Sunday, September 21, 2014

Deflating My Desire To Learn

My high school had a somewhat archaic English assignment. Freshman were required to memorize and recite a 40-line poem twice a year, sophomores memorized 50 lines, juniors 60 and seniors 70. Fortunately by the time I was a senior, they had canned this assignment.

During the fall semester of my freshman year, I bombed the assignment. I waited far too long to begin the memorization. Disappointed with myself, I made an honest effort during the second semester. I chose a poem of high interest; I planned ahead and pledged to memorize five lines each night. Most importantly, I felt confident in my abilities.

But then, as I began memorizing, I stumbled. The first five lines came relatively easily. The next five proved a little more challenging. Lines 11-15 posed significant problems; lines 20+ seemed impossible. I continued to study, but I began to doubt myself and I lowered my own expectations; instead of aiming for mastery of all forty lines, I became content to just memorize thirty. Soon, with the due date upon me, I knew thirty might be a stretch.

Sure enough, when it came time for me to recite my poem I floundered. While I was highly frustrated, I tried not to let the teacher know. I brushed it off as a stupid assignment (too this day I still believe that) that I didn't care about and didn't prepare for. That was surely easier than showing and admitting a weakness.

As my sophomore year rolled around, I dreaded the assignment--and having an additional ten lines. But I committed myself to acing it. I began preparing almost as soon as the school year began. Things didn't improve, however. For whatever the reason, I couldn't get past twenty or thirty lines. On the day of the recitation, I imploded. I did worse than ever. My well-meaning teacher, tried to boost my morale with generic statements like "you'll do better next time," "keep trying," "I'm sure you can..."

Didn't she get it? I truly had poured everything I had into this assignment. What else could I do?

I contemplated, "Why bother trying to memorize the 50 lines for the spring term?"

Seeing little value and possessing no confidence, I completely rejected the assignment. I felt helpless. My self-efficacy hit an all-time low; one that extended beyond my English classes. My own negative beliefs about my abilities presented a huge barrier to my own success. I withdrew from my classes  and became increasingly sarcastic and began to brush-off my poor grades.

After a summer of testing, I learned I had a learning disability, one that greatly influenced my ability to learn and memorize.

While I eventually regained my confidence and regained my self-efficacy, the the assignment forever turned me off of memorization and poetry.

Twenty-five years later that assignment still leaves a bitter taste, but while I never learned any tricks to memorizing poetry, it did give me a unique perspective on what it's like to struggle as a learner. Sadly, too much of what we do in school further alienates struggling students from school and learning. 

Let's never forget, it's difficult for students--for that matter anyone--to remain motivated when one is consistently unable to meet the expectations of others, especially when it's not your fault. 


Amy Smith said...

You make an excellent point. As learners, we all have our individual struggles -- for example, I cannot tell my right from my left and spatial assignments always cause me difficulty. As teachers we need to know our students well enough to challenge without pushing to the breaking point - to create lessons that cause a love for learning. Thank you again for your poignant reminder.

Jennifer Hogan said...

Thanks for sharing this, Reed. It sounds like that experience shaped you into a wonderful teacher and now administrator because you've never forgotten what it's like to struggle with learning and how it made you feel. While one of your teachers gave generic encouragement, it's important that we know our students as individuals and how to best help them with their specific needs.

Keith Howell said...

Thanks for sharing your post, Reed. Some of the best educators are those who can truly understanding the difficulties a student is going through. It is always important to create lessons that are differentiated for our students with varied needs and interest levels. Great post!

Traci Logue said...

Thank you Reed. This is so familiar to me! It is so important to know our students, and do what is best for them. As Keith said, differentiation!