Sunday, July 5, 2015

Marci on Motivation

Marci Wu
Jigsaw Response Blog on Motivation
July 4, 2015/7/4

I’ve decided to write in response to the topic of motivation because this is to me my biggest challenge as a teacher of Taiwanese high school students, especially in English Literature, a subject towards which the majority take a general disliking.  When it comes to their attitudes towards subjects like science, math, computers, or even music, most of them have a deeply rooted sense of intrinsic motivation simply because it bypasses their struggles with extreme shyness.  They are naturally drawn to content areas that don’t require much social interaction in English mainly due to the ever-present issue of losing face. They’re caught between the desire to be fluent and their reluctance to communicate for fear of making mistakes.  

I want to take an honest look at what I’m faced with and I welcome anyone’s suggestion on how to overcome this:  Because of their rigorous daily schedule, during any type of down time, the students either bury their faces into their ipads or they just tune out the world and sleep. Motivation just does not exist.   Therefore, reading English for pleasure, unless the student has a deep and personal interest, is the last thing on their minds.  So in this situation, the English teacher has a choice – to go against the grain and try to inspire a sense of interest in reading English texts for pleasure, or just distance him or herself from such lofty dreams and stick to the job description, and that is to simply get through the airtight syllabus.  Yes, I am aware that this is the idea of resistance that was mentioned on the first day, but it’s a real thing and it has its relevance.
The connections that surfaced after our group discussion on motivation showed the importance of teachers - 

a.  supplying access to a variety of age-appropriate and interest-related reading material
With this in mind, the expense would be solely my responsibility.  By this, I mean with the exception of supplying them with school library books that shouldn’t leave the classroom for fear of damage or loss, I’d have to foot the bill for anything bought.  Without a strict system of accountability in place, if I did create a classroom library, how could I trust them to treat the books with the respect they deserve?  How could I be sure that my investment would suddenly spark a deeper interest in reading?  It’s a leap of faith.  It’s an unfamiliar mindset of sharing tangible things with students.  Here’s another source of resistance:  due to their Asian cultural predisposition of ‘face’ coupled with their adolescent hyper-sensitivity, they are extremely conscious of image, so they would naturally avoid anything that would be deemed “uncool,” especially something so nerdy as taking teacher-recommended English reading material off the shelf for pleasure.  On the contrary, they would just use the excuse that they don’t have the time because first of all, they’re tired, and when it comes to any reading at all, their required reading takes precedence, which is true. 

b.  empowering students with a sense of choice in their reading
I’d say my students have an equivalent of an American 2nd to 3rd grade level of English, so the challenge is daunting, finding easy yet engaging books appropriately related to the interests of Taiwanese sixteen-year-olds.  Even if I had a variety of such material and they did have a choice, making the actual commitment to read a non-required English book with the purpose of full understanding would be like squeezing water from a stone. How can one inspire motivation from scratch? 

c.  giving feedback and task-related incentives in order to encourage their intrinsic motivation
Unfortunately, the only incentive that motivates my students is the value of the percentage written in red ink.  They correlate their score to their self esteem, so a 75% means “the teacher hates me.”  The essential problem lies in their interpretation of the number.  They don’t see it as a healthy, ongoing challenge to improve, but rather as a value judgment of themselves as individuals.  I suppose this is not cultural, but more of a misguided or underdeveloped sensitivity which needs time to mature as they grow.

I understand that the feedback is not only a score, but also comes in the form of specific and sincere praise of their progress or hard work.  Yet I must face the truth in that none of it matters as much when culturally all they’re trained to see is the number.

d.  fostering a healthy rapport with students
This I believe is crucial to success not only as a student, but also from the perspective of the teacher.  If there is no relationship, there is no trust on either part.  In that situation, learning cannot take place.  Rapport is an essential part of my teaching philosophy.  No matter the subject, learning comes much quicker and more naturally when the class atmosphere is supportive, relationships are healthy and trust is established.  This is the one area where I feel at least I have a foothold.

After our discussion today, I never felt more distant from a starting point in respect to inspiring in my students a deeper sense of intrinsic motivation when it comes to loving the activity of reading.  Part of me wants to wait for them like a sage on the mountaintop.  If they don’t develop a natural passion for reading on their own, then no harm, no foul.  If they do, I’m there ready with support.  Another part of me wants to reach out and draw their interest out of them at the risk of being rejected.  Either way, there is some basic tectonic shifting going on in my priorities as a teacher of Literature.


