(How can I keep from boring my students?)

A surprising discovery I made in reading many books on classroom discipline is that very few even mention, much less stress, the importance of an interesting curriculum as a key component of a cooperative and interested student body.  Teachers cannot regularly expect students to pay attention and behave if their lessons are perceived as boring.

As Herbert Kohl states in On Teaching: “The more the students enjoy and value what they are doing, the more they will fight to see that it is not destroyed.  In a boring situation, so-called discipline problems are inevitable since the struggle for power and control is then more interesting than the content of what is supposed to be learned.” (p. 83)

Kohl points out how important it is for teachers to listen carefully to their students.  He says,

“Often students ask for resources and express the desire to learn things that are not in the curriculum or that their teacher is not competent to deal with.  Requests for knowledge and skills should not be denied, no matter how much they might put you out.  If someone wants to learn about airplanes, sharks, volcanoes, sex, embryos,  police, weapons, self-defense, TV, then chase up some information or resources or learn with the students.  I have found that following up on one students’ request to learn something of special interest to him or her opens up the rest of the students; it tells them you will listen to them and take their interests seriously, too.  Then you as a teacher can become a personal resource to your students, someone who will find a way to help them learn what they care to know, not as a favor because they are good or obedient, but because it is your job.”  (p.80)

This is possible even if you have an assigned textbook for the subject you are teaching. Each state has Core Curriculum Content Standards which are supposed to guide instruction in each subject area.  Many of them are general and you can cite them in your lesson planning to justify what you are teaching.  For example, one of New Jersey’s Standards for 6th-grade states:

“Determine the impact of European colonization on Native American populations, including the Lenni Lenape of New Jersey.”

You don’t have to study only what happened in the past, but can show how injustices continue into the present by providing writings by Native Americans in your community/state for students to read and discuss, inviting a Native leader to speak to your class, playing samples of traditional and current modern music.  If there is a cause they are working for to improve their lives, you can talk it over with your students to see if there is a way to show collective support.

In On Teaching, Kohl shows how he has developed interesting curriculum themes in his classes and how he has gone about collecting resources and ideas for implementing them.  His approach can help any teachers who, having found themselves with boring and irrelevant curriculum, want to try something different and more creative, but do not quite know where to begin.

Kohl also provides examples of how a curriculum relevant to students can improve behavior.  Here is one of them:

“One of the boys in your class acts crazy whenever you ask him to read.  He says the book is boring, reading irrelevant to his life.  He calls you a fascist pig for trying to force him to read and says he just wants to be left alone.

“However, this same boy is looked up to by the class for his great store of information on sports, the latest movies and hit songs.

Kohl says, “Some of this involves reading, all of it involves being aware of a world outside the school that is of value to the other students, though irrelevant for their school experience.

“The knowledge of this person can be brought to the center of the curriculum.  What he knows and the other students value can become a vehicle for them to educate the teachers, who can then use this material to help the students in reading and writing.  Or it can become a barrier.  Then that student’s defiance cannot be overcome or turned to strength within the school because the rewards he gets from the other students for standing up for what they value are much greater than those a mere teacher can offer.”  (p.79 – 80)

In my experience, following up on students’ interests and suggestions has proven to be a successful avenue for improving students’ behavior, learning and listening skills.  Here is an example:

Early in my teaching career, an elementary school pupil brought me her book, “Famous Afro-Americans” and asked me to read it to the class.  Until that moment I had not taught any African-American history to my third-grade class of about ten African-American and twenty Spanish-speaking children.  Finding the book too advanced for this grade level, I instead took it home and prepared a lesson on Harriet Tubman.  The next day I told the class of her life as a slave, her escape, and how she led hundreds to freedom as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad.  As I was telling this story, there was no fidgeting, no scribbling, no staring into space.  It was the first time I had everyone’s attention for the entire lesson.

The next day I reviewed the story by asking a series of questions to see how much they remembered.  They recalled everything.  When I left out a detail at one point, some children raised their hands and said, “But you forgot when…”

Before the end of the term we learned about many African-Americans and kept the information in special folders.  I must say that every lesson was a success.  The class was genuinely surprised to discover that Black people had accomplished so much (their textbooks were notably silent on the subject), the African-American children noticeably proud to learn more about their heritage, while the others were impressed.

