What is a teacher’s worst nightmare?
Grading papers? (nope).
Parent Teacher Conferences that don’t end? (close, but no).
A teacher’s worst nightmare is having the student who doesn’t give a damn about school. No matter what is tried – positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, contracts, Premack principle – nothing works. What can a teacher do?
Last year, I had a student just like that in my 8th grade chemistry class. I’ll call him Jack. No matter what I did, or what approach I took, Jack did jack squat. I couldn’t engage him.
Granted this young man came from a troubled home and was given a bum rap at school; he was a troublemaker and had learning issues that were not being addressed.
So, here I was handed this 8th grade boy and told – teach him.
“You teach him!” is what I wanted to tell my administrators… but that would have landed me nowhere.
Now, I ain’t a rookie teacher. I worked with this type of population right out of college for two years. And subsequently I have taught for 15 years. So, suffice it to say I had some experience. My belief is that the most important aspect to teaching is – the students (surprise!). So, for the first three months of school I was like Don Quixote on a quest to conquer the windmill of apathy and disinterest and to dream the impossible dream of lighting the fire under Jack’s butt.
At first, I tried the close proximity trick of regularly checking in with Jack; that only led to my wishing for a lance. Each time, I would see Jack close a window on his Chromebook or just staring off into space. When I would approach him and ask him what he is working on, he would say the same thing, “I am not sure.” While I didn’t think I was teaching Dory from Finding Nemo (you know, the fish with no memory?), I did get the clue that I needed to do something more. I then selected specific tasks that were small and manageable (e.g., just read the first two pages and answer a question; just follow the lab directions and work with this group on the experiment). Nope. That bombed, too. I tried offering incentives such as he could earn playing a game for the last 5 minutes of class if he completed what I assigned him. Guess what? He didn’t play a game because he friggen didn’t do the work.
One day, I sat with Jack almost the entire period, forgoing my attention to my other students; I realize it’s not good teaching practice, but I wasn’t about to give up on this knight of the woeful countenance. That proved so torturesome that I would have prefered a root canal, or a dinner prepared by Aunt who cooked everything until it is 95% carbon. Jack just wouldn’t engage either with the material or me. He offered grunts and one word answers.
I will be honest… I was ready to give up. Over 15 years of teaching under my belt, a masters in special education, a dad… and yet, I couldn’t get Jack to crack.
What a nightmare indeed. What an impossible dream!
Then, one day, Jack slipped. He let me in… just a crack. I finally got a glimpse into this boy’s soul – he drew a picture of an atom. And the drawing was unique. It had color. It was asymmetrical. And had what looked like a tear or drop coming from the nucleus. I casually asked Jack what he drew. He told me it was an atom. I asked him how did he come to the design.
And then the world stood still.
He shared in depth how he came to design it. He took the bits and pieces he learned from class and redesigned the atom. And the drop (which was a tear), well that was the best – he said, “We are made of atoms. We cry. So, atoms should be able to cry.”
Holy crap! This is what is inside Jack?? Such talent and introspection and reflection.
I then did what my gut told me to do and what I knew my principals would hate.
The following day, I pulled him out of class and said, “Your drawing of an atom was awesome.!Do you like to draw?” He said, “Yes.” “Tell me the reason,” I said. He replied, “It’s how I think. I am able to share my ideas this way.” I then said, “I know that school is not your thing. I know you have a reputation of sending that message to everyone. But yesterday, your drawing proved that not only do you have a passion but you can use it as a tool. So, let’s forget chemistry for now. Let’s focus on art. How would you like to learn about digital design?”
Jack then gave me “the look”… you know the look that a teeanger gives an adult as though the adult has twelve heads and is speaking Akkadian? Yeah, that look. I told him I was being honest and really meant it – I wanted him to focus on a subject that (a) he was interested in and (b) would crack that shell of his and allow some of himself to come out.
That’s when Psykopaint came in.
I introduced him to this cool site I found referenced on an edtech blog. I showed him how he can take any image and repaint it using the brushstrokes a several painters. He was also able to design his own.
That’s when the nightmare began to end.
