With Love, Mr. Primm
Helping students find a purpose for learning
Epiphany & Cynicism
I experienced an epiphany back in December. I was feeling despair over my students’ negative attitudes toward their schooling, which you’d think would preclude any development of hope, thus ruining all my beautiful plans for the year. The last month of 2022 was tough. Lots of student drama, shorter days, even shorter fuses. But it suddenly clicked for me one day — many of my students are freshmen who don’t yet have an articulated purpose for schooling. Or if they do, they haven’t shared it with me. To quote the introduction of The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life (William Damon, 2008), a book that’s been on my shelf for over two years, but that I picked up in December for reasons that should be obvious:
“For too many young people today, apathy and anxiety have become the dominant moods, and disengagement or even cynicism has replaced the natural hopefulness of youth.”
Yes! Exactly. I actually laughed out loud on reading this and showed it to one of my cynics, who agreed with it (but said she didn’t know what “the word that starts with a c” — cynicism — meant). And this book is 15 years old! An artifact from the Obama era, with wisdom for today. So, this is what I’ve been compelled to learn about recently. Purpose. And ope! It turns out that I foreshadowed this back in August when I quoted Marge Piercy’s line:
“The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.”
Sometimes, we can learn a lot from our past selves. Especially when our present selves are feeling addled by the school year and forget the plans we made.
Finding & Defining
After my epiphany, I found some resources in the Human Restoration Project’s (free and extensive) collection, and tried them out with my students.
What have I learned so far? Quite a bit! And overall I feel like my students and I are on the upswing when it comes to hope and positivity. Is it perfect? No. But, as Master Obi-Wan would probably remind us: “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.” (Yes, I really am continuing to run with this Kenobi bit.) Binary thinking is also one of the characteristics of White Supremacy Culture, as articulated by Tema Okun. At any rate, I’m generally a fan of dwelling in nuance, celebrating victories, and identifying growth opportunities.
I started by having students think about what they wanted to get out of high school using a tool from the Path to Purpose Handbook (available here for free, with donations appreciated). The exercise in question invites students to rank their top five statements, then narrow down those down to three, and finally choose one that is most true about their desires for high school. The top two statements for my advisory — by a wide margin — were “I want to get into college” and “I want to get good grades”. (After those two the distribution scattered more, but “I want to graduate from high school” and “I want to be independent” were the third and fourth most chosen, respectively.)
I suspect that if I’d asked the students at my previous school to complete this activity, their responses would have been quite different. College wasn’t as much of a priority for many of them, and the school didn’t issue grades at all. So, it makes sense that my initial attempts to connect with my current students may have gone a bit awry — I was working under false assumptions based on my experiences with an entirely different group of folks. I have a lot of feelings about grades — none of them positive¹ — but if college and grades are what my students most care about right now, I should probably pay attention!
In their free responses, my students expanded their scope a bit, writing about their desires to have fun in school and enjoy themselves while learning. They want to please their parents and go to good colleges. One student referenced “learning new things about the world and myself,” which is a sentiment any educator should be able to get behind. In short, they’re great kids and they seem to know what they want out of school (even if they aren’t quite sure yet what to do with their lives beyond that).
Leadership & Notes
Armed with a better idea of what my students want and need from their education — and the places where they still need to figure that out — I’m now working to support them in their paths to purpose. Something I shared in October was quoted in a recently published post on the McGraw Hill blog about strategies for motivating students, and it serves as another nice reminder from my past self, this time about the fundamental importance of relationships in the classroom.
One relationship builder I’ve been using this year is the simple act of writing positive notes to my students sharing something I appreciate about them, signed “With love, Mr. Primm”. Though they don’t acknowledge it directly, I’ve observed small, positive changes in my students’ demeanor towards me and towards school in general. Fewer complaints, and more smiles.
I actually chose “Lead” as my #OneWord for 2023, and I wasn’t even thinking about this institute and its theme when I decided on it. It just felt like, after a semester of listening and learning — and, frankly, failing a bit — I needed to step up and lead. In my classroom, it seems like the best way to improve student motivation and attitudes is leading them into a new mindset. I’m certainly not going to punish them into being less negative, not that I believe in punishment as a general rule. I’m also not going to sass them into being less negative, though I do love being sassy with my students. I’m going to get them there through love and leadership, one small step at a time. That’s really the only way.
¹ In the days before I finalized this piece, my students invited a conversation about how my previous school functioned without grades. When I tried to explain it to them, it was as though I were describing life on another planet (e.g., “How do you get an A?” “So it’s just pass/fail?” “Did anyone ever get into college?”). They have been graded for so long that they can’t even conceive of another reality. So if I ever do want to change this, there’s a long road ahead.