One of the lessons I’ve learned in my work as a teacher is that learning is not a passive phenomenon, something that can be done to students — it requires the active participation of the learner. We often refer to this personal investment of time and energy as engagement. It’s like the gears of a car — when they are engaged we have movement, when they are disengaged we have idling. When students are engaged as learners we see growth, when they are disengaged we see stagnation, or even worse, regression.
A problem I run across more often than I would like is that of students who are disengaged from the learning process. For whatever reason, these students are just not connecting with whatever is going on in the classroom. It could be the curriculum, it could be the methods being used, or it could be a variety of external factors that have nothing to do with the classroom. Either way, it is sad to see these students just idling their time away, going through the motions (or not) just to get through the day.
When good teachers see this happening, they take the time to find out what is going on. They do their best to connect with the disengaged student and see if they can find some common ground to start from. And often this is enough to spark the interest that engagement requires and get things moving forward.
But unfortunately, it doesn’t work all the time. In more extreme cases, teachers have to think outside the box to find ways to help students engage. This might include things like modifying their schedule, exempting them from certain requirements, giving credit for work done outside of school, or allowing students to attend fewer periods on campus and get credit for volunteering or working in the community. One of my students who has a devastating history of school disengagement and disruption has recently gotten excited about getting his food handlers permit, working towards his driver’s license, and getting school credit for volunteering at a local restaurant. Unconventional, yes, but it has produced a spark that, with a little nurturing, will hopefully develop into a roaring fire.
In the process of doing whatever it takes to create that all-important engagement, however, it can be very difficult to simultaneously satisfy all the state requirements for a traditional high school diploma. Sometimes it comes down to having to choose between engagement and graduation, and that is a terrible choice to have to make. Sure, it would be nice to have the diploma, but engagement can literally mean the difference between life and death. In these cases, it has to trump the diploma every time. It’s like a person racing across the desert to win a glass of water. If they collapse mid-way through the race, they can’t respond to our nagging or bribing them to keep running. What they need is water — now!
Wouldn’t it be great if local districts led the way in creating an alternative diploma option that allowed creative approaches to finding the engagement these students need without sacrificing the right-of-passage that is high school graduation? This would be an inspiring example of putting people before policy and demonstrating the flexibility needed to truly meet the needs of all students. In this era of increasingly rigid standards and high stakes graduation criteria, I would be proud to be part of a district with that kind of courage!
Jim Strickland is a teacher at Marysville Pilchuck High School. He lives in Marysville.