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Twenty percent of Americans will not graduate high school this year.
They are quitting.
And I think the primary reason is because to far more than twenty percent of Americans, the system that consumes over eight hours of a student’s day, is the primary source of stress and effort, the place that consumes the bulk of one’s childhood- does not include tangible purpose.
Stephen Pressfield writes in his book, The War of Art:
“In order for a book (or any project or enterprise) to hold our attention for the length of time it takes to unfold itself, it has to plug into some internal perplexity or passion that is of paramount importance to us.”
This importance can be found by introducing real and authentic conflict into our classrooms. Not the kind of conflict where fighting ensues or feelings get hurt. The conflict where the regular patterns of life are disrupted. The regular girl becomes a hero. The student within a bubble, who thinks the world revolves around their habits, their music, their friends, their life- finds out not all is well in the world, and there is something she can do about it.
The work students are doing in the classroom needs real conflict. In order for the material we present in our classroom to grasp a student’s attention long enough for them engage with it, it needs problems for them to solve. We live in a big world with big problems, and sometimes the issues students tackle are big. Chances are, there are people in your community who deal with hunger on a daily basis. Racism probably exists within your city or town. Homeless people probably live underneath an overpass near you. Believe it or not, slavery still exists, and the slaves are young women who are trafficked in every major city in the United States.
These are big problems that your students can tackle in math class, and in English, and science, and any other subject in school.
There are also conflicts of lesser global importance for your students to engage in, and those belong just as much in your epic classroom, because they are engaging students in learning so they can be prepared to tackle big stuff later on. Conflicts like debating about the meaning of justice, interpreting how something a poet said 200 years ago relates to the present, or creating a piece of art that lasts- conflicts do not have to leave the walls of the school to impact and engage students.
Conflict can be huge, and conflict can be intimate. But regardless of its size and scope, it must be in the stories in your classroom.
Sir Ken Robinson once said in a TED Talk that "Teaching is creative profession."
I love that line.
Because of systems in place, as well as cultural stereotypes, and Mrs. Crabapple from The Simpsons, it is very easy to believe that teachers are just walking textbooks, or playback machines, or mindless dictators (ok, maybe I can be a little dictatorish sometimes). But these descriptions are limiting, because at the heart of teaching is creativity.
Think about the amount of creativity that goes into your own personal classroom management, and the way you have learned to improvise in different situations in your classroom.
How you’ve developed a look that can make bullies tremble.
And another one that can send a child home prouder than they have ever been. Or think about the creativity it takes to talk an angry parent down or to turn a classroom into a safe haven for your students.
Consider the fact that on paper, literature, geometry, foreign language, and photosynthesis can look pretty boring. However, teachers know these subjects are far from that, and they have the unique ability to make students realize it.
Teaching takes immense creativity, and you can pour that same ingenuitive spirit and inspiration to make learning come alive for students. It’s about flexing those creative muscles to make learning engaging. Introduce authenticity into projects and lessons your class takes part in. Make it part of your planning time to brainstorm new ways to make class relevant. Like any other artist, give yourself scheduled time to sit down and do nothing but brainstorm.
Teachers have to get away from the mindset that school is just about delivering content and using our time to plan solely on how to deliver it. Content is important, and can still be a major target in our classrooms, but rarely is it enough to motivate a student to work hard and with passion. Passion and work ethic from most students must be derived from somewhere else. Otherwise, you have to become comfortable with a bunch of students who are satisfied with getting C’s and doing just enough to get by.
The other option is to inject authentic conflict into our classrooms. Make the time students spend with you every day be full of purpose. Foster an environment that makes kids wake up in the middle of the night with an idea to solve the problem your class has presented them with.
Conflict is good.
We want conflict.
And to create real conflict in your classroom just takes a degree of creativity.