Monday, February 04, 2008

Getting past learned helplessness

I've noticed that my current students tend to quit on tasks, assignments, etc. much more often than my former, more affluent students did. It's frustrating. Very often, when I hand them questions on a story, or even practice WASL stuff, they'll either not do it at all or they will skip portions of it. "Mr. RefPoet, I didn't do #4 because it was hard." "I didn't understand the question, Mr. RefPoet, so I didn't do it." Why didn't you come to me for help? I ask. They reply: "It was just hard, so I didn't do it."

I decided the kiddoes needed a little help with metacognition. These kids are not dumber than the rich kids I had up north. I don't know that their dinner table conversation is as stimulating, based on questions and comments I get that I never would have heard before (like "what's a democracy" or "what does Republican mean" or "I didn't bring a book to read because we don't have any books in the house"). But intellectually malnourished is not the same as weak or stupid, and I feel like I'm up to the challenge.

Today, I told them how I'd noticed they quit pretty quickly on things they considered hard. I also pointed out that, by taking a real shot at a question they didn't understand on a standardized test (particularly short answer stuff), they might be able to stumble into a correct response, or at least partial credit.

I asked: What if, in sports, you said to your coach "I decided not to run those sprints because they're hard?"

"But Mr. RefPoet," one kid pointed out. "You know six kids quit the varsity basketball team this year."

Yep, I said, and I have a pretty severe problem with the attitude that leads to that.

I got a laugh by saying: What about relationships? If my wife said to me "I need you to listen to me more carefully," what would happen if I said "Honey, I'm not going to do that because it's hard?"

They pointed out I'd be sleeping on the couch.

So I felt like I had them on my side, more or less, even after one said "Well, I don't quit at important things like sports and relationships, but school is another matter." Thankfully, the kids didn't go along with that.

I gave them some metacognition practice and questions to ask. Most notably, I asked them to focus on what they DID understand when they got stuck.

My technique was to give them reading that I felt was a bit tough for them--not impossible, but a fairly big stretch--and asked them to fight their way through it. I gave a little help for kids who asked, but only if they told me what part of the poem they did understand first.

I picked this wonderful Stephen Dunn poem:


The Substitute

When the substitute ased my eighth-grade daughter
to read out loud,
she read in Cockney, an accent she'd mastered

listening to rock music. Her classmates laughed
of course, and she ept on,
straightfaced, until the merciful bell.

Thus began the week my daughter learned
it takes more than style
to be successfully disobedient.

Next day her regular teacher didn't return;
she had to do it again.
She was from Liverpool, her parents worked

in a mill, had sent her to America to live
with relatives.
At night she read about England, looked at her map

to place and remember exactly where she lived.
Soon her classmates
became used to it--just a titter from Robert

who'd laugh at anything.. Friday morning,
exhausted from learning
the manners and industry of modern England,

she had a stomachache, her ears hurt, there were
pains, she said,
all over. We pointed her toward the door.

She left bent over like a charwoman, but near
the end of her driveway
we saw her right herself, become the girl

who had to be another girl, a substitute
of sorts,
in it now for the duration.


I picked this poem because it had some vocabulary that would be tough for my sophomores ("Cockney," "charwoman"), some tough lines, and a few good but challenging avenues of interpretation.

Kids fumbled it differently from how I expected.

Multiple second period kids, when I asked "What parts did you get, and what did you not get?" said "I understood it perfectly. It's about a girl from Liverpool who's sick of her classmates making fun of her for the way she talks."

You know what? That's wrong, but it's not that far off. All they did was bungle one line, really. They missed the significance of "an accent she'd mastered/listening to rock music," and didn't use their prior knowledge that eight-graders often make fun of subs. So when I got that interpretation, I made certain they got that this was a kid faking an accent.

They also didn't get that the lines "She was from Liverpool, her parents worked/in a mill, had sent her to America to live/with relatives" weren't literal, but the student's creation of a new identity. But the context clues for that are really, really subtle...tough for a sophomore to get.

Anyway. I gave fifth and sixth period just the tiniest shove in the right direction, talking just a nanosecond about misbehavior for substitute teachers before distributing the poem. That pre-reading made all the difference, and taught the kids that their prior knowledge matters when they read, I hope. Their batting average was higher, and I was getting answers like "The message of the poem is to stay true to yourself. Don't try to be someone else or you'll be hurt." A little Aesop-simple, but hey, for a poem this tough, I'll take it. And while they struggled with a tough question where I asked them to interpret the lines "it takes more than style/to be successfully disobedient," well, that's a struggle I can live with. In the end, this is a difficult task that they didn't quit on. Tomorrow, I'll give them another--this time, a tough snippet of a Neil Postman essay.

I hope they hold onto these metacognitive strategies and expand of the work they did today. I'm proud of them.

Of course, it might not matter much. I input the first batch of second semester homework and classwork today..and as of now, 7 days into the semester, I'm failing a third of these sophomores again. I'm working on eradicating "I didn't do it because it was hard," but I don't yet have an effective strategy to combat all the Bartleby figures in my room...kid after kid simply saying "I would prefer not to" on just enough assignments to put a passing grade just out of reach.

I'm not punting on these kids--I never will--but nothing in my playbook seems to work for my Bartleby kids.


Joe said...

What a great exercise! I was at a conference last week where one of the major themes was teaching metacognitive strategies to college students. So you're in good company...

P.S.: The new English/Kenyon Review building will be named Lentz House.

tommyspoon said...

Really, Joe? That's awesome!!!

JJ said...

You're probably more familiar than I am on the research in the domain of learned helplessness, but in case you're not, check out this recent Scientific American article:

Love Kpop said...

There are times when I find it difficult to make decisions, but still have to do. I know people always have emotions so that there is no justice. But I still hope.