You want more kids to succeed in school and do better in life? If so, stop boring them to death in classrooms. That’s my takeaway after listening to students in several states, and even from teachers who have struggled with helping unengaged students.

I heard it a while back in Philadelphia from students who told a crowd of educators that they’re not feeling the love in their schools. Their message was something along the lines of “if I make it, it be will in spite of my teachers and school.”  The issue surfaced again in Seattle where students said they felt disconnected from school because often the lessons are irrelevant to their lives and sometimes insulting to their cultural backgrounds. I’ve heard it in Minneapolis, Oakland, Detroit, and New Orleans.

It was as if I was hearing my own story retold, again and again. As a student I was capable, but uninterested, not because I lacked grit, or thought doing well in schools was acting white, or I was deficient, but more because the material and teaching practices before me felt too old to carbon date. At least that’s my version of the story.

It’s a problem educator Tara Dale confronts head on in a recent blog post about engaging students with “cerebral activity” that connects educational standards to the process of deep critical thinking. She says “If students don’t feel a class is relevant, they become unengaged and put forth less effort. We see this in high school dropout research. America’s Promise Alliance (2014) surveyed nearly 2,000 students and found that 25.9% of them dropped out because they found school boring, and 20.3% dropped out because school didn’t relate to their life.”

Given all we know about the importance of graduating high school, and hopefully attending college, losing students to the wash of dropout statistics is intolerable.

So, how big is this problem really? Consider this: A study by Dr. Michael Schmoker (a former teacher himself) found only 15 percent of the 1,500 classrooms it researched had more than half of students paying attention. Think about that for a minute. 85 percent of students were checked out.

It’s not as if teachers and schools haven’t been wrestling relentlessly with how to better engage students for years (even if results have fallen short). Reviewing the literature on student engagement, researchers at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers’ College say educators should focus on 6 things:  Interaction, Exploration, Relevancy, Multimedia, Instruction, and Authentic assessment. I’ll leave it to my really smart teacher friends (yes, I have teacher friends) to tell me if their experience and research leads them to a different conclusion. But it rings true to my layperson ears.

Why? Because I think I have seen it in action.

A few years ago a friend, and educator, called to tell me about a teacher in her suburban Minneapolis school who was doing great things. That year she was working with teachers and their black male students to develop strategies for better relationships, and better learning. Being a bridge between black students and white teachers in an overwhelmingly white school was an exercise in daily frustration, one that often left all parties feeling wounded. But there was one bright spot in the school.

“Chris, I’m trying to get all my black boys into Mr. Pai’s class,” she told me with an uptick in her voice.

Mr. Pai is Ananth Pai, a former business man and techie who made a mid-life career change to become an elementary school teacher. When I visited his class I felt it was a thing of beauty. The kids were moving around. They were chatting. They were playing. They were smiling and excited. And they were learning in the process. I wondered where Mr. Pai had been all the painful hours I spent staring out windows during my school years.

He told me a short story that I will make even shorter: his district offered him a $5,000 smart board that he considered to be a completely worthless bit of assistive technology unlikely to do anything for the achievement of his students. He made a counter-offer and asked for the $5,000 to use on technology he thought would make a difference. The district declined, so he and his wife spent their own money to gamify his classroom, outfitting it with Nintendo hand held devices, computers, and internationally sourced software. Then he created multiple work stations where students worked in cohorts using games that connected them to each other, and students in other countries.

At one point in my visit he looked at me with a smile and said “watch this,” then called all his students to attention. When they looked up he motioned as if he was going to pull the district issued textbooks from the shelf (where the books sat unsealed and unused). As if on cue his students cried “nooooo!”

After a taste of the gaming life they wanted nothing to do with the regular curriculum of the district. He showed me scores for students who were playing what looked like fairly complicated math games online. Some students became so competitive about their scores that they played at home and even over the holiday break for Thanksgiving.

It was hard to get my mind around getting kids to willingly do math as a recreational activity. I was hooked, but somewhat sad that I couldn’t imagine how such a great example could ever survive the bureaucratic impediments of a regular school district, and become the norm for many more students.

I’m careful here to not tell you any of this as a miracle story. Defenders of traditional schooling get sore about that sort of hype. Mr. Pai would be the first to tell me his work wasn’t all beaches and Coronas. His counter-cultural classroom wasn’t universally loved by his colleagues, principal, or school district. Some parents were weary before seeing the impact on their kids. In fact, an educator who visited Mr. Pai’s classroom with me was not in love with the model for various technical reasons.

But, Mr. Pai was getting results. His students moved from being a slightly below average third grade class to comparing with a mid-year fourth grade class. More importantly, his students loved how and what they were learning. That may not be a miracle, but it is a joy.

If you want a peek into Mr. Pai’s classroom, see the video below.


Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.


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