All this indicates that if we can find meaningful courses of study for children, they will be much more eager to listen and learn, and we will avoid the frustration of trying to teach children who don’t relate to what we say or ask them to do.

In addition, children come to have more respect for themselves and for others as illustrated by the change that occurred in Cynthia, one of my students.

Earlier in the year she had called another child “a white cracker” in the heat of an argument.  One day, after we had had a number of lessons on African American history, she came over to my desk and the following conversation transpired:

Cynthia:  “I’m Black.”

Teacher:  “Yes, you are.”

Denise (who overheard all this):  Why sure.  Everybody’s colored except the white folks.”

Cynthia:  “Well, I guess it doesn’t matter what you are as long as you are a human being.”

If you decide to have your class study a certain topic you think they will be interested in, a topic suggested by a student, or one required by your syllabus, it is a good idea first to find out what they already know.  You can put their statements on a chart; older students can be put in small groups to generate information on chart paper that is later combined on a master list.  This will give you an idea of where to begin, for invariably there will be misinformation offered by certain students. Those who know a lot can be a class resource.

On another chart you can list questions they have about the topic. Again, older students can, in small groups, list their questions.  In some classes, putting names next to their questions can help perk up more interest as well as encourage others to think carefully about the topic and offer a question so they, too, can be publicly recognized and their questions answered.

To have a questioning approach to any subject is like presenting a problem that must be solved.  Students’ minds are more engaged when they are searching for answers to questions that they and their classmates have raised than if they are simply reading one page after another in a school textbook and only answering questions asked by the text or the teacher.

A lot of what passes for education in our schools does not require students to think deeply or creatively.  There is a lot of superficial learning going on in social studies, science, math and other subjects.  Students are still being urged to memorize facts – small bits of unrelated information which usually don’t stay long in their minds or get muddled as children try to make sense out of them.  What teacher hasn’t asked his or her class basic questions and gotten answers that are incorrect or confused.  This is discouraging to say the least.

We can begin to attack this problem by encouraging our students to inquire, challenge, examine and research.  No serious query should be considered stupid or irrelevant.  The free flow of ideas is key to keeping our students interested and involved.

Special Note

There are teachers who may be intimidated by opening up their classroom to such an inquiring approach to thinking and learning.  They may ask themselves, “Suppose I don’t know the answers to questions?  Won’t that weaken my authority leading to more discipline problems?  The answer to this depends on how you react to difficult questions. If you say something negative such as “You should have learned that last year,” or “Your question has nothing to do with what we are studying,” you will definitely alienate students.  However, if you say, “That is a very interesting question. I think we should look into finding the answer. I don’t know everything about this subject, but I love to learn new information; maybe someone in the class knows something about this, or we can research this together.”  Most students will welcome this response because you are respecting them and their questions; you are indicating that learning is an on-going process; that adults need to ask questions and find answers too.

If students like me, won’t that encourage them to work hard and learn?

While it is true that children will work harder for a teacher whom they like, simply being liked will never be enough to develop in children a love for learning.  In his book, The Quality School, Managing Students Without Coercion, William Glasser suggests that teachers admit to their students “that your class is no different from most classes in that some of the material you will ask them to learn will be boring.  But also tell them that when things get boring, you are willing to work with them to try to find a more interesting way to teach the material.  What you are doing is preparing students to accept some alternative ways to teach, such as cooperative learning.  They will be more willing to try new ways if they are involved with you in figuring them out.

“Ask for students’ help and advice in any way you can.  Don’t struggle by yourself in anything that they could conceivably help you with.  Nothing gives students more of a sense of power than advising the teacher….most students will accept that there are subjects that are very difficult to make exciting.

“What the students want is a school where it is apparent to all that the staff is constantly trying to make things better.  This strong ‘We care’ message is the foundation of quality education.”  (p. 126, 132, 133)

Creating an Interesting Curriculum at the Middle School and High School Levels That Will Assure More Engaged Students

William Glasser’s advice above is very helpful for teachers at the middle and high school levels especially because unlike most students at the elementary school level who readily raise their hands to participate in class activities and discussion, many middle school and high school students are reluctant to speak up during lessons and show no outward enthusiasm for their English, history, math, science and certain other classes.

