It’s the advanced class that arrives third period, 32 of them loaded with smarts and spirit! I have my orders: Students should complete their essays on Machu Pichu. I have spent the prep period preceding this group to go over the assignment, the assigned texts, the writing prompt demanding a persuasive piece detailing the reasons why Machu Pichu is a worthwhile travel destination and using the texts to support the three reasons: architecture, culture, and nature.

I know these kids a bit, having substituted before. Seventh grade is a slippery age; they are not to be fooled. As I present what their teacher has left, the groans begin, and frankly, I get it. This is, for the most part, a cut-and-paste project. The students have completed multiple choice questions the day before in a sequence that provides them with all the pieces of the essay. Now they must type their multiple-choice selections into essay form. It begins with an introduction that concludes with a thesis and proceeds from there. In the end, all the essays will read pretty much the same.

Riley raises her hand. “What I don’t get is why we’re doing this. It is exactly the stuff the other classes are doing, but we’re supposed to be advanced. It’s just”—and here she characterizes correctly—”cut-and-paste. We’ve already found the parts and put them in order. It isn’t even our words we’re using.” I begin to explain that they can own the writing, revise to make the lede and close their own. This does not seem to quell the grumblings.

Another voice repeats, “Why are we doing this?” So I do what I usually do, ask them, “Why is your teacher having you do this?” They throw out torture, busywork, the standard responses, and after it gets repetitive, I interrupt.

“If I were your teacher, I would have you do this, so you’d have a template for writing your own persuasion and understand one logical way the parts could fit—not the only way, mind you, because truthfully professional writers undertake this same assignment for legitimate travel magazines and newspapers. They actually convince people to travel to Machu Pichu—for real—and they get paid to do it!” I’ve got their attention, so I finish, “What they do is own it, make it their own. Shakespeare said, ‘There’s nothing new under the sun,’ and that was three centuries ago!”

They get to work. I have no idea what sunk in, but they are good kids, and I’ve told them the truth. Riley raises her hand again, and her friend hisses, “Don’t, Riley.”

I go to her, and she’s sort-of working, sort-of chatting, and I say, “How may I help you?”

“I hear you,” she says, “but I don’t believe it,” and she begins typing, the right-answer packet open in her lap.

Yesterday A.J. Juliani, a guru of Genius Hour and project-based learning, featured an excellent blog post about engagement, targeting primarily teachers but creating an epiphany for me regarding students. He open with a graphic showing the way classrooms are managed and writes, “What I found fascinating about his [recently deceased educator Phil Schlechty] levels of engagement is that I could see myself in the classroom working towards compliance instead of engagement.”

I have no answers here; the truth is compliance has been a goal of mine as well. But I will admit, from my perspective as a substitute, I immediately thought of Riley and of her peer’s admonition, “Don’t…. ” Why shouldn’t students question the efficacy of the way their time is being spent? And why shouldn’t we honestly foreground work with our rationale? Thoughts to carry me through Spring Break.

7 thoughts on ““Don’t…””

  1. Some big thoughts here. I teach in a program for the gifted. Most of my students have parents who were born elsewhere. The message from home is work hard and do your best – compliance. I have found, like you did, that explaining the reasons behind why we are doing something usually helps. Alas, sometimes, I am guilty of adding an extra layer to something because I know I am having a substitute and I want to be present for the next step. That’s about control.

    1. Oh my gosh, I have had so many substitutes in my class over the years and have done exactly that! It’s about being conscientious—and yes, there’s control, too—but you never know who is going to step into your shoes, and you feel responsible. (At least that’s what I tell myself.) I’m just thinking a lot about motivation and engagement right now! Thanks for reading and responding.

  2. 7th grade is a slippery age…they are not to be fooled… I love this. I see so many people try to push a hidden agenda with middle schoolers. Thanks for your honesty in this post and with kids.

  3. Having left numerous plans for substitutes I know that sometimes I just left busywork. I didn’t want the sub to start something that I would need to redo the next day. Also, and there were only one or two, there were some subs who were there to just get a pay check and put no effort into the plans. While I am ranting, I even had one sub who totally disregarded my plans and taught what he wanted.

    1. I am NOT criticizing the classroom teacher—I have been one! I am thinking about compliance and engagement. (No judgment, just questions, to myself more than anyone else).

  4. Engagement seems to be the buzz word in my school. Everyone is talking about it. I wonder, just like you, how many times do we mistake compliance for engagement? I could also ask, which one do you really want? I will be thinking about these questions in the weeks to come.

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