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    1. Marci, thanks for sharing your teaching experiences from Taiwan. The pictures you’ve described deals with issues of anxiety and societal constructions that are deeply rooted in the Taiwanese culture. Your blog raises some important questions about potential challenges international teachers could face. How do we encourage our students to be motivated? I don’t have the answer, but my optimism wants to suggest providing meaningful topics which your students are generally interested in. Student motivation can be sparked by the ability to make easy and relative connections, so something your students might open up about: pop culture, video games, music, technology etc.

      For my jigsaw article, I read the piece The Social Side of Engaged Reading for Young Adolescents by Gay Ivey. In the article the author described how struggling students improved their reading by engaging in more social interactions. Students viewed reading as fundamentally about working on relationships with themselves and others. By developing their social relationships students become motivated and read more. I understand your classroom might be pressed for time and you will face resistance, but I feel bullets B & C are good strategies that you can try to implement. Try empowering your students with a sense of choice of text within their English reading level (as little as it is) and try to give immediate positive feedback and continue to encourage them to try. Good luck!

  2. Hi Marci, it seems you have tried a number of different avenues but met with some kind of cultural barrier, so how would you go around that? For one thing, we all see how non-English families and parents are usually very anxious that their children learn to speak English, and that you can tell them will happen best by reading. When the parents/family and students buy into this method it will motivate them to see the connection between reading and speaking English. The barrier of shyness or finding topics chosen by the teacher 'uncool' may become less in the process. Ask them what books they want to read about in English? They can make photocopies of the original books which can stay in the classroom library, so that they won't be lost. Can also have small discussions around a book and how they think it should end, and get them to talk about it in a way that they want to share their idea.
    Thanks a lot for sharing your insights.

  3. Yusef, in your response to my post on motivation, you suggested providing the students with meaningful subjects that they themselves enjoy in order to inspire a sense of motivation in reading. Then in your Literacy History post, you mentioned your passion for basketball, which caused me to start thinking about what I could possibly do in respect to their personal interests. It’s all about finding an entry point, isn’t it? Basketball is the sport of choice among high school boys in Taiwan. So, I thought of using it as a springboard for sparking an interest in reading English in the classroom. My idea is to start a magazine shelf for light reading at the end classes with basketball and other sports magazines as well as those of other genres such as fashion, K-pop, or interior design, etc. With these magazines readily available for them to peruse, not only would they be exploring their interests, there would be the sense of choice, the element of social interaction, and the exposure to new English words. It is my hope that by making the classroom print-rich with as much engaging material as possible, I can allow them the freedom to develop their literacy and make the most of time spent in class. Thank you for the suggestion!

  4. From Nate.....I’m glad you brought up this topic as I find the same issues here in Thailand. Many of the students have a low level of English and don’t seem interested in reading. I looked at it deeper and asked some of my Thai friends why they thought this is. I came to a couple conclusions.
    A lot of the English texts takes place in a world they can’t relate to. The nouns used and the plot situations aren’t something normal for them. Also, almost none of the texts took place in Asia or dealt with Asian people. They felt disconnected from the material, and rightfully so. I started to pay attention to thinks that they do like: video games, Korean pop music, anime/cartoons, and of course, Thailand. I began to teach them through these things. There were days where I pretended that I was completely distracted from teaching, and I would sit with kids while they played video games. I would make them explain everything to me, and I would give them tips but only in English. They paid closeeeeeeee attention to everything I said. I showed them codes and strategies and I helped them decode words they never really knew the meaning to. The girls, would always be listening to K-pop, which has a lot of random English lyrics that they would sing all the time. I changed their projects to have them explain the lyrics of a song, or create their own English hooks over the same beats. Students also had no problem reading and writing when the topic was Thailand. So, we would have lessons on how to explain all things in Thailand in English (food, places, rituals, etc.) under the guise that if they can explain Thailand in English, the whole world will love Thailand (which strangely highly motivates them).

    I think a lot of times students are interested in reading. They are reading things all the time, just not in the way that we normally consider academic. But, if we can find ways to adapt the reading to their immediate interests then they will be motivated to read. I’m not sure how well this suggestion applies to Taiwan, but I hope it helps.