Yes, I've done my share of complaining about students neglecting to staple assignments, students being presumptuous, and the rage brought on by I-just-want-to-be-loved colleagues, but the one thing guaranteed to bring me down faster than any whining student is the one who, for whatever reason, refuses to even TRY something new.
Instances where this has happened have ranged from attempting to fold origami in class (we were studying a geometrical unit at the time, so it was appropriate), writing a linked verse (the student claimed that poetry was just too hard; this was in a poetry class, mind you), and, in today's instance, reading aloud, to the class, their abstracts of their quarter-long research projects.
I'm not expecting them to get up front or even to do a full-blown presentation. They know this. They've been expecting this from Day 1. It's not like they get to class and I suddenly said, "Oh, by the way, you'll be getting up front speaking without notes to everyone." They're reading for less than a minute. Period. They're reading from abstracts that I have gone over with them and helped them to proofread in anticipation of this moment. Those who want to extemporize may do so, but the requirement is to simply read the abstract so everyone knows the conclusions drawn from this quarter's work. They've been working collaboratively all quarter on this project, and each person has contributed a different perspective to the overall project (I'm trying not to be too specific), so this isn't the first time the students have talked with each other or familiarized themselves with each other's work. They've engaged in peer editing and have provided feedback to each other on their projects, and seem like a cohesive unit.
We sit in a square of four large tables (it's an odd room to meet in) and each student goes in turn, reading hir abstract. Most take about a minute to read. We're saving questions for the end when everyone has read. Everyone is swimming with the current (a few more shakily than others, but they're swimming, nonetheless), until we hit Frantic Phoebe. She absolutely refuses to swim.
"I can't read," she says. I encourage her to go ahead, thinking she just needs a moment to compose herself. She shakes her head. "I suck at reading out loud," she says. I know this to be untrue because she has read aloud to me in one-on-one conferences for two quarters now. Her reading skills are no better or worse than anyone else's. "I can't do it," she says. Her friend next to her cajoles: "It's not that bad. It'll be over before you even realize it. Just read." Frantic Phoebe simply shakes her head, refusing to look up.
"Ok, we'll come back to you at the end of class," I say, not wanting to lose momentum. But momentum is lost. And I fear that for Frantic Phoebe, whatever insecurity has led her to refuse to read aloud for 30 seconds, has won. She has allowed herself to give in to the fears that inhibit growth. Her momentum is lost. She has stopped, and will sink. And she is OK with that.
But I am not OK with that. Her defeatist attitude is one I simply do not understand. I understand fear, and I understand insecurity. But I don't understand not even trying. If Frantic Phoebe were a one-time deal, I'd chalk it up to her fear of public reading and leave it at that. But Frantic Phoebe isn't alone. I've had students simply refuse to participate, like a toddler stoically keeping hir mouth shut when the airplane spoon is locked and loaded to land.
These students simply shut down before even taking a bite, and I don't know what to do with that. To mix my similes, they refuse to take a bite, and they sink, and I cannot swim for them...
I know the adages about leading horses to water and not caring more about their learning than they do, and whatnot, but this doesn't help me cope with the disappointment that their refusal to try something new has stunted their development. Every time they refuse to try something new, I envision another door in their brains shutting down permanently. Perhaps I'm being melodramatic, and they will bounce back, but I doubt it. I envision all of the ideas and learning that they're refusing to take advantage of. And this disappoints me more than the students who half-ass it (although those make me more angry than disappointed).
While I am a cynic at heart, I also want so much for them to not be the ones closing doors for themselves when they will face many closed doors not of their own making.