There is justification for this when the subjects are looked upon as “boring” and “irrelevant” to their lives.  However, there are dedicated teachers who try hard to create meaningful lessons who face the same problems as their less dedicated colleagues.  It can be very frustrating to put in many hours creating what you think are good lesson plans and then face a class full of blank stares as you try desperately to ignite student interest and participation.  Under these circumstances, it is hard to create a supportive classroom atmosphere and to keep up your enthusiasm.

What is going on and what can be done?

There ARE solutions for the alienation and disinterest in school which has led to discipline problems and low academic achievement among too many students.  For example, here are three essays on my website which I wrote that can be helpful:

Every Classroom Needs a No Put-Down Rule 

Students and the Power to Change 

Using Current Events to Engage High School Students 

Teen, Senior Oral History Builds Writing and Uncommon Friends

In addition, there are two books that provide excellent guidance which can help teachers out of this quandary:

Reading for Understanding, How Reading Apprenticeship Improves Disciplinary Learning in Secondary and College classrooms by R. Schoenback, C. Greenleaf and Lynn Murphy, Jossey-Bass, 2nd Edition, 2012.

Adolescents on the Edge, Stories and Lessons to Transform Learning by ReLeah C. Lent, Heinemann, 2010.  A DVD is included.

I single out these books because the authors describe successful strategies that are ignored or not emphasized enough in other books – research-based, classroom-tested, creative approaches that can turn a class of students who are not interested in reading and studying into one that is enthusiastic and actually understands what the books, articles and other reading material mean.

These approaches have led to higher test scores as compared to classes that do not use these methodologies because they engage the minds of their students helping them to think creatively and critically.

The solutions offered, which are clearly described, can provide much hope to students and teachers alike. They show how behavior problems abate as students become more interested in their classes and how defeated students and overwhelmed teachers can actually begin to find joy and self-fulfillment in teaching and learning.

The appeal of Reading for Understanding is that it describes teachers, collaborating together, who tried very hard to improve their students’ reading comprehension and succeeded.  A step-by-step description of how they did this provides invaluable ideas for others to adapt to their own classroom instruction.

The value of Adolescents on the Edge is that it focuses on short stories specifically written for adolescents by Jimmy Santiago Baca, He is a role model for young people in that he went from being an illiterate, young drug dealer, imprisoned for 5 years after a drug bust, to a celebrated Chicano non-fiction/fiction writer and poet. Against all odds, under horrific prison conditions, he taught himself to read, write and compose poetry, which was his salvation.

Mr. Baca conducts workshops for prisoners and at-risk youth to inspire them, by example and through reading and writing, of the real possibility of redirecting one’s life from negative behavior and low self-esteem toward positive goals.  The DVD that is included with this book shows him in action, and the book has a section on the many ways the DVD can be used in schools.

(There is also an excellent book and movie, A Place to Stand, https://aplacetostandmovie.com/ which explores his journey that could be very inspiring to teenagers.)

Key Points Elaborated on in Adolescents on Edge and Reading for Understanding

Although there are many positive messages in these books for teachers, here are key points:

There is a crucial need to have a safe and supportive environment where students are not afraid of being ridiculed for comments and opinions they may express in class.

Teachers need to compose class rules with their students and not for them, asking what they think will work in getting all students to share their ideas and confusions without being made to feel stupid.  The collaborative experience of creating rules together make it much more likely that students will want to be active class members.  (See previous chapter for more details on this approach.)

In addition, it goes without saying that we need to be open-minded and respectful of our students so as to serve as role models for the behavior we want to see.  We cannot expect them to be respectful and involved in our lessons if we make disparaging remarks or do not show interest in their opinions or their lives.

Adolescents on the Edge states:

“Students must know without a doubt that you know, care about them and believe in them.” (p.8)  Teachers must be “looking at students with new eyes, seeing their potential in place of their failures.  Your belief in them will transcend their negative beliefs about themselves and help them, at first haltingly and then confidently, know they are capable of using literacy skills in any way they choose.”  (p.33)

To help reinforce efforts to have a positive and respectful class atmosphere, the authors of Reading for Understanding, describe their approach:

“In Reading Apprenticeship classrooms, teachers emphasize the value of talking about what one does not understand.  To develop students’ belief in the value of this kind of exchange, some teachers are quite direct:  credit for class participation includes sharing reading confusion and questions.  Students understand that the more explicit they can be about where in a text they got lost or why they thought something was difficult for them to understand, the more credit they receive.  These teachers report that as this idea takes hold and students are acknowledged for discussing their reading difficulties, a noticeable change occurs for many of them.

