Two of the four groups I teach each day are ninth grade AP World History students. These kids opt-in to the open enrollment class of their own volition, and their most-cited reason for taking on such a daunting challenge — an Advanced Placement course during their ninth grade year — is because they want to be challenged. (An affirmation to me each year that, indeed, adolescents are so hungry to do hard things.)
I appreciate many things about the chance to teach the 60-70 kids per year who take this challenge upon themselves, but perhaps my favorite is how the course confronts so many of them, for the first time in their academic lives, with significant difficulty.
Now mind you, my two goals with every lesson, every assignment, every interaction are to guide my students on the most efficient paths to earning college credit on the AP exam in May AND to teach them how to enjoy the process. Those are literally the success indicators in huge print on the front of my syllabus:
So my point is that I don't go out of my way to torture my students, but many of them do experience the course's difficulty as painful, especially in the first months.
And that brings us to the snowball. Today as I led a lesson on the Mongolian empire for my students, having them read and write and speak and listen and build knowledge all the way, I came to a point at the end where I said something like this:
Remember: your goal with each night's work and each day's lesson is to learn things about world history — as much as you can, but within the time constraints that you have. It's this slow and steady acquisition and processing and connecting and combining of knowledge, day by day, that forms our very successful and very uncommon strategy.
So rather than fixating on the latest low-stakes quiz or what's going to be on the test, fixate on learning world history, understanding its patterns, and engaging all-in during the learning exercises we do as a class. And remember that as you go, bit by bit you're accruing knowledge, and this knowledge acts like a snowball in the winter time — at first it's small, but the more you roll it around and add to it, the more it's able to pick up.
Keep on! And set an appointment with me if it's all feeling like too much.
What's my point?
My point is that I'm such a poor teacher in so many ways that some days it's quite disheartening. But I do have the benefit now, 13 years in, of having spent some number of years intently focused on the interplay of six basic things — including student motivation (the five key beliefs) and the critical pursuit of knowledge-building.
These are chapters 2 and 3 respectively in the book (first chapter free here). Even today, just over a year since its release, that book continues to guide my work.
Thank you Dave!
With slight alteration, your note of encouragement to your students is timely, useful, and relevant for our setting too. I notice that students start to show extreme signs of struggle here in the fifth week of school.
Funny thing: Way back when I was first taking my teacher education courses, “understanding” was scolded as an ineffective statement of purpose for learning. (Not precise enough for the “teaching to objectives” trend of the time.)
Dave Stuart Jr. says
John, I’m so glad 🙂 Thank you my friend — and keep after it!