The 'Senioritis' v. Beginner's Mind

It's here. At high schools across the country, students are experiencing the dramatic checking out we associate with the final months of high school.

Recently I spoke directly to seniors about this, asking: Why? Why do so many seniors believe self-imposed senioritis to be part of the pre-graduation rite of passage?

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In the written responses, many said they assumed there was nothing more of value to be learned. Everything they had to know or do to get to college had been completed. Though not everyone expressed this viewpoint (some students expressed excitement about the remaining semester), the dominant opinion was that the reason for going to high school -- getting to the next level -- had been accomplished. Their grade point averages and AP scores didn't mean much anymore, so why try?

We hardly needed more confirmation of the way American education is treated as an instrumental good (and, to be fair, I probably had a similar mindset when I was a senior). But it raises the question nevertheless: How do we get students to think of education not simply as a means for advancement, but also as a means for wisdom and insight independent of a credential or a career?

One of my colleagues has this apropos line: If the fish aren't biting, you can't blame the fish, you have to change the bait. 

In education today, what is the better bait? We can't blame students. Rather, as teachers, we must become innovators; we must see persistent senioritis as the call to be more creative in how and what we teach. 

These past few weeks, not wanting to ignore senioritis, I've begun to talk about the concept of "the beginner's mind," inviting students to be open to being suprised, to refuse the standard assumptions that accompany this part of high school. What possibilities, I ask them, might be open to you if you remain curious and hopeful, refusing to commit to pre-conceived notions? 

Some of my students are intrigued. There seems to be a glimmer of hope. I'll report back in a few weeks and let you know how things are going.

For now, though, what do readers think? For educators, what strategies do you recommend?

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Mike St. T
3 years 3 months ago
I teach literature to seniors and struggle to combat senioritis and general apathy, especially among the middle-of-the-road students, who don't envision going off to college to study the liberal arts. How to combat it? Well, I think the fish analogy is a good one but has its limits, of course. We're actually trying to improve the lives of our "fish," not just catch them, so the "bait" we use should be attractive but also needs to make them healthier. One thing I do is begin the second semester with Plato's "Allegory of the Cave." I focus on what he concludes about the nature of education--that humans are built for what is real, and if a teacher can direct a student's gaze toward it, the student will come to desire it and know it on his/her own. If all goes well a few of them will be perplexed--hasn't high school been all about learning stuff and memorizing things? For them school has been in many ways like the cave, and the worst thing I could do is allow them to slouch into college without realizing that it's really not meant to be. Presentation matters here--if I don't do a good job of making Plato relevant to what's going on in their lives then they'll tune me out completely. I think it's important to remember that as teachers, our success lies in being able to awaken something already in our students. Ultimately, it's up to them. I've been trying to work out some thoughts on these kinds of challenges over at thecatholiclitclassroom.blogspot.com.
Matt Emerson
3 years 3 months ago

Mike,

Thanks for your response and for proposing Plato. Can you share some insights from your own experience? How do students respond? What comments or responses do you generally receive?

Thanks also for sharing your blog. Have a great semester!

Mike St. T
3 years 2 months ago
Matt- This is my second year teaching seniors, so more to report when I return to Plato in a few weeks, but last year my students responded fairly well. The allegory of the cave itself isn't that difficult to grasp, and they were intrigued by my suggestion that parts of high school aren't that different than the cave: the grades, assignments, etc. I was trying to milk their antithetical attitudes a bit, and it worked in that some of them seemed genuinely interested in the idea that there might be more to education than just tests and memorization. I can't say that it cured them of their senioritis, though--I don't know if any one teacher is capable of that. But it's a good time to plant "big picture" ideas; hopefully those seeds will sprout at some point in the future. From Plato's idea of freedom in the allegory (finding that which we were made for) we transitioned into Dante's Inferno. The Anthony Esolen translation is great, and we actually read the entire thing, divided about equally between in-class and independent reading. My students loved it. I teach at an all-boys' school, so they ate up all of the gory and grotesque descriptions. We didn't get too caught up in the Guelphs and the Ghibellines and oriented most of our discussion around the theology of sin, why Dante decided to place this circle of hell lower than that one, etc. Some kids responded well to those discussions, but all were at least able to latch on to the basic story. The cantos are short and self-contained, which helps the students feel less daunted by the prospect of reading the entire thing. Really enjoying the blog. We high school humanities teachers need more of this kind of stuff!
Matt Emerson
3 years 2 months ago

Thanks, Mike. I appreciate the overview.  

And thanks for the kind words about the blog as well.  

J Cosgrove
3 years 3 months ago
Why not give them something is the last semester that they won't get in college. I think Plato which is mentioned below is a good idea but there may be many other things that the typical college student won't be exposed to because they will be then be focused on their major and their next step after college which is graduate school or a job. For example, keeping to the Greek philosophy theme, provide a course in Aristotelean logic and the fallacies that lead to incorrect thinking with real world examples. Or provide them a survey course in the Western Canon. The Teaching Company or The Great Courses has video courses on each which could be used as the basis of class discussion. I never got either of these in my Jesuit education in college but wished I had been introduced to them much earlier in my life. There are many other options, something advanced but which they are not likely to be exposed to in most college majors even for the brighter students.
Matt Emerson
3 years 3 months ago

J Cosgrove -- thanks for responding. Would you assign the text of Aristotle or a secondary work/commentary? 

J Cosgrove
3 years 2 months ago
I personally would not touch Aristotle in the original or any translation. I would leave that to better minds than myself to actually read him. However, there are probably popular sources that make him more accessible. One of my favorite sources to learn is the Teaching Company or as the call themselves today, The Great Courses. I viewed a course recently that I thought was excellent and bet your students would love it too. It is
The Philosopher's Toolkit: How to Be the Most Rational Person in Any Room
http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/the-philosopher-s-toolkit-how-to-be-the-most-rational-person-in-any-room.html Here is another course:
Argumentation: The Study of Effective Reasoning, 2nd Edition
http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/argumentation-the-study-of-effective-reasoning-2nd-edition.html Of course there is a lot more to Aristotle and there is a course by Joseph Koterski, SJ on the Ethics of Aristotle http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/ethics-of-aristotle.html These are probably all things that they haven't had in high school and won't see in college. There is also a great course on Plato and Socrates by Michael Sugrue who I consider one of the best teachers ever on the Teaching Company http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/plato-socrates-and-the-dialogues.html Just some thoughts to get your complacent seniors interested in something that will stretch their minds. Some of the links above were incorrect and have been corrected. Also never buy these courses at full price as they go on sale every few weeks at 70% of list price.

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