January 27, 2007

On Boredom

"Boredom is the inability to connect to the reality surrounding you."

Or something like that.

I had a friend who used to say something to that effect to the troubled teens she worked with. I always thought it was so profound, and it slid off her tongue so easily whenever one would start in on how boring school was. I wish I could remember what exactly she used to say, but I think my version works pretty well.

When I came back from my duty of taking care of a sick child, the first thing on my agenda was to call the parent who left a voice mail on Monday. Her daughter failed my class for the semester, but it should not have been a shock to her, as her daughter had been failing my class most of the year, and we had talked on the phone before about her daughter's performance.

It was a long conversation, but not necessarily an unpleasant one, as we hashed out what has been tried and what hasn't in helping her daughter succeed in my class. The mother thought that perhaps her daughter needed a tutor, but she didn't really feel that was the problem. I agreed with her because despite the fact that she has done poorly in English the past two years, she does do pretty well on tests. It's not that her daughter is struggling with the content, she's struggling with the discipline of being a good student.

The mother went on to further hypothesize that perhaps her daughter was bored, as she wasn't being challenged enough. In fact, I think her daughter had said as much. Now, I've had a few above average students in my classroom over the years who have made such claims, and of course I've had hundreds of average and below average students make the same claim. When should I seriously consider a charge that my class is not challenging a student? As you've probably figured, I usually ignore cries from my allegedly bored students.

My stock answer for students who claim boredom is that if they can do the prescribed work, then we'll talk. What do I do to challenge the students? I hate to give extra work to students who excel in class because sometimes it seems like punishment to them. Most students appreciate a choice in the matter. Some students enjoy exploring topics in which they are curious, while others simply enjoy time to read or write. Am I necessarily challenging them? It depends on the students and their needs. Sometimes I give guidance, while other times I give them space to challenge themselves.

My top student this year, one of the few who could claim he is bored but doesn't, works diligently in class, always thinking thoroughly through the work. Sometimes he asks me about grammar concepts that we don't yet discuss in the 8th grade. Could it be that this student loves language so much that he is studying grammar on his own time? No. Grammar isn't one of his interests, but he takes the time to immerse himself in his studies. On rare occasions when he has some extra time, I might find him not immersed in studying English, but in checking the stock market on his laptop. He braces himself for a reprimand because he knows he's technically off task, but when I stop and ask about the assignment, which he shows me, and then I ask about what's going on in the market, he knows it's my approval for him to carry on with his personal quest for knowledge.

Do I give credence to students (and the parents who support them) who cry boredom? Not so much. I do continue to try to engage my students in the content matter and offer extension of knowledge or freedom to explore for those who desire more.

Boredom? I say it's a personal problem. Deal with it.

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