21 January 2010

A Failing Mentality

I am like the failing student who knows that he must make up work if he wants to pass the class, who gets constant reminders from his teachers and supporters that even half is better than no credit, but still does nothing to improve his grade. This student sees passing as an insurmountable task, one he is so far behind in that there is no point in trying.

Today, during a silly vocabulary game in my Read 180 class, the very student I am picturing in my mind right now, stopped playing once he was behind by two points. When I saw him not participating, I asked, "Why aren't you playing?" He motioned to the scores and said, "I already lost. What's the point?" In this simple question, I understood his lack of motivation. What's the point of working so hard to make up work if it will only get him to a 50% and he needs 70% to pass? He is, indeed, very smart in his conservation of energy.

But I have been conserving in a similar way. So far behind am I in updating my blog, pushing myself to articulate the daily dramas and successes of my life in an urban school, that I have become my student. I have given up. What's the point in writing? I'll never catch up, I tell myself.

The point, I might remind to tell him too, is what I learn along the way. It's in the 50% I do accomplish (or maybe just the 10). The point is the sense of pride I can feel in not letting myself down. I gave the very pep talk to a young woman this evening that I need to give myself. She saw her failing grade and almost caved to not completing the five assignments she'll need to pass. I stopped her and said, "Do not punish yourself for your mistakes by making the situation worse. Do not punish yourself. You can make a change right now." I should take my own advice, and the push from Cathlin (thank you for reading because you might be the only one), and write. To not write is to punish myself for not writing, which seems like a silly waste of time in the end.


  1. I'm reading! I have you on RSS. I've been reading a bunch of research on this exact thing for work: learned helplessness. I saw it in tons of students too. Some theorists think it stems from the fundamental belief that intelligence is fixed (in other words, why practice because you won't get better) and from linking self esteem to achievement (getting good grades, writing your blog) instead of learning skills (getting better at things, practicing). The very good news is that these attitudes can be restructured fairly easily by talking to kids about how intelligence is malleable and by praising students for their effort or skill development (not their accomplishments). So, good job Jill, I enjoyed your skills in writing this post.

  2. I'm reading too! I'm behind too - at everything, I think - but I feel a tiny bit better when I stop and get a small thing done. You've explained this feeling well.

  3. "The point is the sense of pride I can feel in not letting myself down."

    Yup! And that's what makes a writer a writer: we write. We do it, we do it for ourselves as much as our audience. And, often, like you did right now, we do it well. It's so nice to see something new here.