Teaching sullen 15 year olds
November 5, 2017 6:00 AM   Subscribe

I have been a volunteer in a program that teaches basic coding to students in"under-resourced" city high schools for the last three years. My students this year are very different - they have been sullen and unengaged from the start and I'm looking for some help in engaging them. More snowflake details follow.

Each year I've been at a different school. This year's group of students is 15, and in the past they've been 16 to 17. Would age make that much difference? All classes have been first thing in the morning. In the other schools, students would say hello to me by name when they came in to class, but this group of students come in with heads down. I have learned all their names and say hello to them by name as they come in, but they kind of just grunt and sit down.

In other classes, when students were doing individual projects you had to work to get them to leave at the end of class, but this year they are waiting for the bell.

There's a lot of time for one-on-one interaction, but I'm spending most of it just telling students to do the assignment. In the past I would be explaining something they don't understand or showing them how to go farther. They understand well enough, but they don't seem interested in knowing more.

Even when I praise them, they just give me dirty looks. If this was my first time doing this I would be hella discouraged! But the other two classes were so different. But I am still just a volunteer with no formal teaching background.

Any tips from experienced teachers about what I can do to spark them? They are smart and capable, but they just seem uniformly depressed. I can't know all that is going wrong in their lives and I won't be able to help there, but I can I just give them a little spark?
posted by maggiemaggie to Education (12 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Building relationships can really help engagement. Spend some time at the beginning of each class asking them how they are, telling them a little bit about you.

If you haven't already, show them some projects their peers have done in the past so that they can see what is possible.

Try to connect what they are doing to something they might be interested in in real life--do they like sports? Use Snapchat? Find out what motivates them and use it.

This is just a tough age--they are way more influenced by their peers than kids even a year or two older. If most of the class is not engaged, no one will want to stand out by being engaged themselves. Keep trying!
posted by chaiminda at 6:12 AM on November 5, 2017

It’s just going to suck - it’s not you. By the end they’ll probably be all crying that you’re leaving but don’t expect any cooperation for a long time. Maybe you can try an icebreaker game?
posted by karmachameleon at 6:32 AM on November 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Just a random thought since you mention they come from under-resourced schools, which could mean awfully poor homes -- but, have they had breakfast? If you brought doughnuts or muffins every morning, would you be giving them both a reason to like you and something in their stomaches?
posted by jacquilynne at 6:36 AM on November 5, 2017 [22 favorites]

All the suggestions above are good. 15 is a tough age, because the kids will take their cues from each other (not you).

If you can get one male influencer and one female influencer going, the rest of the kids will, too. Things that can 'win' students over quickly:

- Go to their school sports games (or performance or club), then talk to them about it.

- Find something that one of the kids did, that is good and noteworthy. Call home to tell parents about the good thing. Word will spread like wildfire.

- Have the kids tell you about their goals. Allow them to add their names or let it be anonymous. Ask them to tell you what their goals are in the class, what they plan to do to meet those goals, what their peers can do to help them reach their goals, and what you can do to help them reach their goals. When you see the answers, patterns will emerge. In the past, I have found that all kids wanted a quiet but friendly class to work in, and I could hold the class accountable for their behaviour to ensure that we met this goal.

Good luck. Make the class fun for you, because this dynamic can be soul sucking.
posted by Sauter Vaguely at 7:07 AM on November 5, 2017 [6 favorites]

There is one thing that I know to be true after teaching teenagers for fifteen years: Kids do well if they can.

It sounds like they can't do well, so they aren't doing well. A really helpful mantra for me is "they're not giving me a hard time, they're HAVING a hard time."

I also teach 15 year olds who some would describe as sullen, and who are most CERTAINLY from underprivileged backgrounds. I spent years trying to guess as to what the problem actually was, and my guess was usually "they just don't want to do it" or more charitably, "they're hungry or tired."

But this year, I made a much more concerted effort to talk to students individually about what was getting in their way of doing the assignments. Here are some of the things I learned:
--they were starving
--they hadn't slept the night before
--they were fighting with a best friend
--they had just broken up with a boyfriend/girlfriend
--they were homeless
--they couldn't read*
--they had been sent out of class so much that they had a really hard time just being in class
--they had mental health issues that were either unmedicated or undermedicated
--they had learning disabilities that no one had ever diagnosed/treated
--they didn't understand what to do and hated feeling stupid
--they didn't understand what to do, but the most a teacher would ever say was "Well, did you READ the assignment?" or "I JUST went over that. Why weren't you listening?" or some other similar sarcastic remark
--they didn't understand what to do and they had no strategies for either asking for help or for figuring it out (yes, those are skills!)
--they were feeling hopeless and just waiting to drop out of school
--they didn't understand the technology and felt stupid about asking

As you can see, those problems can easily get in the way of a kid being successful. There are a few more skills that most adults think of as "basic" that a lot of underprivileged students just don't have, like:
--being able to tolerate frustration
--finding an alternate solution to a problem
--making transitions between places or activities
--flexibility when something changes or isn't as it normally is
--knowing how to ask for help
--knowing when they need to ask for help
--dealing with anxiety without shutting down
--using words to ask for things or to express feelings or to identify concerns

The trouble is, most adults don't think of those as being things that you learn. But kids who haven't learned those skills CAN NOT be successful in school, and especially with a complex subject like coding.

The first thing to do is see them through another lens than the one you have, which is that kids do well if they can. When they can't, they need help.

