience for their work and I learned that just taking the time to send a quick email doesn't take much time and might just pay dividends.