I recently had the chance to visit the high school in my district and work with some geometry classes. I’ll admit that I was a bit nervous, as this would be my first time working with high schoolers during my teaching career, having worked exclusively in an elementary school for five years. I wasn’t intimidated by these older students, as I may have been early on in my career, and as some are who have only taught primary their whole career. I was nervous because I knew high schoolers to be compliant on the whole, but extremely hard to engage, and I cannot stand a disengaged class.
Thankfully, the teacher had asked to work with Spheros one day and to do a Breakout the next, which are two highly engaging activities. When you introduce Spheros to elementary students, all you have to do is show them the clear, round, ball that lights up and you get instant buy-in. I wasn’t sure that would be the case with freshmen and sophomores, and I thought the enthusiasm might be there for some initially but wane quickly.
I am happy to report that I was wrong. We started with Spheros the first day and, funnily enough, I heard many of the same things from high schoolers as I do from 4th and 5th graders. A few things that I heard when I brought one out and demonstrated its functionality were; “Woah!” “Cool!” and my favorite, “These are the coolest things ever!” I had them tackle the same activity I stole from a friend, coding them to hit progressively more targets with one program, that I do with younger students and they remained engaged the whole time.
Breakout was up the second day, which I could only attend during first hour, and it turned out similarly well. Mr. Sides, the geometry teacher, actually texted me later in the day to say that the later classes were even more into it than the first hour. Mrs. Couchman, our assistant superintendent, covered the last class for Mr. Sides and had more groups successfully break out than any other hour that day.
All of this is to say, I am not sure I continue to subscribe to the notion that older students are impossible to engage and don’t care about anything. Generations of teens have decided that the non-verbal communication of boredom is how to look cool and normal. This stoicism can be easy to mistake as disengagement, and often is! I think this is a bigger mistake than we realize and is highly unfair to kids.
The critical mistake of attributing the absence of outward excitement to disengagement is that we then assume that high school students cannot be engaged in school and so we cease striving to. It’s a bit of a “chicken or the egg” question. Do we stop providing students with engaging activities as they get older, so they become bored with school, or do they become bored with school, so we stop trying to providing engaging instruction because it doesn’t matter anyway?
So I think it is important that we all try to dispel of this notion that the older kids get, the less they care. They will likely care more about social relationships than they do school, but who doesn’t? Rough home environments will depress them, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care. Sports and activities may distract them, but they distract us too. (March Madness anyone?) And they probably won’t give you a standing ovation no matter what you do, but that doesn’t mean you’re not a fantastic teacher.
We have to stop assuming that the non-verbal communication of teenagers is boredom and start striving for engaging, innovative practices in the upper grades. In the end it doesn’t really matter if the chicken came first or the egg, just that somebody continues the quest for the perfect omelet.