Day 271: A Rant About the American High School Student

Maybe it is because I am getting older.  Maybe it is because I have more on my plate.  Maybe it is because I am pre-menopausal.  Whatever the reason, I can’t take sophomoric bullshit any longer!

I have always said I love my job.  I love talking about literature, examining symbolism and theme, making connections to life, and watching my students grow both critically and analytically.  However, as a teacher, I cannot learn for them.  They have to meet me half way.  They have to put some effort into their own learning in order to allow the growth to happen.  Some students, sadly, are unwilling to make the effort.

“All we do is read books.”

No, not exactly.  Yes, we read books, but we do not just read words.  We ingest the ideas of the writer.  We look at the richness of language, and the complexity of text.  We let the imagery dance in front of our eyes and the meaning penetrate our souls.

“These books are all so old; they don’t mean anything anymore.”

Excuse me?  Don’t mean anything?  Sorry it is not a full color 3D video game, an app for your phone, or a computer page, but books will always be relevant.  I don’t care if it is a book written in 900 BC– the themes, the symbols, the motifs, and the characterization are all ideas that can be found in any modern drama.  Could Beowulf not be a superhero?  Could Elizabeth Bennett not be a character on 90210?  Should we not learn from the allegories of Animal Farm, the rudimentary message of Candide, the pain and struggles of Paul Rusabagina?

To be frank, the American student feels entitled.   American high school students do not look at their education as the privilege that it is.  It has been so long since our forefathers fought for their freedoms that they do not even realize that a free public education is a gift.  Not every high school aged student in the world is afforded the chance to sit in a classroom and learn.  Too many American students are distracted by the conveniences of modern society.  Life has gotten too easy, and because of the fast paced world of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, they think all information should come at lightening speeds and be easily digested.  They do not want to put the work into their education.

This week, my sophomore English class is discussing the autobiographical memoir Night by Elie Wiesel.  Seemingly, one of the most powerful books ever written, it is about life in the concentration camps during World War II.  Told from the point of view of a fifteen year old Wiesel, it is a deliberately lean and understated book which speaks volumes in what it does not say.

Today, we were discussing the complexity of the symbol of night in the book, and my students could not stop cracking jokes.  “Why doesn’t he write about the day?” one jokester threw out.  “Maybe he needed to go to a party and just forget about the whole thing,” another boy said.  My exasperation toward their flippant attitude was apparent.  However, I remained calm and continued, switching topics to try to get the kids to refocus.

“Why did Akiba Drummer die?” I asked about the prisoner’s search for meaning and hope.

In the silence, awaiting a response, a young man sang. “Na Na Na Na, Na Na Na Na, Hey Hey Hey, Goodbye.”

With ten minutes left in class. I shut my book.  I told my students to read the next chapter, and I warned them not to say a word.  The utter disrespect of history, the utter disrespect of Jewish prisoners and their agony, the utter disrespect of this Nobel prize-winning piece of literature, the utter disrespect toward learning stopped me dead in my tracks.

How do I go back into a classroom and teach children who do not want to learn?

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6 thoughts on “Day 271: A Rant About the American High School Student

  1. Oh no…I, too, am horrified at the disrespect those students showed while reading Night. I am so sorry they’re not appreciating what you have to offer. I wish I had advice but i am at a loss. I will be looking forward to an update on how you handle this. Good luck!

  2. Cheryl, I *hear* you. I’m a community college prof. Very often I enter a room to discuss a book to find that 100% of the class either didn’t read it or understood nothing of what they read. It doesn’t end in high school, believe me.

    Glad to have found you on WordPress. Cheers.

  3. Ouch. On a side note, since I am student teaching at primary levels and will end up teaching younger kids, what can I do as a teacher to help instill more appreciation for reading, literature, etc.? So that one day when the kids do arrive into high school they have a background that will help them learn…

    • I wish I had an answer for you. I think little kids love school more– they have not become social and egocentric. I do know by Senior year, kids are more involved in their education because they either realize they blew off too much and they want to go to college, or they just want a diploma and to graduate. Good luck teaching– I will admit, more good days than bad. It’s worth it.

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