“One Reading Apprentice teacher says, ‘This class values thinking.  The more you think, talk, and write about your thinking, the better your grade will be. There may be wrong answers, but there are no ‘wrong ideas.’”  Another teacher we know posts “It’s cool to be confused!” in large print at the front of her classroom.

“As a matter of course, most Reading Apprenticeship teachers begin class discussion about a text by soliciting students’ confusion or questions.  In Will Brown’s high school chemistry class, for example, it’s not uncommon for students to be called on to explain what questions –not necessarily what answers – they have.  (p. 68-69)

There is a need for a shift in how teachers communicate subject matter.

At the middle school and high school levels, most students can read the words in their texts, but many do not have the skills to understand what they are reading.  Teachers need to act as guides to demonstrate to students specific strategies to make sense of readings in their subject area.  They cannot just expect them to understand by “working harder.”

These books clearly show strategies that work to enable students to comprehend subject matter more easily.  With these tools, middle and high school teachers become reading teachers in their area of expertise as they serve as guides for how to get meaning from difficult passages in their texts.

This may seem like something extra to add to all the work a subject area teacher has to do on a daily basis.  However, once students master higher order reading skills, the teacher’s work becomes easier and students learn and retain more.

There is a need for more cooperative and communal learning in pairs and small groups.

Students need to be taught step by step how to work collaboratively: the skill of listening to each other, organizing pair or group work, setting ground rules, taking roles to help make their work successful.  Spending time to teach effective skills needed for small groups to work well together results in more interest, engagement and learning and will be amply rewarded in a more peaceful classroom and more student cooperation.

Adolescents on the Edge states:

“The advantages of communal learning are hard to ignore. Teachers working in community report increased morale, lower absenteeism, and sustained, transferable learning.

Adolescents say that they work harder, find school more interesting, and skip class less often when they are allowed to work collaboratively

These findings are not surprising.  Although students have obvious academic requirements, their emotional and social needs are enormous.  It is through community that they learn not only to respect others but to find respect for themselves. They learn how to disagree with each other while attempting to understand and have empathy for those who have different views, essential skills for their futures in a global setting.

“Relationships, the key component for successful communities, must be nurtured and given time to develop, but they will never form if the members of a class are not offered the opportunity to know one another beyond the superficial.”  (p.4).  Adolescents on the Edge shows you how to accomplish this.

There is a need for teachers to coordinate when they teach certain topics in their subject area with teachers in other courses.

It is easier for students to understand and retain course content when time frames and themes in various subjects are related.  For example, history teachers covering the U.S. colonial period can collaborate with English teachers so that colonial literature is taught at the same time as colonial history; science discoveries, music and art of this period can also be taught simultaneously.

To make this possible, school administrators have to build time into school schedules for collaborative planning within and among departments as well as time to share problems and successes.  This may be hard to coordinate, but the effort will be well worth it.

There is a need to make every effort to create lessons and unit studies that are interesting and relevant to students’ lives.

For example, in addition to the resources described above, there are two follow-up books to Reading for Understanding that can be helpful:

Building Academic Literacy, An Anthology for Reading Apprenticeship,  A. Fielding and R. Schoenback, Jossey-Bass, 2003.  This book is for students. Because of the high interest level of the stories chosen, it can appeal to advanced as well as struggling readers in grades 6 – 12.

Building Academic Literacy:  Lessons from Reading Apprenticeship Classrooms, Grades 6 – 12, A. Fielding, R. Shoenbach and M. Jordon, editors, Jossey-Bass, 2003.  This companion book to the Anthology mentioned above features five middle and high school teachers working with the “Reading Apprenticeship” approach as introduced in Reading for Understanding. They show how and why it has worked well for them and their students. These follow up books were published because teachers wrote to the authors of Reading for Understanding for help in finding relevant reading material and how to get started with the strategies described in their book.  Teachers in all content areas can benefit from the suggestions offered and from up-to-date information at their website: https://www.wested.org/

Another great resource for learning how to teach in more relevant and interesting ways is Rethinking Schools.  Their quarterly journal, their many publications and their invaluable website offer deep and clear analyses of our current educational scene, lesson ideas and ways teachers, administrators, students and community members can work together to make their schools more successful.




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