Some Students ‘Participate’ in Public Education

Some Students ‘Participate’ in Public Education

Jeffrey R. Smith

Were one to have the kind of mind that sees connections where none exist, one could rightly compare public education with youth sports. With the right kind of misty, delusional, sentimental eyes, one could easily see education as if it were the soccer, rugby or demolition derby season.

Back in the day only winning, first-place teams got trophies. The rest of us went home from the sports banquet empty handed. With modernity came improvement. Not only did the bone-crushing, first-, second- and third-place teams — i.e. the ones that humiliated, and dispirited their opponents — get glistening trophies, but the limping, bandaged human wreckage, on stretchers and crutches, at the bottom of Darwin’s sports hierarchy got trophies as well.

Enter the “Participation Trophy” that softened the line between winning and just showing up.

In spite of appearances to the contrary, as a teacher at an unnamed West End high school on Central Avenue, I have successfully resisted neither change nor progress. Yet I, too, give out Participation Trophies to my students. The sage principal Bill Sonneman once said, “Provide immediate reinforcement to the behaviors you want to see continued.”

With distance, remote or Zoom learning, students sense their options: don’t show up at all, show up for five excruciating minutes for the sake of roll call and attendance, remain stoically silent and off camera for the duration of the class, or lastly: to actively engage in public education. While the choice should be obvious, none-the-less, some students elect to engage or to use a euphemism, “participate” in class.

The other 80% perhaps see participation as the moral equivalent of collaborating with the enemy. There are those who dare to cross that line, go over to the dark side, and engage in learning as if they were in a traditional classroom. Inexplicably these students respond to questions and ask questions. Each day, their virtual Participation Trophy, is to get shouted out or recognized in a Parent Square email that goes out to all students and parents of that class.

The email expresses recognition, gratitude and appreciation for those students — who make distance learning and the empty studio room from which my Zoom is broadcast — feel like a real-life classroom. Students who elect to remain taciturn, silent, aloof, whatever, are never mentioned, alluded to, outed, lauded for their resolute rebel spirit or congratulated for having successfully side-stepped an educational opportunity.

A new wave of parents has asked that I not give out Participation Trophies because they are unfair to the students who elect not to Participate. Perhaps I should offer to give out Non-Participation Trophies to those who elect to stonewall the entire educational experience.

I am continuing to hand out Participation Trophies until the district elects to pull the plug on me and my computer. But perhaps to assuage enlightened parents and stalwart administrators who have transcended Participation Trophies, I will also be giving out Non-Participation Trophies to those stoics who dodge math by resolutely remaining off camera and quietly muted.

Jeffrey R Smith teaches mathematics at that unnamed West End high school on Central Avenue.