Tag Archives: Teaching

No Time for the Motivation

“We treat non-school, non-sleeping or non-eating time, unbudgeted free time, with suspicion and no little fear. For while it may offer opportunity to learn and do new things, we worry that the time we once spent reading, kicking a ball, or mindlessly coddling a puck might be used destructively, in front of TV, or ‘getting in trouble’ in endless ways. So we organize free time, scheduling it into lessons–ballet, piano, French–into organizations, teams, and clubs, fragmenting it into impossible-to-be-boring segments, creating in ourselves a mental metabolism geared to moving on, making free time distinctly free.”

–Ken Dryden, The Game


I’m reading Ken Dryden’s book about his team as the Montreal Canadiens goalie, a time in which he won six Stanley Cups (impressive). His words here got me thinking about my own students’ free time, or lack thereof. Dryden’s words are 30 years old, but the argument that our youth’s time is over-structured rings more true today.


My school is on a seven-period schedule. No study hall. No recess. Seven ideally busy 50-minute chunks of learnin’. I try to fill up that time, too, for nothing’s more mischievous than 35 pairs of idle teenage hands. But when’s the time to pursue one’s own interests? In college, I used the spare hours to read back issues of Film Comment or consume the library’s impressive collection of Woody Allen films. If we want our schools to emulate a college academic environment (and I’m not saying that’s a stated goal of anyone’s, but maybe it should be), then why not build in a little time for cultivating some passions? Why not send the message to students, through their schedules, that they should set aside time to really dive into the things which excite them? Why not let them know how important it is to have time in your day to get good at something?


Dryden goes on: “…more is needed to transform those skills into something special. Mostly it is time unencumbered, unhurried, time of a different quality, more time, time to find wrong answers to find a few that are right; time to find your own right answers.”


The same goes with students’ after-school time. I don’t want them smoking pot and getting each other pregnant, but there are plenty of students I teach whose dance, band, theatre, swim, whatever obligations leave them far too little time to themselves, to think, to explore, to wonder, to experiment–not with huffing gas–but with a soccer ball, a delay pedal, a book maybe.


Dryden laments the loss of “street soccer,” wherein players became great because of their countless hours exploring, becoming one with a soccer ball, discovering new things they could do with one. These days (the 70s, too, apparently), we coach all the fun out of the game, building a team on analytics and fundamentals. I see the same thing happening in my own school, my own class, and wonder what (if anything) I need to do about it.

What Robocop Shows Us About Education Reform

A beleaguered government institution. Corporations eager to swoop in with half-baked solutions. A public embracing a hard-nosed, brutal approach to public service. Once-great workers fighting to retain their autonomy.

I could be talking about current trends in public education, or I could be talking about 1987’s Robocop. Paul Verhoeven’s classic action movie gets a shiny new re-boot this weekend, and I hope the newer blacker suit comes with some of the satire that made the first movie just a bit deeper than the penis-shoot-em-up it appears to be at first glance. But let’s look back for a moment to appreciate all the sad sad connections we can make between the Detriotpian movie (a dystopian set in Detroit, duh) and my (sometimes) frustrating job.

1. ROBOTS ARE BETTER THAN HUMANS, ONLY WHEN THEY’RE NOT I’m surprised some enterprising smarty pants hasn’t already named his new online learning resource ED-209, after the super slick but super not-ready-for-launch stop motion badass here. The sad truth is: the ED-209’s of the education world are already out there. I love the idea of online or computer-based classes, when they’re rigorous, engaging, and fluid. I’m sure we’re approaching that reality, but until then, I have to sit by and watch perfectly capable students get a full credit for a year’s worth of English study without having to read a novel, write a paper, or have a discussion with a human being about their ideas. It’s maddening.

2. GETTING TOUGH DOESN’T SOLVE THE PROBLEM I won’t argue that Robocop handles the bad guys with satisfying brutality, but one-dimensional villains like this guy are just as fanciful as Robocop himself. We don’t get to see the poverty-stricken broken home he grows up in, nor do we see the substance abuse, lack of education, or economic oppression that leaves a man resorting to robbery. And Robocop just knocks him out and goes about his robo-day. No plan for rehabilitation. No attempt from Omnicorp to solve systemic issues–just leave it to Robocop.

In school, we handle our worst kids the same way. At the high school level, it’s pretty much too late for authentic rehabilitation for some. They’ve given up on a system that never believed in them or addressed their core issues. We can pretend that discipline and Response to Intervention paperwork is meaningful, but at the end of the day, the thug is still lying unconscious in a broken ice cooler, you know?


