To My Students – What I Want for You – Part 3 (4-23-13)

Dear Students,

I want you to be interested, not bored. I often think you want the same thing. But sometimes I think you like being bored. You seem to revel in it. Sometimes it seems everything bores you, and that you think it’s cool to be bored.

But I want you to be interested.

I want you to know exactly what interests you: the specific, unique interests and enthusiasms that capture your thoughts, and I want you to cultivate those interests. I want you to know the joy, wonder, and sheer fun of being really, really interested in something. Having a strong interest is engaging in the short term; in the long term it could lead you to a career you love, whether its drawing, or gaming, or playing  a sport, or listening to music.

But some students with interests have tunnel-vision. They are only interested in one thing and pay little attention to anything else. I not only want you to have interests, I want your interests to be deep and broad. Do you really know the thing you’re interested in– deeply? Whatever the interest, from skateboarding to online role playing games, do you know the history behind it, its major players and figures, the way it relates to the science and history of the world, the philosophy behind it? Well, why not? If you’re interested in something, be really interested! As a third grader I was already interested in cartooning. I knew who drew the major syndicated comic strips, and I knew what a syndicate was. I knew about how to design cartoon characters and set up a comic strip. I meet many students who tell me they are interested in comic strips, but can’t tell me who Charles Schulz is and have never heard of a syndicate. How is that being interested?

And whatever you’re interested in, use it as the first domino in a long chain of bricks. How does your interest relate to school subjects like science, history, math, art, and music? How does it relate to culture, popular culture, and society? Let your interests lead to other interests! I often tell my students that if you pick up any one small subject and tug at it, along with that subject you’ll pull on everything in the universe, like a string of paperclips. My interest in comic strips played in to my interest in animation. Animation led to an interest in Walt Disney, and in movie making and storytelling and fantasy. That connected to my interest in fantasy books, which led me love the Narnia and Middle Earth books. They led me to study mythic archetypes, which tied in to my interest in Star Wars and other modern myths. That led me, weirdly, to an interest in real astronomy. I developed an interest in theater, too, so when I heard about astronomer Johannes Kepler in a science video, I decided to write a play about him… One thing leads to another. “Everything is Connected” reads a bumper sticker I sometimes hang at the front of my classroom. I believe that, and I want you to believe it, too.

Because I want you to be really interested in specific things, but I also want you to be interested in– everything.

Because boredom is in the eye of the beholder. And so is interest. If you look at life through bored eyes, everything will look boring. If you look at things with interested, wide open eyes, everything will look interesting. The students who use the word boring the most to describe the world around them in general  and school in particular, seem pretty boring themselves. When I ask them what does interest them, they often are unable to think of much of anything. The world looks boring to them because they watch it through a lens of boredom. My students who are least bored are interested  and engaged in something, whether it’s reading or video games or skateboarding or horror movies. My students who are never bored are interested in lots of things.

Notice that I’ve used the word engaged, not the word entertained. Some people say that they want us teachers to make school more entertaining. If we managed to do that by using lots of flashing lights and loud noises and thumping music and exploding things in class, we might entertain you, but we probably wouldn’t teach you. Ever see a TV commercial that was really entertaining and made you laugh, but then you can’t remember what it was advertising? The fact that you can’t remember the product means it was a bad ad. An entertaining class is often the same way. You remember laughing a lot and making a 2-liter of soda erupt, but what were you supposed to learn? Hmm… don’t remember…

But even if you did learn the skills or knowledge you were supposed to learn in an entertaining class, you’d also be learning something else– a false and destructive lesson. You be learning something that our culture is trying to tell you already in order to make money off of you: that you should be entertained all the time. Never be bored. Plug in. Be online. Listen to music. Text. Never be left alone with your own thoughts so you might actually get to know yourself. I’d like to propose an alternate lesson: learn to occupy your own brain with your own thoughts. Learn that the world doesn’t owe you a life of dazzling entertainment devoid of thought.

Some people say teachers shouldn’t entertain, but should engage. I agree there, to an extent. I want you to be engaged in the work we do, but I cannot guarantee that you will be engaged every day for every lesson. There is no lesson so engaging that an uninterested student can’t find it boring. And there is no lesson so dull that an interested student can’t find it fascinating. Boredom and interest are in the eye of the beholder.

I want you to be interested not because someone used a flashy gimmick on you but because you are an interested and interesting person. I want you to be fascinated with the world. This is an attitude, and it can be cultivated. Ask yourself lots of question. Make connections. Be curious. There is no down side to this. Being interested makes your life more entertaining and engaging, and you don’t have to wait for someone else to do anything. And you learn. A lot. In a way, the world does offer 24/7 entertainment– if you know how to look at it the right way.

Student have tried to find topics that would bore me, to stump me with topics so dull I could find nothing to say about them. Pain drying. Grass growing.  Dust. Ag-lets. In every case, I was able to find something interesting about them.

Boredom or interest do not lie in the world around you. They are inside you, in the way you pay attention. Look. Listen. Smell. Taste. Touch. Think. Ponder. Drink in wonder. The world is too full of fantastic and fascinating things and life is too short to ever, ever be bored.

Unless you are a boring person.

You have to work at being interested, and interesting, but it’s worth it.

Work… that’s something I’ll talk about next time.

Mr. Finkle