martha rush beat boredom engaging teenagers

Beat Boredom: Engaging Tired-Out Teenagers in Critical Thinking

Students can seem tired and bored, but we can engage them in learning. Martha Rush has ideas and inspiration to help us reach our students this week! Martha is the author of Beat Boredom: Engaging Tuned-Out Teenagers.

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Matific is a fantastic site full of math manipulatives and customized playlists of activities to help students at every level master math. This fun, gamified site is sponsoring Math games this February and students can compete to win prizes for themselves and your school. Set up is easy, send them their class rosters and they’ll have you set up in 24-hours. This is a great way to try out matific, help your kids boost their math skills and have fun. And it's free!

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Beat Boredom: Engaging Tired-Out Teenagers in Critical Thinking

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Date: February 12, 2018

Vicki: Happy Motivational Monday! Today we’re talking to Martha Rush @MarthaSRush, author of Beat Boredom: Engaging Tuned-Out Teenagers.

Now Martha, lots of us are heading to school today. We do have teenagers. They either act bored, or they really are bored.

How do we start motivating ourselves to reach them, because sometimes it feels like we’re just singing and dancing in front of their classroom, and they’re like asleep and drooling on the desk?

Where do we start?

Martha: (laughs) I like that description. I definitely sympathize with that.

Part of the reason I’m so interested in the subject is because I was one of those kids, and I had a really hard time staying awake in school.

When I became a teacher, and I saw kids — you know, essentially drooling on the desk — I took that as feedback, like, “Whoa. I’ve got to figure out something that I can do.”

I’ve come to realize that the opposite of bored isn’t entertained, or doing singing and dancing, but just trying to engage them.

The opposite of bored isn’t entertained

Giving kids, for example, a chance to talk about an issue rather than listen to me. Or telling them a story that really taps into their emotions and gets them excited about learning rather than just giving them bullet points on a PowerPoint slide.

Vicki: So Martha, tell me about a time when you kind of felt like your students were a little bored. We won’t admit that…

Martha: (laughs)

Vicki: (laughs).. We’ve all been a little boring sometimes, but maybe they were a little bored, and you turned it around, and you really got them engaged and excited.

Martha: One example of that — and this doesn’t seem like a topic that would be boring — but when I used to teach a class called Civil Liberties, I would talk about the issue of whether people have the right to end their own life, the right to die issue.

I would bring it up, and the kids would just look at me because it wasn’t something they’d thought of. They’d kind of stare at me, and I would try to engage them and ask some questions. They didn’t really want to share their opinions

One way that I was able to overcome that with that particular lesson was that I came up with four really small case studies about four actual people. I gave the kids a few minutes to read the case studies and think about, “What would you do in each case if it was you? What would you do in each case if this was your family member?”

Come up with real-world examples

I just had them ponder that, take a few notes on it, and then when I started asking questions, oh my gosh, they were all over it. They all wanted to talk about it because they were emotionally hooked and they had a chance to test out their own opinions on something new.

Vicki: Real world does make such a difference because kids are always asking, “How does this apply to my life?” Aren’t they?

Martha: Absolutely. With that lesson, so many kids would come in after school because they wanted to keep talking about it. “Well, now I’m thinking about this, and what if this happened to me, and how would my parents deal with it?”

One of the cases involved and 18-year-old who’d had an accident and who was quadriplegic. The kids just couldn’t stop thinking about this…

Vicki: Hmmmm.

Martha: … and how it would affect them with their families.

Vicki: OK, Marta. Let’s play the flip side of this. If you wanted to tell us teachers as many ways as possible to bore kids in 30 seconds…

Martha: (laughs)

Vicki: (laughs) … Give us as many ways as you can.

Foolproof ways to bore students — or ways to fail at engaging them

Martha: Oh, what a great question!

  • Well, make sure you speak in a monotone.
  • Don’t emote.
  • Sit behind your desk while you’re talking in a monotone.
  • Cram as many words as you can on PowerPoint slides.
  • Tell students they have to copy this down and don’t tell them why.
  • Don’t give them any context or explanation.
  • If they ask, just tell them, “It’s important. I said so.”

Vicki: (laughs) Ohhh… and we could go on, couldn’t we?