The second thing to do is to ask them what's getting in the way of starting the assignment. Take care to phrase it not as a behaviour ("Why aren't you doing your work?") and not adversarial ("I don't understand why you won't just get started! It's much less effort to start than it is to avoid the work!") but rather as what's preventing them from starting this particular assignment. I use this formulation: "I noticed you're having difficulty getting started on [x assignment name]. What's up?" Then listen.

If they say "It's boring" you're not getting the whole story. Keep drilling, and repeat back their feelings so you know they're listening. Like this: "Oh, so it's boring. What's boring about it?"

Eventually, they'll probably tell you that they're tired or they don't understand what to do or they're hungry or whatever. Then you can try to help them with that problem.

My guess is that the whole class will have different answers, but with similar themes. For my students, we found that most of them were so hungry they couldn't deal during class. Once we addressed that problem (I buy food and they spend their PBIS points, which they earn school-wide, to buy it), we found another one. And another one. And as we address each of them, class gets more respectful and more productive.

But the benefits to this system are many. You may be the first adult who actually listens to their concerns and doesn't deny their feelings or tell them to just deal with it. Empathy is never overrated with teenagers.

If you want to know more about this method, it's called Collaborative and Proactive Solutions, and it was created by Dr. Ross Greene. His book Lost at School and Raising Human Beings are great, and his Walking Tour for Educators is a great place to start.

*Reading. Please assume these kids are reading at significantly below grade level. In my high school, our students are reading between a 1st and 5th grade lexile. In terms of vocabulary, they're mostly between 4th and 5th grade. While this isn't true everywhere, it is true that students who are in poor-performing schools often lack the phonemic awareness to decode complex words effectively. So everything you're asking them to do requires a skill they may not even have. Consider reading it aloud to them to see if that helps. It also wouldn't hurt to limit the amount of reading required.
posted by guster4lovers at 8:24 AM on November 5, 2017 [88 favorites]

It would help to know why the students are in this class. Is it elective or required? Because it really sounds like they don't want to be there. All the other ideas are great but if they are there as some sort of punishment or to "fix" them it will be pretty difficult to get them interested.
posted by Botanizer at 9:29 AM on November 5, 2017

First, thanks for the great, helpful answers! I'm watching the videos recommended by guster4lovers and they are helpful.

In answer to Botanizer's question, this is an elective, not at all part of the standard curriculum, that's part of what is making it so frustrating. All the assignments are in class. They get a grade for it, but we're not strict. We do want it to be fun!

As I said, it's the the third different under-resourced school I've taught at, but the first where the students have been so resistant. In other schools we've even had students begging to be allowed to take the class long after it started because the other students were having so much fun!
posted by maggiemaggie at 9:53 AM on November 5, 2017

Yes, feed them, but try for better than donuts. Last time I brought snacks, on a whim I picked up an overpriced cut-up grocery store package of apples and cheese among the usual crap, and they ignored the candy and ate apples and cheese. The school probably has a rule about food in the classroom, but I've been teaching forever and have never been yelled at for bringing them food. I make sure to clean up thoroughly afterward so as not to run afoul of the janitorial staff.
posted by Don Pepino at 11:13 AM on November 5, 2017 [4 favorites]

I would favourite guster4lovers’s comment 10 times if I could.

A few more environmental thoughts:

- comparing this group of students to last year’s is probably not that helpful, especially as they are a different age. You may need to modify the curriculum or the delivery. 15 is really different from 17, for a lot of reasons including how electives work or which ones were offered. Also, if independent work time is turning into messing around time that’s a cue to break problems down differently, maybe give short 5-min challenges instead of long periods of time.

- revisit the plan for “fun” - just because one group liked something doesn’t mean another will. As an example lots of kids love open-ended activities that are verbal like “create your own superhero” etc. I am leading an after school program for kids at my martial arts academy right now and they hate this kind of thing with a passion. It’s partly time of day but it’s also that the kids whose parents opt in to a very active program aren’t exactly a random sample; they tend to be kids who learn best by moving. See if you can build on the points where they do engage.

- this may be related to the whole school’s feeling/energy and may not be easily addressed but you could try to differentiate your class slightly by having a soft-playing playlist or bring in more unique lighting.

These issues you’re having are why teachers can’t just teach the same thing every year so take heart.
posted by warriorqueen at 12:03 PM on November 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

Nothing to add to the wonderful answers here. I just wanted to say thank you to you, and others like you, for caring about these students enough to want to help them.
posted by Everydayville at 1:12 PM on November 5, 2017 [14 favorites]

(Echoing Everydayville here: my daughter just started college to be a teacher, and I'm going to send her a link to this thread: I want her to see that being a teacher is about subject matter expertise and standards, but also about empathy and nurturing and communication. I know she can do all of those things, but I want her to see how they are all valuable.)
posted by wenestvedt at 10:44 AM on November 6, 2017

One issue specific to coding - are they using the same kind of computer at home as they use at school? Do they have computers at home, or are they doing coding homework on phones? (Do they have phones?) If your class is the only time they have for both learning and practice, it'll be harder for them, and that leads to giving up.

If your class is their first of the day, you're likely dealing with kids who've had little breakfast and are still caught up in whatever their home life is - getting younger siblings ready for school, tired and rushed parents, money tension over bus fare or gas prices, and so on. Their first class period may well be "shift into school mode."

Even when I praise them, they just give me dirty looks.

That's a sign of kids who've learned to distrust praise, because it either comes with a trick or a heap more work. If you're praising them, you must want something from them.

I agree with the others who've said personal connections are key. You need to find a way to relate the class to something they care about. That can be either a project they want to do, or them being friends with each other (which will likely leave out the introverts in the class), or them enjoying your company enough to want to be there. The latter is the one you have the most control over.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:59 AM on November 6, 2017

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