As much as I may complain about the intelligence, or lack thereof, of students today, the truth is that they are not actually less intelligent than students were 5, 10, 15, or 20 years ago. This is a common complaint heard bandied about in teachers' lounges all across the United States. "What is wrong with these kids today? Don't they have any common sense? Who doesn't know ..." And you can fill in the blank with whichever piece of seemingly common piece of knowledge you want. I will admit to having been floored repeatedly in the classroom when I've made a reference to some seemingly common piece of pop culture or what I consider to be basic knowledge, and my kids stare at me blankly.
What do you mean "Who's Nixon?" You know, Richard Nixon? Former President of the United States Richard Nixon. Watergate Scandal Richard Nixon. What's "Watergate"? Are you kidding me?
Teacher: What do you mean, "What country is Jewish?"
Student: What country is Jewish? You know, Germany is German... What country is Jewish?
Teacher: No, dear. Germany is a country. The people who live in Germany are German, just like the people who live here in America and Americans. Jews are Jewish because that is their religion, just like we call people who worship Christ, Christians. Germans refer to their country. Jewish refers to their religion. Does that make sense?
Student: Yeah... so... what religion is German?
Mt. St. Helens? The volcano? In the United States? The one that blew in 1980? Most catastrophic volcanic eruption in the history of the United States? What do you mean you didn't KNOW that there were volcanoes in the US?
You've never heard of Boy George?
These are common conversations in my classroom. Sometimes, in an attempt to help my students understand a theme in literature or poetry, or make sense of some literary skill, I will try to help them connect it to something modern. Occasionally, I fail miserably and only confuse them further when they do not have the necessary background experiences. It is at this point that I usually become dumbfounded by what I perceive as a devastating gap in their education. This, inevitably, leads to the questioning of what they have been doing in school the last 8-11 years, or if they have had their heads buried in the sand. (Which, by the way, is yet another reference that students seldom understand.)
Another very common complaint among teachers is that their students lack any kind of creativity or imagination. Teachers work tirelessly trying to develop lessons and activities that are not only relevant to the content and curriculum, but that are also culturally relevant and engaging for their students. When the students can relate to the material and find the activity entertaining, these lessons are raving successes. When the students cannot relate to the material or do not find the activity entertaining, ... well, those lessons are deemed miserable failures, leaving teachers scratching their heads at what went wrong.
Five years ago, I found a creative writing assignment that I just knew my students would enjoy. I was excited to take it back to the classroom with me, as I was positive that it was going to appeal to my kids. The assignment was a creative journal writing.
You wake up tomorrow morning and are the opposite sex. (If you are a girl, you wake up as a boy. If you are a boy, you wake up as a girl.) What are your first thoughts? How do you feel? Describe what your appearance, thoughts, and feelings. What would you do first? How will your friends and family react to your change?
My excitement was soon squashed when my students read the prompt; groans and moans were heard around the room. Really? We HAVE to write about this? I don't want to be a boy. I wouldn't leave my room if I were a girl. My coach would have a fit. I was stymied. After much complaining and whining, the entries were finished and volunteers read aloud their responses. I was utterly disappointed in the lack of creativity and imagination from most of my class.
If I woke up as a girl, I'd be a hot girl. But, I wouldn't like boys, because that would make me feel gay. I'd be a lesbian. I'd call my girlfriend to borrow her clothes. She'd freak out, but eventually she would calm down and become my lesbian girlfriend. I would change my name so none of my teammates and friends would know it was me.
If I woke up as a boy I would cry. I don't know how my boyfriend would react. I don't think I would tell him. I would move away so no one would know what had happened. I would still sit down to pee.
To say the least, they were not inspired. I was not impressed. I voiced my confusion among colleagues. We reached the conclusion that our kids just completely lack imagination, or worse, are just plain lazy. I scrapped the journal entry the following year, replacing it with something far less interesting and creative.
Often, when these assignments that are meant to showcase creativity and imagination fail, we believe it is because students are lazy or not intelligent or mature enough to handle it. But, the truth is that they are not lacking in intelligence or creativity; they are a victim of the technological advances for which we are so proud. Kids today do not need to be imaginative. They do not need to be able to remember obscure or past events, people, or stories. Technology makes those things obsolete. Have you actually sat down and took a good look at video game screens today? Let me tell you, they are a far cry from Space Invaders and Pong. The graphics are amazingly sharp and accurate. There is no need to "pretend" or "imagine" what the objects on the screen are supposed to represent. And, who needs to be able to remember where the 1992 Olympics were held when the answer can be found within seconds through an Internet search engine?
Okay, so what is my point to this whole rambling post? My point is this... Students today are not stupid. Modern technological advances have changed not only the way we live our daily lives, but also the educational needs of our students. Students need to be taught how to use their imaginations. And, content material needs to be related to current happenings. This is the information age. Think of students' brains as a continuous news feed. They only have immediate access to what is on the home page. Therefore, to make information relevant, it must be connected to current events.
So, when it comes time to teach Oedipus Rex to my students, I do not first introduce them to Sophocles, or Ancient Greece, or dramatic structure, or the tragic hero. All of that will come in time. No, first I introduce them to Jerry Springer, or Maury Povich, or Steve Wilkos. We hold a 15-20 minute discussion of our favorite, or most memorable, episodes. While discussing, I write up all the different topics for the show; who is my baby's daddy, incest, my child is a teenaged hooker, etc. Once I call a halt to the discussion, I start to circle all of the themes and topics that are in the play, Oedipus Rex. That is when I get their attention, and get them interested in reading "that old stuff". At the end of the unit, we hold our own version of the Jerry Springer show with all of the characters from the drama. We even bring King Laius and Jocasta back from the dead for a cameo appearance. You! You's the dead Jo-Casta! You ain't supposed to be here!
In this day and age, anything and everything can be considered educational, as long as you know how to spin it.