Make them care

When I was an education reporter years ago, a school administrator in Kansas told me this: A major problem in education is that most teachers liked being students.

You may wonder why that’s bad. Would we really want people who hated school to be put in charge?

The problem is: Consciously or unconsciously, we teachers expect our students to be like us. When we deliver a lesson that we think is awesome, and the students roll their eyes or put down their heads or play with their phones, we feel confused and a little betrayed.

We think to ourselves, “I would have loved this when I was in school.”

And that thought leads to more destructive thoughts: “What’s with these kids? Don’t they care about anything? … They just expect to be entertained all the time.”

Maybe if we had a few more bad school memories ourselves, we’d understand.

Although I am certainly guilty of enjoying my school days – with the exception of junior high – I did have one secret advantage when I became a teacher. Thanks to an unplanned series of events (and a first career in journalism), I got licensed to teach social studies, which was by far my least favorite subject in high school.

In fact, when I interviewed for my job at Mounds View High School, they asked me why I wanted to teach social studies, and I said, “Because I found it boring. I hope I can make it better.”

It wasn’t hard for me to empathize with my students. I fell asleep every time I tried to read the history or government textbooks. I got headaches thinking about teaching minutiae like Civil War battles or the cloture rule.

When my students’ eyes glazed over — and they did — I realized that I really had to live up to my pledge to make social studies more engaging, or I was going to fail miserably. I had to pressure test every lesson to make sure it would hook them, and that meant many hours of brainstorming, followed by painstaking revisions.

Over time, I developed an approach that worked pretty well. Whenever I plan a lesson, I push myself to think about the teenage point of view. What would make them care about the Bill of Rights? What would make them actually stop and think about unemployment calculations? What on earth could make them interested in marginal cost/marginal benefit analysis?

In every case, the answer is different, but I have found some common themes. Students like to argue. They like to role-play. They like competitions, and they like stories and situations that revolve around their interests.

I hooked them on the Bill of Rights with case studies and debates. Give them an impossible new topic — like, what’s the appropriate response if a hate group plans a parade in your community? — and let them argue about it. Once they start arguing, they want to know what the law says, so they find out.

Unemployment is a different story. High school students care about unemployment if someone they know is unemployed, but they are not too interested in how the government measures it.

Adapting Council for Economic Education (CEE) materials, I use an activity that assigns every student a role — for example, “You are a 30-year-old art school graduate, and you sell beaded jewelry at art fairs” — and let them define and calculate unemployment for their class.

Once they are sufficiently frustrated by trying to figure out who is employed and who isn’t, they are ready for the definition.

For marginal costs and benefits? I start by asking students to list how many children they want to have and why they don’t want more. We use their answers to determine the marginal benefits and marginal costs of having kids, and a lively discussion ensues.

I’m not going to pretend that this approach works every time and that my students are always engaged and on task. But more often than not, the effort pays off. They surprise themselves by wanting to know more.

Next time you think to yourself, “These students really don’t care,” remind yourself that it’s pretty normal for a teenager not to care about most of what we’re trying to teach them. We’ve got to put ourselves in their shoes, then figure out how to make them care.