The young lad came in to class excited to use Psykopaint. He was fully immersed in learning all of its functions and applications. I had never seen Jack so focused and engaged. He drew beautiful art. He was able to explain to me (and his friends) the difference between the artists’ brushstrokes.
I had hooked Jack! Well, let me be honest… Psykopaint hooked Jack. Jack found his sidekick Sancho.
But wait… here is Act II.
Because Jack was so infatuated with the program, I reached out to its developer, Mathieu Gosselin. It took me a few tries (you know how these artists are!) and eventually we connected. Here was my plea to Pyskpaint’s creator:
I have an 8th grade student (I teach 8th grade chemistry and physics), who “walks to the beat of a different drum.” When he was younger, he was very much into art and 3D design. Over the years, his creativity and motivation dropped to near zero, due to his homelife being a wreck and his previous teachers quashing his love for the sake of learning “what everyone needs to know.”. As a result, he not only has tremendous gaps in his learning but also he lost his passion for the arts. He internalized everything and is hurting inside and heading down a path that does not lead to anywhere good.
I introduced him to Psykopaint and he was totally enthralled with it. I For the first time in many years, I see his interest and passion starting to ignite.
My question is this – I was wondering if you would be willing to show him how you came to design Psykopaint and how your passion for art brought you to where you are today. I am sure your schedule is busy, but any time that you could give to this young man would make a big difference to him.
Thanks in advance for your help.
Mathieu did not disappoint. He was very willing to speak with Jack. We set up the Google Hangout and Jack Matthieu spoke… and spoke… and spoke. Here was my follow up letter to Mathieu:
You made Jack’s day! He came out with a huge smile on his face and was telling everyone about the conversation he had with you. I have not seen him this happy and engaged in a very long time. He went right back to his project! Thank you again!!!
What were the magic words that Mathieu said to Jack? I will tell you – in order to follow one’s dreams, one needs to work hard. To learn digital design, one needs science, math, and grit.
Wow… I have never heard those words before… oh wait, I say them all the time until I am blue in the face!
The difference was that Jack finally heard those words. It took someone in the field to tell him that (a) this is what he needs to do to follow his dream (b) science and math are necessary and (c) someone believed in him.
Having Mathieu say those words to Jack made all the difference in the world. Jack buckled down and learned as much as he could about Psykopaint’s features and began an online digital design course.
Talk about chasing windmills. “Hear me now oh how bleak and unbearable world!”
Now, it goes without saying that I got flack… a lot of flack…from my bosses who felt I was not preparing Jack for high-school. Yet, I didn’t care, for I knew that Jack finally was doing what all his previous teachers tried to do and fail (that list of teachers included the principals) – he was learning. He was engaged in his learning. And he was learning skills that would carry him throughout his life because he was learning a topic about which he was passionate. And so I accepted the flack and knew I was right.
It’s been almost a year since I have seen Jack. He is now in 9th grade, and is doing well in high-school because he had people believe in him. Mathieu and Psykopaint made a difference in Jack- he and it saved Jack. He is now succeeding and following his passion as he takes art classes and digital design.
As to my bosses… well, guess what? I was the only teacher Jack came up to at the last day school and said, “Thank you for teaching me.” Beat that!
I dreamt the impossible dream and fought the unbeatable foe.
Hillary Clinton stated that it takes a village to raise a child. In today’s global market, I would say that it takes people from all over world who (a) give a damn about kids (b) believe that who they see in front of them is not the be all and end all but rather a canvas with potential to be a great piece of art and (c) who don’t give up. It would have been easy for me to give up on Jack… VERY easy. Yet, I didn’t. And I didn’t let my pride get in the way of trying to solve it myself. I searched out help. With Mathieu’s help (and if you ask him, he will say that he doesn’t deserve the accolades, but he does), together, we were able to help Jack.
To you artists, coders, developers, entrepreneurs – you do have influence on our future – on our students. Here me now for you will be tapped.
,And, to all you teachers out there, do you see yourselves riding on horses to fight the windmills of student apathy and lack of grit? Or, do you simply hold up the mirror to the student to say, “This is all you are?” If you are riding the horse, God bless you and keep up the good fight. Better yet, find yourself a Sancho (as I did in Mathieu) and together, you will help, encourage, foster, and believe in every student becoming a work of art.