So Your Class is Engaging But They Aren’t Engaged: Now What?

06 Sep

I desperately hope someone will answer the question I pose in the title of this post. Yesterday was a terrible teaching day. Last summer, after some teaching epiphanies, I revamped my teaching, made multimodality my creed, and committed myself to active learning. To being the “guide on the side” as one mentor says. And it worked. My composition classes were fantastic.  For the first time, I really loved teaching comp. So I bounced into the classroom this fall, ready and excited for a similar experience.

The first assignment for my Comp 101 is based on bits of Walden. We discuss the idea of simplicity, how this is supposed to lead to an awakening and to action based on that awakening. To explore these ideas, we embark on a week-long simplicity experiment, giving up something that complicates our lives for one week.  Last year, some students made some really brave decisions and their insights led to amazing discussions.  It was a transformative week.  This year…well, maybe I just had really high expectations. Or maybe they’ve already simplified. Whatever the case, the whole experiment is just meh. They don’t want to talk about it, they don’t want to share. One student is excited — she’s given up makeup and suddenly has thirty extra minutes a day, and she is now reflecting on larger concepts of beauty and standards for women. For her, the experiment has worked exactly as I had hoped. But she’s one of fifteen, and I want more.

In all my general ed classes, I use lots of teaching methods — daybooks, group work, discussions, Wordles, projects, PollEverywhere, Socrative, gallery crawls, audio collages, podcasts, videos, experiments, even walks in the woods.  I get giddy with the excitement of doing and learning. I make jokes and I listen. I learn something in class every day. But when students don’t reciprocate, when they aren’t willing to meet me at least halfway, much less buy into the class, I don’t know what else I can do. I want us to suck the marrow out of education, to back it into a corner and know it by experience, to discover what is Story and Writing and Knowing.  I don’t want to practice resignation, and I don’t want my students to either.*

But when they stare and don’t participate. When they are supposed to be writing in daybooks and they aren’t. When they sigh and mutter audible comments about how pointless this all is, it makes me feel that perhaps, perhaps it is pointless.  If they want a straight lecture about Achilles rather than a discussion of heroes in cultural contexts, perhaps I should give it to them. That’s way easier anyway. Or if they feel composition is just writing essay after essay, I should give up on discussions of self and Story and writing that selfStory and just give them what they expect. 

But I can’t. 

So, dear people, what do you do when you are pouring your heart and your energy and your self into your classes every day, and that outpouring isn’t reciprocated?  What do you do when you get frustrated and confused and tired and it’s only the second week of classes? How do you keep going?

Now what?


*Been reading a lot of Walden. Sue me.


Posted by on September 6, 2012 in Uncategorized


4 responses to “So Your Class is Engaging But They Aren’t Engaged: Now What?

  1. profmamamusings

    September 6, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    Okay, so I’m getting over my whiny self. Carry on.

  2. IAmtheGing

    September 6, 2012 at 9:39 pm

    Solidarity, sista. The best answer I know is to just keep doing what you’re doing. There is that one girl in your comp class that is truly reaping the benefits of your teaching methods and philosophy. Today, I had two students not write a lick during an entire 20 minute free-writing period for their first essays. But, I didn’t let it bother me. Instead, I focused my attention on the ones who were writing so quickly they looked scared to breathe. I praise those students in front of the class because they deserve to be. I think sometimes as teachers, we tend to dwell on the negative because it’s the easiest thing to find. I’m working on being positive – and I’ve found that simply sticking to my guns and not backing down works because sooner or later, they will pick up on it. And if they don’t, they will have to live with the consequences of not being engaged (and I’m not just talking grades, here). Or, you could always give them a sampling of what the alternative is…that might make some believers out of them.

    And I don’t think you’re whiny – you’re frustrated. As are most teachers who truly love their jobs and are passionate about learning and education when things don’t go the way they want.

    I suggest taking a deep breath, pouring yourself a good glass of wine, find a comfy spot with a good book (I’m reading Breakfast with Buddha), and get your zen on. Or, you could hike up Crowders Mountain, scream it out, hike back down, and remember that you ARE a good teacher and you ARE a great mentor and you ARE needed and you ARE important. (:

    Solidarity, sista.

    PS: I so much miss being a student. Can I come sit in the next night class that you teach? I will read, read, read. I’ll even do the assignments!

    • profmamamusings

      September 6, 2012 at 9:58 pm

      I can’t thank you enough for this. Truly.

      And please come to class anytime. 🙂

  3. Helaine

    April 4, 2013 at 5:34 pm

    How do I give a facebook like? I do not often care but this content was definitely excellent and it helped me
    so that is the least I could do.


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