Robocop becomes the ultimate law enforcement machine. He doesn’t need sleep (except they totally show him recharging or whatever). He only needs some weird paste to eat. And a freaking gun comes out of his leg. What a great cop that doesn’t do obnoxious things like demand adequate conditions, threaten to strike, or die! Sure would be great if we had some teachers like that. Maybe if we had a common set of standards to work with, or some high-stakes testing to dominate our culture? Maybe if we created a host of computer-based resources that took all the human error out of their lessons?

But we’re still stuck with human beings teaching our classrooms, and those teachers (like Robocop) have personalities, souls. Give them as many prime directives as you want; they’ll still desire the things that made them passionate about the job in the first place: building relationships, making a difference, shaping a better future for our society.

Naturally, we should make every effort to improve our nation’s teachers. I’d buy that for a dollar. I want higher standards for myself and my students. What I won’t buy for a dollar is a career with all the soul sucked out of it. Because I’ll still have one, yearning to twirl its gun or whatever.


[Ugh, how shameful is the “I haven’t posted in a while, but I’m totally gonna start again” post?  I got WordPress’s year-in-review email a few weeks back, which is always slick and informative–just not so impressive when I hadn’t posted anything last year.  Seriously, nothing.  So here I am.]

I’ve been thinking about passions lately.  Not the soap opera.  Real passions, and which ones are worthwhile, which ones might be (objectively?) less worthwhile.

Our yearbook this year (which might be the best book our school’s ever had, if we actually finish it) is profiling every single senior. Naturally, theses small paragraphs usually focus on the students’ passions, which mostly fall neatly into a few categories: sports, art, music, and religion.  A few kids talked about their future career plans, too, but it all made me wonder just how ardently these passions were being pursued. If a kid says art is her life, that it defines her, what does that look like? 8 hours a week of drawing? 20 hours? Is it even fair to ask your average 17 year-old what he’s passionate about?

And what’s my role as a teacher to help students find and pursue their talents? A few of them mentioned how my journalism courses helped shape who they are, giving them a sense of belonging or a career to go after.  But what about the kids who love riding horses?  Am I doing them a disservice by ignoring that passion in the classroom?  Should my projects allow for raps, dances, hunting, Bible study, cosmetology, creating anime characters?  OR am I expected to just lay some basic reading/writing groundwork for their futures? Certainly, my students need better-than-basic literacy skills, no matter what they do in the future.  Can I be expected to provide much more?

And another thing.  And this is where I’m happy to get some feedback, because I’m mostly playing devil’s advocate, but maybe it’s also how I really feel, but…

aren’t some passions kind of stupid?

Last night, I watched Bronies, the documentary on grown men with a fervor for My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. The doc is heavy on the tolerance, just daring the viewer to disapprove of these guys who just want to socialize with like-minded people, who strive to live their lives in accordance to the virtues promoted on the show.

I had mixed feelings. I loved the creativity in the community–they create their own music, lazer shows, art. I have a hard time hating on anyone who creates anything for the sheer joy of it.

But My Little Pony is for children. Watching the movie, I couldn’t help but think that most of these guys are kidding themselves, fixing on something that they’re too old to enjoy. It’s OK to visit Disney World at 40; it’s made for that. It’s OK for a grown man to buy himself a Lego set (guilty).  It’s quite another thing to embrace a Peter Pan-ish lifestyle of clinging on to a kids show–not just to enjoy it in the margins of an otherwise adult life–but to take it on as your greatest passion.  I never once thought these Bronies seemed overly-feminine or homosexual (the accusation they seem to hear most), but I did want to scream “Grow up, already!”

The movie certainly makes a strong case for these guys being completely nice well-adjusted human beings.  They bring on some social scientists to defend them and–more convincing–highlight a group of active military Bronies. But that makes me even more worried.  Showing me that our nation’s military or even our well-educated 20-somethings are in this state of arrested development, where they’ve decided it’s totally fine to obsess over a children’s show instead of deal with some real adult challenges: that’s not just weird; it’s scary.

So back to my students (a few of whom love My Little Pony, which I completely accept, as they’re young and, therefore, excused).  Are some of their passions ultimately a bad idea, not worth pursuing?  At what point should we as a society expect people to “grow up”?

Does growing up mean abandoning your passions? I don’t think so, but there’s a sad ounce of truth to that, isn’t there? Growing up, I very much wanted to be a cartoonist. At some point, I gave that up, and now I teach English and blog once a year.  Was that a naturally diminishing interest, a sad abandonment of my dreams, or a mature transition into adulthood?  What’s the difference, and how do I help my students along that tricky path?