Relevance: an Apathy Antidote
“Just give me a topic. I’ll write about anything. I don’t care.”
Ah! There it is. The dreaded “I don’t care” that makes every teacher want to throw up her hands in despair.
My students are in the throes of their final writing piece for the year–an op-ed. I love the assignment because it pulls together many of the elements we’ve worked on all year, and it asks the students to write a research-based argument with a genuine, natural voice. It provides choice—one of the keys to increasing student engagement.
But what about when choice isn’t enough? What happens when you lead the horse to water and the darn horse refuses to drink?
It’s easy to shrug the apathetic ones off and say they just don’t care, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s certainly an issue that’s been around for a while. A 1988 study published by the National Education Association contended that “student apathy is as common as chalk dust” in American classrooms. That same study also said that while “most educators take pride in their contributions to the winners, few acknowledge responsibility for the losers.”
Yikes. That’s rough.
So what do you do with the “I don’t care” students? As much as I’m tempted to say, “I can’t care more than they do,” I don’t think that’s true. My job doesn’t stop once I’ve led the horses to the water, regardless of how awesome the water is. I have to acknowledge my responsibility for all of my students. And when they aren’t engaged with their writing, I need to continue to seek out ways to help them.
Relevant vs. Interesting
I decided to attack student apathy head-on with this current op-ed assignment, and my first step was throwing out my lists of topics. As a former debate teacher, I have lists of hundreds of “hot topics” that are sure to interest your average teenager. Those lists work for many kids, but they aren’t enough for some.
In their new book, Reading Nonfiction, Kylene Beers and Bob Probst hit on the reason why some of these very “interesting” topics just aren’t enough to catch and hold attention. They explain that “something that is relevant is inherently interesting, but something that is interesting isn’t always relevant. In short, getting kids’ attention is about creating interest; keeping their attention is about relevance.”
Helping my students find that relevance started with brainstorming. I modeled this by using overlapping circles: writer at the center, then our school, then the nation, and finally the world. In each circle, we tried to fill in both serious and non-serious topics.
In my inner circle were concerns and issues that are close to home–my son’s sports choices, the cost of Diet Coke in the teacher’s lounge. As the circles got bigger, my issues got “bigger”–weightier–but I continually reminded my students that even with the weightier issues, I had a personal reason to be invested in the topic. I’m interested in education policy because I’m a teacher. I’m interested in the preservation of the national park system because my family loves to camp and hike.
For many, that day of brainstorming was enough, and they were off and running. But each class still had a few holdouts. So far, I’m discovering that those holdouts simply take time and talk during one-on-one conferences. I wish I had a cool activity or graphic organizer that magically transformed them into focused, motivated writers, but I haven’t found it yet (please let me know if that exists, btw).
For some students, this has been a matter of seizing on one small thing. One young lady groaned and asked, “Can I write about how my stepmom shouldn’t be able to tell me what to do?” She wasn’t seriously considering that as a topic, but what a great one it is! How should parents deal with teenagers in blended families? The more we talked, the more she started to see the possibilities. Yet she needed me to validate that her experiences are important things to write about. Today, she came back and said, “I can’t do that topic. I don’t want it to seem like I hate my stepmom.” So we talked some more about what it means to have a nuanced position, and how her genuine care for her stepmom lends itself nicely to a counterargument.
I’m not sure where that op-ed will end up, but I know that she is invested–at least a little–in a topic that is relevant to her today. Tomorrow, when she doubts it again, I’ll be back with more questions, more talk, and more time. Apathy is as “as common as chalk dust,” but seeking out ways to help students connect to their writing is a good first step to moving past it.
Hattie Maguire is an English teacher and Content Area Leader at Novi High School. She is spending her fifteenth year in the classroom teaching AP English Language and Composition and English 10. She is a National Board Certified Teacher who earned her BS in English and MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University.