Case Study of a Student

B—[1] was introduced to me as “a really nice kid.” I looked at him and remarked, “No pressure though, right?,” to which he smiled and said, “Yeah, I’m not really nice at all.” We sat down together at a table so I could help him on his homework for Chemistry 10, the one science I did not take in high school. At the very least, I thought to myself, I could help him with the instructions. After getting settled at the table, he opened a bag of Sour Patch Kids and offered me some. He is a nice kid.

B— is failing Science. He is enrolled in Learning Strategies to have additional time and help completing his schoolwork this term, but it’s easy to get distracted, even in this class. To be fair, though, the Chemistry assignment he was working on was poorly formatted and some questions seemed like they were designed with the intention to trick students. He admitted to me that he cheated on all his Science assignments last year… he typed the textbook code into Google and was able to find the teacher copy (answers included) online. Halfway through this story, he said something along the lines of “I shouldn’t be telling a teacher this.” “A pre-service teacher,” I reminded him. We slowly worked through the chart he had to complete. B— was happy to explain the difference between covalent, multivalent, and polyatomic bonds, and as he taught me, he was better able to figure out the answers to his homework. He muttered quietly to himself as he worked, talking through the questions.[2] He laughed at the chemistry joke I shared with him, and then looked at his periodic table to debate whether the outcome of the joke was actually possible.[3] I encouraged him to share it with his Science teacher and ask him, but judging by B—’s attitude towards school, I doubt that he will.

This student’s interests are decidedly extracurricular. He dedicates his efforts to Phys. Ed., and specifically to rugby, as these are what he enjoys and wants to pursue. He is truly proud to be on the team that he is on, and he’s both excited and nervous for next year, when he will be old enough to move on to the next level of rugby. When he advances, he will be just 16 years old on a team of many 18- and 19-year-olds. He lamented that a team for 16- and 17-year-olds does not exist, but we talked about the merits of being among more experienced players and being able to learn quickly from them.

Social Studies, by his assessment, is the biggest waste of time and should be dropped from schools. At the same time, however, he was eager to discuss the current United States election with me. It isn’t that he intrinsically dislikes the subject, it’s that he dislikes the branding and the seeming irrelevance to his life. I told him about the similar distaste I had for Social Studies when I was in school, but added that when I began to tie historical events to my subject of interest—English Literature—I became interested in the events and could better remember them. He’s not a big fan of English, either, although in a battle of Socials to English, it seems that English would come out on top. He enjoyed a dystopian short story that his class read together, so I recommended he check out Orwell’s 1984.

We bonded over our music preferences, both preferring Classic Rock to modern bands. He likes Van Halen, ACDC, and Eric Clapton. He is definitely cooler than I was in high school. He smirked when I told him my fondness for Billy Joel and when I revealed that I was a band geek. After chatting for a while about life in general, he said, “I have a question for you… I ask everyone this question: do you think it’s more likely that a creator made the world, or that we are all here because of evolution?” B— is in the process of forming his own opinions about the world around him, and he is curious about what other people think about that world.

The new B.C. Curriculum, with its allowance for flexibility, seems like it will be advantageous to students like B—. When I asked him about what he would think if schools got rid of grades entirely, he was taken aback. Then, he was thoughtful. He concluded that he couldn’t think of anything bad about getting rid of grades, and that it would be nice to not be assessed in that way. I asked him what he would think about personalized learning, wherein students’ interests (in his case, rugby) could become a part of their assignments. He really liked that idea. He thinks that if students were able to write about what they are passionate about, it would make them care more about their schoolwork.

It seems to me that a student like this one would flourish in a school that strives to connect students’ curricular competencies to their actual lives. B— is intelligent, witty, and hard-working when he wants to be. He isn’t dedicated to the particular assignments he is being asked to do because he feels that they lack relevance in his day-to-day experiences. He avoids work, but not because it’s difficult. In fact, he seems to enjoy challenge and he actively seeks knowledge. He has a mind that would likely benefit from a Socratic style of teaching and activities designed to challenge him to see the complexity of the world. This is a student who wants to get at the big questions of life, and if he can’t see a connection between the little details of assignments and those big questions of the real world, he won’t put in the effort. B— does not want to waste his time in trivialities.

If I were to teach a student like B— in an English class, I would continually try to connect current events to class material. For example, I could use the 2016 Presidential Debates for a lesson on rhetoric, getting students to both listen to and read Clinton’s and Trump’s responses, discussing particular concepts they see in the speeches. As a class, we could follow this lesson up with a mock debate about a text we are studying. I would assign teams for this activity, choosing to put some students (like B—) on the side of the debate that they are less likely to agree with, thereby challenging those students to think beyond their own perspectives. B— would also benefit from freedom of choice in his assignments, so beginning classes with free writing, providing a list of broad topics to choose from, may be valuable.

[1] I have removed the student’s name to protect his privacy.

[2] “Private Speech,” as introduced by Vygotsky, is a method people use to regulate their thoughts and actions. It is primarily used by children; however, adults use private speech when under mental stress or when learning something new.

[3] The joke I told is as follows: A man walks into a bar and orders a glass of H2O. His friend says, I’ll have a glass of H2O, too. The second man died.

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