By Martha Sager
It happened on a test day…a moment when a student absolutely refused to try. And I mean absolutely. Not arrogantly or rudely or stubbornly. Not with slamming books or an “I’m not going to do it” shout. Not in a lazy, “I don’t care” way. They refused in a quiet, invisible, impossible to detect till it’s too late way. They refused in the form of a blank page, and I’m just trying to understand it.
In our genetics unit I explain about punnet squares…a method of analyzing the possibility of inheriting certain traits. I tell them on the first day of the unit that there will be one on the exam. I go over how to do it several times during the unit, and post practice ones on the class web site. I also go over it right before the exam. I remind them the “rules” about how many “letters” will go where. I also tell them that they can set up the outside of their punnet square and come and ask me if it is correct and I will tell them “yes” or go rethink it. They can come up and ask again. Several students do this in each class…there is no “shame” associated with it that I know of…even some of my “A” students come up and ask just to be sure they have it right.
The punnet square and the questions about it are worth around 30 points on the exam, and yet I had a student hand it in blank…and never even ask me for help. I don’t understand. I can understand getting confused. I can understand getting it wrong (I seem to recall struggling with punnet squares originally myself) what I don’t understand is not even trying…not making a single mark on the thing. It is the thought process that baffles me and saddens me. I also wonder what is it that I didn’t do that would leave them in a place where they don’t even attempt the challenging…they don’t even “just try”. What is it they think will happen if they put pencil to paper and do end up getting it wrong? What is the thought process that makes it better to just leave it blank than to try?
I paused to stare at my computer as I write this trying to “get it” and I can’t.
I know we don’t know their story…our students. I’ve seen the video made about the difference in students’ attitude toward trying when they have been told they are smart rather than they work hard…and how that can impact how they view something they cannot figure out right away. I like the video and certainly think it has validity. But in thinking about the blank page I wonder for how many students has the opposite been true? They haven’t been told they are smart…they’ve been told the opposite…either in real words or attitudes. They’ve been told in some way that they are “stupid” or “incapable” or “don’t belong in college”…and when they come to something that is a challenge…they buy into the lies and think “of course I can’t do it I’m too …….”
It is the idea of the hopelessness of the blank page…the fact that it seems to reflect an “I can’t do it so why even try” attitude that makes me sad. I think maybe most of us have had a moment like that at some point in our life…hopefully in nothing major…, but those moments when we are just too tired or too discouraged, or too overwhelmed in that moment, that we just say “it’s not worth it”. Maybe remembering those moments can help us understand our students better when they have such moments.
I don’t want my students to feel that way in class. Not ever. I want them to know its ok to try and “fail” as long as “try” is part of the equation…because we can overcome the “fail” part…but only if the “try” is there. I want them to have that feeling a person gets when they accomplish what they thought was impossible. I want them to have those “aha” and “I get it” moments that are so much exciting when they happen to a student that struggles. I want to help them achieve those moments…but how do I get them past the blank page…and how did I not see the blank page coming.