Preparing Boys for Life.

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Keeping the light of learning bright
Dr. Jay Greytok '83, Head of Middle School

Recently, Governor Wolf closed all public and private schools in the Commonwealth for the remainder of the academic year. Since September, most of our middle school boys at The Haverford School were comfortable with the routine of school and were accustomed to the schedule, the space, and the expectations. When we moved to the virtual platform, their expectation of school completely changed. While many quickly adapted to the change in their routine, and often arrived to their distance learning classes early, others struggled with separating school from home, falling into a new routine, and managing their time appropriately.

As this new reality begins to settle in and the novelty of a virtual classroom wears off, we parents and educators need to determine how to keep students motivated without the vital social aspects of a physical school.

Our boys are now required to attend virtual learning every Monday through Friday, and it is all our jobs to assist them in entering this new environment. This becomes significantly more challenging without the real-world social support of the teachers, their advisors, and their peers. Parents of pseudo-independent learners (adolescents) shift from being fully supportive of their children’s actions to balancing emotional support with the supervisory role of a hall monitor or vice-principal. It is a new experience for parents and can be exhausting and infuriating. However, there are some key thoughts and ideas that we can use to help our children and our students complete – and find joy in – their online studies.

1 – Find your child’s area of passion.

At school, real or virtual, students are typically motivated if they have an internal interest in something, or if a topic relates to them. If our students want to do something, they usually will move heaven and earth to get it done. Therefore, we want to find ways to involve them in certain low-level decision-making in order for them to commit to a project. A student is more likely to work hard at something that he or she likes and is willing to find the time to work at it, especially. For years, I have watched boys fail because they were uninvolved in the decision-making process and were basically forced to do something they did not want to do. This is similar to most adults who enjoy a certain level of autonomy. At school, we try to involve our students in the simplest aspects of decision-making, encourage participation, and value their input. This level of engagement and positive reinforcement helps to build a more independent and motivated student.

2 – Find opportunities for connection.

If we can find opportunities for our students to personally connect with the subject matter in each class, they will be motivated to learn. In an all-boys school, we do our best to find books our boys like to read, find ways to encourage participation and engagement in our classes, and teach skills in a manner that helps them learn content. It is no longer about rote learning or straight memorization as the singular method of learning. Motivating our students is about creatively discovering ways and methods of presenting material that draws them into every lesson and makes them want to attend. This is usually done by teaching real-world applications of the content or making lessons that are fun and meaningful. To date, our teachers challenged our students to engage in math competitions, recreate famous works of art, learn how to cook, and strive to master household chores. At home, parents can assist in this process by having conversations about your child’s interests as well as their goals for school.

Distance learning requires us to do more than just force kids to look at a screen for hours on end. We have to actively work to make their learning meaningful, find ways to have them experience each lesson, and creatively keep them active at a time when we are required to self-quarantine.

3 – Set goals with your child.

Goal setting is a great motivator. Students who set specific, realistic, and attainable goals are typically self-motivated and do well in school. If your child has yet to establish the routine of making goals, middle school is a great time to start practicing this routine to build a motivated child. Like most new tasks start small with short term goals that can be easily achieved, like daily hygiene, simple chores, and timely completion of homework. In virtual school, the simple goal of getting to class on time is an expectation but for some students, it may be an accomplishment. Once achieved, support the completion of these goals with positive consequences and then you and your child can move to discussions about long term goals like grades and other outside interests. However, we always encourage parents to discuss mastery and personal improvement over-focusing on grades.

4 – Praise your child’s effort.

Finally, many students find getting good grades as a motivator for success as well as a measure of success. This is part of the reason we are continuing to provide grades over the course of the year. Unfortunately, grades and not a universal motivator and can create significant stress in the household if overemphasized as the only measure of academic accomplishment. We suggest that parents encourage students to self-monitor as well as track their process. Their learning at this time should be as much about the mastery of skill and personal improvement over grades. Building an independent child who takes ownership of their learning can be a great motivator. They become responsible for work and are granted autonomy. With some of the stress and pressure of grades diminished, students can find a renewed energy to take ownership of their learning and find success in school.

Distance learning requires us to do more than just force kids to look at a screen for hours on end. We have to actively work to make their learning meaningful, find ways to have them experience each lesson, and creatively keep them active at a time when we are required to self-quarantine. Modeling expectations and praising the efforts of our children is a positive motivator will help them through this process. Together, we will get through this. And in the process, we will find ways to prepare our students for life.

(A version of this post appeared on Main Line Parent.)