Guest post: Why Are My Students Shutting Down?

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In today’s blog, Hope Gover shares students’ ideas on how teachers can motivate and inspire learning through authentic relationships. 

Hope Grover has taught in both traditional and charter public schools in Minnesota.  She has a masters of arts in education from Hamline and completed an educational leadership program at Minnesota State University-Mankato.  She attended high school at Minnesota New Country School, an Edvisions partner school and has written and presented on topics related to personalized learning.  She specializes in music education.

Why Are My Students Shutting Down?

Being an advisor can be the most exciting, frustrating, influential, and mind-boggling job an educator may choose to pursue.  Think of those glorious Mondays and Tuesdays when students were researching brilliantly, collaborating like mad, and blowing your mind with their sheer creativity and ingenuity.  It seemed as if the edges of the universe could not expand fast enough for where these students are headed!  And then, Wednesday came and it is as if the previous days had been a complete figment of your overactive imagination.  Those same UNBELIEVABLY AMAZING students were replaced by moody teenagers who only wanted to watch YouTube videos, send text messages, and respond in single words or grunts.  What the heck happened?

It is logical to run down a list of possible reasons for this sudden change: A. woke up in an alternate universe, B. made a very bad fashion choice, C. the students were replaced with drones, or D. the students have a personal issue that they need to work through before being productive.  Since most schools do not have meetings set up with Stephen Hawking or Lucas Enterprises, we can count out A and C.  Assuming that D is the correct answer, students are fortunate to attend an EdVisions school-where their advisors know them well and are willing to sit down and talk to them nearly any time of the day.

EdVisions schools have a benefit over a traditional school due to their small size and focus on a student-centered authentic learning community.  This allows students and staff members to feel safe and valued within their school.  This becomes extremely important when advisors are working with students who are struggling through a rough “Wednesday” or for new students arriving from a setting where they have previously been unsuccessful, unvalued, or unsupported.  Students in a strong advisory system have a strong sense of comradery within their advisory group with their peers as well as their advisors which allow them to both feel safe and take risks.  This safety is a key facet to the communication between advisors and advisees that is crucial to maintaining the careful balance of productivity.

In working with and researching project-based learning, there are generally four different reasons that can affect productivity enough to cause students to shut down.  The first occurs when an advisor breaks one of the “hidden curriculum” rules.  The second reason occurs when a student reaches the most difficult part of the project process [for them].  The third reason occurs when the student has something in their personal life that is so important or distracting that it encroaches on their schooling.  Finally, the fourth reason is simply because they are a teenager and their hormones are all over the place-they don’t know what they want to do.  For the sake of this blog, let’s discuss the first reason.

For as long as schools have been in existence, there has been a “hidden curriculum” for students and staff.  It turns out, that EdVisions schools also has one; except now the advisor’s “hidden curriculum” is public.  The following list is the result of October 2017 interviews with a group of veteran EdVisions project-based learning students.  These students were interviewed to get their take on what an advisor needs to do to ensure that they are meeting the needs of students and not accidently stepping on a minefield that may cause them to shut down.  The following were the top ten responses from that visit:

  1. Treat students with respect.  (Treat us like we are equals rather than just students.)
  2. Have patience.  (Some days we are inspired and some days we aren’t.  This process takes time.)
  3. Communicate with students, staff, and parents.  (This is the most important thing that will keep everything flowing well.)
  4. Push, but don’t be pushy.  (Let us do what we want to do, not what you want us to do.)
  5. Trust us and let us make decisions.  (Especially about things like what to do in advisory group, where we put our desks, etc.)
  6. Be inspired by creativity.  (We are awesome, let us be so!)
  7. Push students out of their comfort zones.  (Know when to make us do something we don’t think we can do and then make us do it.)
  8. Let students dive in.  (This means that sometimes we will fail, but we will learn from this and that is good.)
  9. Don’t tell a student no.  (This just shuts us down.  Find an alternative pathway to reaching the outcome.  We should be “no tolerance” not “zero tolerance” schools.)
  10. Always follow-through. (Remember that you are a role model for us and we need you to follow-through on things so we learn to do so as well.)

Thus, when meeting with a student on a said “Wednesday,” first check and think through this list.  Perhaps, make a list of the “hidden curriculum” for your own school if this list does not accurately apply.  It is important to remember that in the grand scheme of the universe, we can only control what we, ourselves, do.  Therefore, if we ensure that we are accomplishing our piece of the puzzle correctly, we have eliminated one adversary and ensured one support structure for our students.

In closing, remember that regardless of where you are teaching, we all have had (and will continue to have) days that feel like we have entered the Twilight Zone.  Our students are amazing, but they are teenagers.  It is important to remember that the best way to help our students is to respect them, value them, and talk to them.  Be awesome!