Parents, Please Pay Your Kids (Week 2 of Senior Year)

My students have now been high school seniors for a whopping two weeks. The stress of the first days has eased--I know all their names now, I know who the (usual) troublemakers are, and I am getting into the rhythm of the school year, right along with my somewhat less willing students. Unfortunately, we are in fundamentally different corners: I am trying to teach them as much as I possibly can before sending them out into the world, and they are trying to learn as little as possible to get by.

This needs to change, and I am starting with their vocabularies. Parents, we teachers could really use your help with this.

I push vocabulary because I see how damaging a lack of it can be. It can stonewall a student's efforts to make a higher ACT score, keep another from passing an AP exam or responding well to an interview question, or scare one away from a challenging reading. If enough of the words on any given page seem foreign, the student will give up--whether it be on reading a news article, doing a homework assignment, or simply participating in a thoughtful discussion. It's overwhelming to not know your own language.

That's why I got started on vocabulary right away. On the first day of school, I taught my seniors these two words:

Internalize
Cumulative

I taught internalize first because I wanted to explain to students that they need to internalize their vocabulary words--that vocabulary shouldn't be a "memorize and regurgitate" exercise because knowing more words will benefit them long after they graduate. I taught them cumulative next so that I could explain that in order to facilitate (I need to teach them that word) internalization, I make all their vocabulary quizzes cumulative. Once they understood the word, they were horrified.

This got me thinking: we are dealing with a problem much larger than a vocabulary quiz.

Why do students expect anything they learn to be memorize and regurgitate-able knowledge? Why do they not expect everything to be cumulative? Isn't that the point of education--to build up within our students a strong basis of knowledge from which they can reach their goals? Otherwise aren't we all just hamsters on a highly inefficient wheel?

To prove my point that this not what real learning should look like, I gave my students a challenge: take ownership of your vocabulary words beyond simply staring at your notes right before the quiz. Actually internalize those words and integrate them into your lexicon (I didn't phrase it quite like that because I still need to teach them integrate and lexicon). Use new words with your friends. Try them on your teachers. Say them during class and in the hallways, at practice and at work. See who else knows them and whom you can teach. Use what I am teaching you.

This challenge is even harder than it looks. Encouraging students to take instruction beyond the classroom is sort of like asking kids to eat vegetables for dessert. My seniors have spent twelve years training themselves to view education as a hurdle to clear, a cruel and sometimes seemingly pointless challenge that is blocking them from their true desires. When we allow them to succeed in our classes with this mentality, we do nothing to challenge that belief. Like learning a new word, it takes many, many interactions with a new idea to accept that idea and begin to believe it. It might even take failing a vocabulary quiz because the answers aren't all fill-in-the-blank. I expect it to take all of senior year to try to convince my students that learning has a purpose, that it is empowering, and that they can participate in their own learning with enthusiasm rather than passivity. Some of them won't learn that lesson at all, but I hope by the end of the year most will. To teach this lesson I have to be hard on them; I have to make sure I test them in ways that measure their holistic understanding, not their rote memorization. However, I don't just want to force them to learn actively. I want them to want to learn actively, and for that, they need encouragement. For that I need bribery.

When I told my seniors to take their vocabulary instruction beyond the classroom, it had to be a positive exercise, not a threatening one. I told them if I hear them using a vocabulary word in the hallway I will give them a high-five--but for some of them, that's more social punishment that reward. I told them that if I hear them use a vocabulary word in class I will stop class and congratulate them--again, not the coolest reward ever offered, but a start. I thought harder. I told them to bring their families into the bargain. I asked them to practice new vocabulary words on their parents. "Try asking if they'll give you a dollar every time you use a word that they don't know!" Guffaws ensued.

I doubt any took that message home, so parents, I'm asking you: please, will you pay your children to learn? I need your help to convince your children that education is not all punishment. You don't have to pay them in physical money. You can pay them in high-fives, in big smiles, in ice cream trips, in compliments, in encouragement, in fewer chores, in more questions about what they know. You can give them a dollar or promise a dollar towards their college savings or just tell them how impressive they are.

Don't ever let them tell you they aren't learning anything at school. They are; they just don't want to think about it outside of school. We want them to think about it! We want them to keep learning after they walk out of our classrooms and far beyond graduation. We know that's what will enable them to reach their goals, but they don't know it yet themselves, so they need us to convince them--even if it means paying them at first.

It was almost two weeks into the school year before a student finally announced to one of my classes that he had voluntarily used one of our vocabulary words outside of school. I had waited for that moment with such excitement, wondering if any of them would ever take my challenge.. I knew that if I didn't make his effort look worthwhile, none of his peers would bother to follow his lead. As a cash-strapped teacher handing out money is out of the question, but I quickly gave out my three no-brainers: a high-five, an "Awesome! I am so proud of you!", and my biggest I-really-am-so-proud-of-you smile. Then I asked the class if he deserved a prize for his effort, to which they responded with a mixture of "Yes!"' and "Wait, what prize?!" When I reached behind my desk and pulled out the long strip of giant bubble wrap I'd hidden days before, I heard audible gasps. My student grinned from ear to ear when I handed it over and he proceeded to pop each and every bubble with painstaking slowness over the next several minutes, while his classmates writhed in jealousy.

And now I wait, and hope another student walks in my door tomorrow and boasts about what new knowledge he or she used in real life. I will always have a reward handy, at least until they recognize what their real reward is.

Want to follow us through senior year together? Start with Week 1