five ways to conquer student apathy

I recently published a post about Five Things Teachers Can Do to Conquer Student Apathy. The post focused on specific actions teachers can take to build a classroom community and culture that is safe, engaging, and encourages students to get involved. But what about structuring the actual class period? How do we create content that can reach even the most distractible, uninterested learners? Below are Five Ways to Conquer Student Apathy by implementing teaching techniques and protocols that engage students in meaningful learning.

Competition

We all enjoy the thrill of a game and while it is true that not every student thrives in a competitive environment, incorporating it into your classroom is a definitive way to reel in some of your more apathetic learners. We live in a society where young people are entertained literally all of the time. They’ve got movie theaters, arcades, and concerts in their back pockets. It comes as no surprise that today’s students just don’t vibe with traditional education practices and honestly, they shouldn’t. Unfortunately, this can leave teachers frustrated as to why it seems like little Johnny just doesn’t care about school. Competition provides students a purpose for their work. Extrinsic motivation if you will. Being able to win at something improves self-esteem and engagement within the classroom. You can incorporate competition through games, tournaments, and even comparative assessment data across class periods…just be sure to keep student names anonymous!

Movement

As I stated earlier, young people no longer fit into the mold of traditional education. Heck, the world no longer fits into that mold. It is straight up crazy to expect a teenager or any school-aged child to sit still in a desk in a row for seven hours a day. We seem to have created this culture that high school is a preparatory institution for college and that college is all about listening to some old guy talk at you for sixty minutes three times a week and hey, I get it! I watched Boy Meets World and loved every second. But the truth is, our world doesn’t function like that anymore. Even most universities have shied away from large lecture hall courses and have started the shift towards hands-on learning. So why don’t we? Enter movement. Movement is honestly one of the easiest things you can add to your instructional practice. You don’t have to change much about your lesson, just add movement! For example, instead of having students copy notes from the board, print out the slides, hang them around the room, and have students rotate to collect needed information.

Pro tip: Hang duplicate copies of the slides to avoid crowding.  

Another great way to add movement is through rotations. In my lesson Farmers on the Frontier students rotate through different letters and images that correspond to new types of technology used to solve problems of farmers on the Great Plains. Each group gets five minutes at each station and then moves to the next until they have read all six letters. The rotational model is effective because it can be used for almost any activity. I use rotations for other lessons such as Introduction to Reconstruction, The Civil Rights Movement, and even when teaching students How to Complete a DBQ. Classrooms do not have to be restrictive and when we move away from policing student’s bodies by forcing them to sit still in one place for extended periods of time, more meaningful relationships, engagement, and learning can occur.

Discussion

Who loves to share their opinion more than a teenager? Who has more opinions than a teenager? Anyone with a teaching license is aware that there are levels of understanding when it comes to mastering a topic or skill. They are commonly referred to as Bloom’s Taxonomy, Circle of whatever, or Standard-Mastery blah blah blah. Either way, it means that today’s students must do more with a topic or event than simply memorize the PEMDAS acronym or when Black Tuesday happened. They have to be given the opportunity to connect with a concept and the best way to do that is through discussion. Discussions can be daunting for teachers because management is difficult. Most students do not enter a classroom prepared to have a respectful conversation with their peers, mostly because it is done so infrequently. It is also difficult to ensure that all students are engaged in the conversation. Here are a few “rules” for an effective classroom discussion and some strategies for nontraditional discussion methods.

Rule #1—Make sure student ideas are validated and heard

Rule #2—Create a tracking system where you can monitor who hasn’t had the opportunity to speak and who has shared…enough

Rule #3—Create a maintain a classroom culture of mutual respect

When teachers maintain a culture of respect in their classroom, discussions are much easier. For example, if you don’t allow little Jimmy to be rude to little Johnny during a group activity, it will be easier for him to understand why it is unacceptable to do so during a discussion. The same goes for teachers.

We must always show respect and validity to our students if we wish for them to engage in academic conversation.

Here are a few unconventional discussion strategies that are easier to manage and can engage reluctant participants.

Twitter Board (digital or hand written)

For hand written Twitter Feeds I use the handy-dandy Post-It. Students write their response to a prompted question and then stick their Post-It onto the wall. We then return to the wall and students can respond to other “Tweets” and leave a Thumbs-Up as a like or “Retweet”. If you have the luxury of technology in the classroom, creating a class Twitter and allowing students to post is much easier but honestly, I like the old-fashioned way. 😉

Pass It On          

This discussion strategy gives students more time the think about their ideas rather than feel “Put on the Spot”. Give each student a piece of paper with a topic or question, set a timer and allow students to respond in writing. Then, when the timer goes off, have students pass their papers to the right or left and repeat the process. At the end, ask students to share if any ideas stood out to them. If they get the same topic again, have them read other students’ responses and provide a comment.

Speed Dating

Speed Dating is a versatile, commonly used practice in education. It is great for facilitating one-on-one discussions and helping those shier students feel safe. In this form of Speed Dating, students are paired up and given a certain amount of time to discuss a topic. Each time they move, they get a new topic to discuss. If you finish early, place students in groups of 4-6 and have them discuss the speed dating experience. What ideas stood out to them? If you start small, soon you’ll be having full class discussions where every student feels their voice is valuable.

Now back to some fantastic strategies to conquer student apathy!

Current Events

It is incredible how connected our history and our world is. Topics we are teaching about today, in any subject are connected to things happening in our nation and the world. For example, last year an article was written about how corn mazes and hay rides are becoming more popular as farmers try to supplement their income—hello the Grange Movement?! In science, the applications are innumerous. Whether it be the study of a new vaccine [I wrote this pre-COVID, the irony] or hydroponic farms, incorporating current events into teaching concepts can help apathetic students understand the connection between school and the “real world”. In addition, allowing students to reflect on these events and discuss them fully improves the effectiveness.

Creative Opportunity

Most of us have heard about teaching through multiple mediums but not everyone understands the importance of multi-modal instruction. Multi-modal instruction refers to allowing students the opportunity to express mastery through a variety of modes. This can include artistic varieties such as drawing a cartoon, writing a letter, or sculpting (hello again to the good old diorama!). It can also include forms of media such as writing a song or creating a video. It can be more traditional like writing an essay or creating a quiz. When we allow students the opportunity to be creative with their learning, without fear of judgement, they become willing to take more risks and become more engaged with the content.

Remember, at the end of the day our goal here is to conquer student apathy. We do this by creating meaningful learning experiences where students feel their voice and various talents are both respected and valued. Teenagers have such a unique view of the world and as teachers, we are lucky to have the chance to hear about it. When we understand and appreciate that sentiment, work in the classroom shifts from what can I teach you to what can you teach me. It becomes a symbiotic relationship where apathy is no longer possible or desired.

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