Hot Dogs and Apathy–A Case Study

Since my students only just finished their second day of school yesterday, I’m going to use my first post of the season (Welcome back, Moving Writer Buddies!) to introduce you to a couple students in my class who I’ll be focusing a lot of attention on this school year.  I already know them from their freshman and sophomore years because I worked closely with both of them through our MTSS program, which provides academic support for students who aren’t keeping up with their peers.  

Our success rate with exiting students from tiered MTSS support has been very high–students who utilize our support freshman year are typically succeeding completely independent of us by their junior year.  We typically have 20-30 freshmen we support in English and content area classes but rarely more than 3-4 juniors who are still working with us on a regular basis two years later.  

So my current friends in English 11 represent a significant segment of a particular population:  Students who have still not found success in school despite consistent, targeted, skill-based support.  

This year at Moving Writers, I’ll be dedicating some of my posts to exploring the ways I try to help them grow as writers despite their resistance to progress.  I’m going to refer to them as Troy and Abed after my favorite TV sitcom buddies from Community.  It’s not a completely random choice–like the characters on the show, there are many many things that I really like about these two students.  They’re funny and sociable and friendly. They just have absolutely no interest in succeeding at school or at writing. I don’t say this lightly.  One of the things we work on in MTSS support is helping students to see the value in school and in being successful.

These two have not been responsive.

So let’s look at their first day in my English 11 class.  We started with a pop culture interest survey and an introduction of my pop culture interests (a great way to make connections with students AND a fundamental element of one of the course’s major themes).  Troy and Abed mostly stared at their phones in their laps. When we got up and moving to do a restorative circle activity so everyone could get to know each other, they attempted to lurk outside the circle and Abed declined to participate in the activity at all until I gently singled him out.

troy-and-abed-in-the-morning.png
Troy and Abed screen grab from Community (NBC)

“I thought this was a writing blog,” I can hear you muttering into your fourth cup of coffee (I KNOW you aren’t back on the school schedule yet either).  And you’re right–I just wanted to give you a snapshot of the general demeanor of these students towards school. In a class of 32 students on a day when everyone was highly engaged in very lighthearted and student-centered activities, Troy and Abed were the only students who took a hard pass on pretty much the whole class.

On Day 2, we busted out the notebooks (“Finally,” I can hear you begrudgingly grant me as you smack the brew button on the coffee machine yet again) and got down to writing.  

And this is where I want to really set the scene for you about the challenge I’m facing with Troy and Abed this year specifically as writers.  Our first notebook topic is borrowed from the wonderful book The Writer’s Practice by John Warner.  I’m sure many of you are familiar.  Maybe you’ve even had your kids write on this topic as well:  Is a hot dog a sandwich?  (It is not, but let’s not get distracted by your insane beliefs.)  

My class erupted with a wonderful, frantic energy.  I didn’t try to maintain silence as they wrote–writing is as likely to be noisy when kids are being productive as it is to be silent.  Instead, I asked them to lean into their conversations while also capturing the essence of their disagreements in the notebook itself. After about ten minutes, I asked them to add an element of research after prompting them with some quick questions about what might help bolster their particular positions on the topic.  

By this point, for almost everyone in the classroom, my presence was entirely unnecessary.  They were already researching what the internet had to say about this topic before I suggested it.  They were already shouting (penciling?) each other down verbally and in their notebooks in a rising crescendo of excitement as the topic’s inherent silliness energized them.  Teens love this stuff.  

Except Troy and Abed.  Troy had stopped at “It’s a sandwich because that means any ingredient between two other ingredients.”  “I’m done” he mouthed at me across the room when I asked why he wasn’t writing more. When I went over to engage them with a bit more informal conversation about the topic, Troy and Abed turned out to have pretty much that same thought in both of their notebooks and nothing else.  I tried playfully offering some new angles and extensions (“Does that make a jelly donut a sandwich?”) but they shrugged each one off and oriented themselves away from me as much as they could in their flexible seating chairs in the hopes that I’d just go away.   

When I made the research announcement, they simply looked up the definition of sandwich and contented themselves with the fact that their whole “stuff between bread” position was more than enough and meant this particular writing assignment’s minimal criteria had been met–perhaps even exceeded–by their two sentences each.

I’m still considering my options about how to proceed.  My purpose in this post is to hopefully get you thinking about your own Troys and Abeds.  As I explore different efforts to engage them this semester (next notebook entry is tomorrow!  First revision of a notebook idea is only a week away!) I want to look not only at solutions but at root causes of their disinterest.  Most students who receive MTSS support (or any form of sustained, caring attention from the education system) tend to close the learning gap at least a little bit and generally respond quite measurably in terms of how positively they view school and, yes, writing and reading specifically.  This year I want to try and figure out what’s going on with young writers who remain unresponsive. Stay tuned and wish me luck.  

–Mike

Got any great strategies for moving your most-reluctant writers?  Want to try and convince me a hot dog actually IS a sandwich (seriously, don’t).  Find us on Facebook or reach out to me directly on Twitter:  @ZigThinks !

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