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There's no formula for keeping students awake, but it can be done


San Antonio Express-News (05/17/2006)
By Ken Rodriguez

On the first day of Algebra II in high school, a kid with long, frizzy hair named David folded his arms on his desk, lowered his head and closed his eyes.

I don't know if David came to class stoned. I don't know if he arrived on two hours of sleep. All I know is the teacher made no attempt to wake him up.

From late August until early June, David slept through polynomials and quadratic equations. The instructor, a nice man who spoke in a soft, hypnotic monotone, did not disturb David. Not even once.

When state lawmakers announced a new plan to finance public education, I thought of David and our old Algebra II teacher.

Legislators have agreed on a plan to fix a broken funding system. But they have done little to shake the slumber and apathy from our schools.

Giving teachers a meager raise ($2,000 per year) will not keep many of the good ones from leaving.

Pushing the starting date for school to the fourth Monday of August won't improve academic performance.

Rewarding quality instructors with bonuses will not snap thousands of sleeping students awake.

The best teachers already know how to keep kids engaged. But what about those who feel that teaching-to-the-test pressure stifles classroom creativity?

What about those who don't know how to make math relevant or English interesting?

From disruptive students to unsupportive parents, teachers face a host of challenges in the classroom.

One fundamental yet often ignored challenge is boredom. If instruction isn't engaging, minds wander. If learning isn't fun, students with average powers of concentration underperform. Many drop out. Creative teaching is imperative.

Compelling and relevant instruction would solve one root problem plaguing schools.

Even those who finish high school often aren't ready for college. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has estimated that half the students entering the state's colleges and universities need at least one remedial course in reading, writing or math.

If students aren't sleeping through school, many are graduating in a fog, half awake.

After addressing this issue Sunday ("The X factor in education: Zapping classroom boredom"), some teachers wrote to say an overemphasis on testing squelches classroom creativity.

"Education is concerned with numbers," one fifth-grade teacher wrote. "How many passed TAKS?"

Teachers, understandably, revile that Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test. But the best teachers still find a way to work creatively.

Several wrote to cite examples.

One seventh-grade government teacher said he turned a school vote on yearbook awards — "Class Clown," "Most Stylish" — into a civics lesson: Why voting is important.

"Helping a seventh-grader realize the world will not end if their choice for 'Most School Spirit' is not the eventual winner made for a fun class," the teacher wrote. "There are teachable moments all around us. Whether it be in yearbook voting, or in a Page 3 column, opportunity abounds."

I intentionally filled Sunday's column with creative ideas for teaching history, science and English. But one math teacher lamented the difficulty in making quadratic equations fun.

I had to agree: That's a tough one. But then I got a call from Heloise, the advice columnist.

A math major at what is now Texas State University-San Marcos, she didn't explain how to make algebraic formulas entertaining. But she shared a story that offered a good incentive for learning required math.

Once, while speaking to a group of high schoolers, she lined up a handful of people. The first, she said, was a dropout, earning minimum wage: $5.15 per hour. The second was a high school graduate, making about $7 an hour. The third had two years of college ($10 an hour). The fourth was a college graduate ($25 an hour). The fifth was a cardiologist.

"All of a sudden," Heloise recalls, "they got it!"

David, my old algebra classmate, never got it. He might have if someone had painted a vivid picture of his future.