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Teaching in a world that lacks thought

Built upon the foundation of thought and imagination, there is often no right or wrong answer in an English class. I think that’s why I like teaching English so much. I enjoy the freedom of the imagination found in reading and writing. Students, however, don’t often say English is their favorite subject. I don’t take that personally. I know the reason.

On the flipside, other disciplines, like math and science, rely upon the concrete. Founded upon facts and evidence, they offer today’s generation a reliability that is comfortable. Kids search for and find correct answers, and that is safe for them.

It’s the expression of thought that challenges most students.

I see it in my English classes every day. Students become uncomfortable in the land of thought. Some even shut down and quit when a question prompts thinking or a teacher reveals that there is no right or wrong answer. A mentality of “give me the right answer and I’ll give it back to you” drives our young people today. A “what do you want me to say or write down or think?” mindset disallows our kids to think independently. And for any teacher who challenges students to think, these daily predicaments highlight a growing issue facing us.

Sometimes the discomfort in independent thought rears its head in humorous ways.

At Hardaway High School, notorious but recently retired Mrs. Hale focused her career on challenging her English students to create, to think, and to express themselves. One rule in her essay assignments was an automatic grade of 60 if she discovered the use of you in her students’ essays. The intent was to foster proper, academic writing in a slang-speaking generation. A reluctant writer and uncomfortable thinker asked for clarity one day, “You’re saying if we write even just one you, we automatically receive a 60?” Mrs. Hale confirmed. On the due date, the young man submitted his essay with only a single word on his paper: you. His intent was to cater to his reluctance and discomfort. He tried to avoid the zero he would surely earn by not writing the essay by playing upon the very rule Mrs. Hale had established to foster growth. A funny toying with her words, but a resounding comment on the young man’s quiet lack of thought.

Sometimes the discomfort looks more serious.

Michael was one of my students back in the day of the Graduation Writing Test, a required writing exam necessary for a Georgia high school diploma. A student could take the test three times, and Michael was on his third. So, the school gave him to me and asked me to work a miracle.

I spent a lot of time with Michael and blank pieces of paper. He knew the importance of his performance, but the empty pages would linger. To the dismay of my ears, Michael often proclaimed how much he not only hated to write, but how much he struggled to come up with what to write. His creative mind had atrophied into dysfunction.

It took some effort on both parts, but he squeaked by with the minimum score and received his diploma.

That’s not the point, though.

The point is that Michael and Mrs. Hale’s student are the visual representations of the struggle kids today have with activating their imaginations to points of creation and invention. Teachers of all disciplines see the struggle firsthand, and we shudder at the rapid dilapidation of our students’ imaginations.

Eighteen years ago, when I first started teaching, my students struggled with where to put a comma in the words they already had on the paper. Getting ideas down on paper wasn’t the struggle. Punctuation was. Now, my students stare at blank sheets of notebook paper in perplexity, with their head in their hands. I kneel beside them to help, but the request sounds like this, “I don’t know what to write.”

Thinking for a child is an impossibility in the world of academics. In society, the feat is accomplished easily. Social media, commercials, music, cell phones, Google, the list is endless. But in the desks of the local public school, the funnels of predetermined, pre-thought influences don’t exist, or shouldn’t exist. The child is left to his or her own devices, and I don’t mean the iPhone 7. Truly effective, quality teachers expose the vulnerability of their students and require them to think. But the kickback is often profound, and the pages are often left blank.

Therein lies the struggle. And so, teachers take each blank piece of paper and each blank stare and go from there. We try to prompt our students to have an opinion and equip them with the skills necessary to voice that opinion. We offer them tidbits to ponder and risks to take. And we hope they leave our rooms a little further in the progression towards becoming independent thinkers. And some do.

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