Student apathy or bad pedagogy? Engaging students in the classroom

Categories: Blog, Education, Studio 345

By Caitie Connor
Out-of-School Time Special Projects Intern, Education
ASC Davidson College Education Scholar

Students observe a film pitch by their peers and raise their hand if they would go to see the film, in Studio 345's summer 100 Word Film studio. Photo credit: Max McDaniel.
Students observe a film pitch by their peers and raise their hand if they would go to see the film, in Studio 345’s summer 100 Word Film studio. Photo credit: Max McDaniel.

A recent survey of teachers identified student apathy as one of the major problems in classrooms. Academic disengagement is on the rise, as fewer students are willing to play the game of school without any perceived gain.

“I HATE writing essays in school,” Hope uttered.

I was eavesdropping on a conversation among the writing team in Studio 345’s Summer Program marketing studio. I was surprised to hear this, considering that they chose to be writers whose job is to develop content about Studio 345 for the Arts and Science Council (ASC) websites.

“I just don’t get the point,” she continued. Another student chimed in. “I could just copy and paste something into my essay and the teacher wouldn’t even know it,” he said. Others agreed, laughing.

Our current education system has the gaping problem of poor pedagogy. It is likely that writing an essay is a valuable learning experience for the student, but only if the teacher is able to engage the student in it, first. A close friend of mine in high school wrote most of his essays twenty minutes before they were due. “What’s the point?” he’d say, like Hope. It was only when we were given more freedom in the creative process that he was engaged enough to commit more time to his work. Sometimes, that happened when we were able to choose our own writing prompt or book. Other times, it happened organically when there was excellent instruction and dialogue in the classroom.

The primary goal of Studio 345 is to educate and inspire students to stay in school, graduate, and pursue goals beyond high school. Throughout the past two weeks that I’ve been with the program, I’ve noticed that they accomplish this goal by fostering independent thought and guiding the creative process. Students aren’t just handed cameras and told to have fun, and they’re not assigned a role that doesn’t fit their artistic interests, either. It’s skill-based, project-oriented learning that culminates in a finished project for an intended client.

I travelled with the photographers on their first field trip to check out Davidson’s Town Hall gallery, which will exhibit the students’ photos of Davidson in the fall. I heard a “whoa” and witnessed several smiles before they headed out to explore, cameras in hand.

If student apathy is a growing problem, what is the cause? Some educators I know would say bad attitudes or bad homes. All I know is that when I’m sitting in on Studio 345’s marketing studio, I’m stunned by the students’ participation. Chris, the teaching artist, says that he usually gives them the option to leave class 5-10 minutes early to have time for a break. One or two will stray to the restroom, but almost everyone earnestly continues working. Last time I was there, a kid yelled “Guys! We only have eight minutes left, we have to hurry!” I wish my group projects in college were like this.

Clearly, there are ways to engage students to be eager and excited learners. Some teachers, like Chris and the other teaching artists at Studio 345, have discovered these methods. Much of their instruction focuses on gaining “real world” experiences that the students value as relevant.

“I want to give them a taste of what a real film pitch and production is like,” says Tommy, the teaching artist and 100 Word Film project manager. He’s talking to me and six other ASC Education staff. We are the film production panel, and our job is to listen to the pitches by the scriptwriting team and choose one for the students to produce over the next six weeks. ASC will submit their film to a festival in October and promote it online.

Before Tommy asks us to give feedback to the first pitch, he faces Dakota and Anjewel away from their peers and asks the rest of the class, “who would go to see this film?” Hands fly up. “And would anyone not want to see this film? Why?” They converse as a production team after each pitch, before we give our feedback as a panel. Rarely do I get to see a learning environment where creative criticism and thought flows so freely.

Tommy Nichols, the teaching artist for Studio 345's summer film project, faces Anjewel and Dakota away from their peers after their film pitch to gauge interest in the film if it were produced.
Tommy Nichols, the teaching artist for Studio 345’s summer film project, faces Anjewel and Dakota away from their peers after their film pitch to gauge interest in the film if it were produced.

Let me be clear–plagiarizing essays is never okay. Students should be held to a high standard for classroom participation, even if the subject doesn’t fall within their academic interests. But there are ways to engage students in curriculum that makes them eager to participate, and there are too many classrooms in which this doesn’t happen.

At Studio 345, that is not the case.

“I’ve gotten feedback from a lot of people, friends and family, about this idea,” Hope says before pitching her film. She smiles.

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