Obvious Truths We Shouldn't Be Ignoring Series (Part 3)

This is the third blog post in the ‘Obvious Truths We Shouldn't Be Ignoring Series.’ This series is based upon eight ‘Obvious Truths’ presented by Alfie Kohn in his "Ten Obvious Truths That We Shouldn't Be Ignoring" published in the September 2011 issue of The Education Digest.

"Students are more likely to learn what they find interesting.”

The truth of the matter is that people are individuals and have personal likes and dislikes. As such, different persons will have different interests and desires. The trouble is finding ways to incorporate students’ diverse interests into a standardized curriculum or standardized testing method (e.g. GED, High School Diploma, ESL, ABE, etc.).

Since this blog is focused upon correctional education, the answer is easier for us than for educators outside of prison. This is because the vast majority of the studies done in a prison setting are focused upon preparing students to pass standardized tests which are not content specific, but skill specific. The primary skill being tested is reading comprehension.

The way I attempt to integrate student interest into the lessons that I teach in ‘Writing and Publishing’ revolve around the examples and tasks that I assign my students. In any given class I will have students who are interested in scholarly research (as I am), general fiction, genre fiction (e.g. urban fiction, horror, satire, romance, etc.), and any branch of nonfiction. As a matter of fact, I even have students who are not interested in books or articles, but screenplays and poetry.

When dealing with such a wide extent of interests, I try to generalize projects so that students can write what they want to write. For example, I'll assign a 750-1,500-word piece of writing. Within the limitations of the project, the student can choose to write fiction or nonfiction. Though, regardless of what they choose to write about, they must use proper English and grammar, professional formatting, and other skills taught in class.

The long and short of it is that I am tasked with teaching a wide range of interests within the confines of my class. The same is true of you, too. I implore you to find creative ways to make your class interesting and by doing so become a better educator, managing to do more with what you have.

For example, if you are an English teacher in a prison setting, you not only have students ranging from kindergarten level (illiterate) to a high school level (completely literate), but students who are only interested in rap and gangs, while still others are interested in college and writing for publication. Hence, the range of your students is a vast one. The key is to find ways to interest your students and hold that interest.

One way of promoting "buy-in" by your students is to allow them to pick what they want to read. I see no reason why a student should not be able to choose what book he/she wants to read for a book report. Or, perhaps you could allow your student to read a book of their choice as homework, but have them write a short synopsis/essay for each chapter that they complete. This will assist with both reading comprehension and their composition skills, both of which are tested during the GED examinations.

Lest this discussion focus too much upon English, the same is true with social studies and science. If you're a social studies teacher, allow students to pick a book from a selection of titles which you approve, titles which enforce positive values and even a larger political understanding that you would be attempting to teach in your class. This will allow them to feel a part of and in charge of their own education. Hence, their interest will be better held and a greater level of learning will ensue.

A side note is needed here on science. Prisoners are a very odd group. They have interests that are so diverse that it can be comical. My old cellmate – Max – is a 61-year-old guy who has been in and out of prison for the past 40+ years. He came back in about two years ago for yet another failed bank robbery. Well, Max loves quantum physics. He appears to really enjoy the idea of other realms of time and such. At times he would even ramble on about how everything from the way toothpaste works to how we could get out of prison was a factor of some form of higher-level quantum physics or some kind of time continuum. The ironic part here is that Max is not an educated man, more of a conspiracy theorist or perpetual victim (in his own eyes). While I doubt that he understands much of what he reads, he reads it. Hence, his reading skills are constantly improving even at 60 years of age. The fact that a 60-year-old man – who most would consider a hopeless case – continues to read and learn is mind boggling. It is a testament to the curiosity of the human mind.

I illustrate this situation because it shows something important about the prison demographic. We're odd. And since we're so odd, there is no way to predict what we will be interested in. After all, I'm a 25-year-old prison education expert. Those from my past would have never guessed this. Heck, if you told me five years ago that I'd stand in front of a room of people, much less teach them, I'd call you crazy.

Long story short, offer your students the opportunity to "buy-in" to the lessons that you teach. It will not only make your job easier in terms of classroom behavior and progress, but it will improve your students' educational endeavors that much more. The point is to teach, but to interest, too. When an option presents itself to improve the quality and appeal of your instruction, do so.