Martha: (laughs) Yes, unfortunately.

Vicki: OK. So that’s what we’re NOT going to do. (I hope nobody came in and just started listening at that point.) That’s what we’re NOT going to do.

You’ve already talked about using real-world examples.

Do you think that teachers might be little boring because THEY’RE bored?

Martha: Yes. I definitely think that’s the case.

What do you do with a subject that you as a teacher find to be boring?

I know for some subject, a teacher might ask me, “Well, how can I make this interesting?”

There are some that would stump me because they’re not necessarily my subject, and I would say, “We need to find you a master teacher who’s really passionate about this subject, to help you overcome that.”

I talk about in the book, my worst class in high school as a student was Physics. I was so bored in Physics class, and I never understood how it could be interesting. I didn’t understand how it was relevant.

I’ve sat in a couple of physics classes with master teachers, and WOW. Completely different story. They can actually make me excited.

So, yeah, I think it can be. Sometimes we’re assigned to teach something we’re not passionate about. Then we need to get help from somebody who is passionate about it.

Vicki: Yeah. So watch videos, or find a TED Talk. I have two rules.

Number one, I’m not going to walk into my classroom unless I can honestly say I love every single student. And there have been a few times when I’ve had to struggle because kids know. And I’ve had to adjust my own attitude.

And the other one is, I’m not going to teach anything unless I can find an angle where I can get excited because it’s contagious! Isn’t it?

Martha: Absolutely, and I get excited about economics. And I’ll tell you, that’s not a subject everyone gets excited about.

Vicki: (laughs) No it’s not! (laughs) That was MY drool-on-the-desk subject!

Martha: (laughs) Yeah, I have to get really excited about it, and it comes out.

Kids will say to me, “This class is so much more interesting than I thought it would be!”

And it’s because I love it.

Vicki: So what does a teacher do if they really hate the topic they have to teach?

What do you do with a topic that you despise?

Martha: That’s such a big challenge. Like I said, seek out a master teacher who can show you the ins and outs. I do a lot of work with Econ teachers, and I hope that I can show them, “Look, this is really cool. You can make this really fun.”

And you really have to pump yourself up, in a way, and say, “I’m going to find a way.”

For me, the hardest subject I think I ever taught was just U.S. Government. I would read that textbook at night, and it put me to sleep. I had to rethink, “How am I going to make this compelling for my students?”

Vicki: OK, so let’s say a teacher is excited about a subject, but they know, “It’s Monday. I’m heading to school, and I don’t think what I did last week worked.”

Where do we start?

What do you do when something you tried didn’t work?

Martha: Gosh, doesn’t that happen so many times?

Vicki: Yep. (laughs)

Martha: I used to walk in like after that hour you think, “Ohhh, I don’t know if that really worked.”

I think we have to spend that reflective time really backing up and thinking, “What was I trying? What way might I get students better engaged?”

Two things I would say… One is you’ve got to just try your best every day. You can’t be too hard on yourself. And the other one is to realize that it can take a couple of years to refine a class.

So I know I didn’t answer, “What am I going to do that day?”

I think the thing is, sometimes you even just want to say to the kids, “I need to teach you this, and I feel like you’re not really interested in it. What are some things about this that you would find interesting?”

Or, “Would it help you if we did it this way?”

I think sometimes, especially with older students, really kind of breaking down that wall and saying, “I’m going to have an honest conversation with you, kids. I need you to learn this. I’m struggling to find a way to make it compelling to you. What things have we done that you did find compelling, and how can we (apply) that?”

Vicki: Or “What’s the most interesting thing in this chapter?”

You’ve already said one big one, which is make it real world. Find examples. Take a look at things.

But you know, you can always make a game.

I have a costume box…

Martha: (laughs)

Vicki: If I’m really falling on my face, I’ll do a bellringer, where they have to act something out.

I guess after we’ve been teaching a while, we might have some Go To things, huh Martha?

Teacher tricks and tips are accumulated over time

Martha: Absolutely. Yeah.

And you find out which questions work and which questions don’t work, right? I mean that’s one of the things that I learned over the years of trying to run a discussion based on a class. Some questions you ask and no one will answer. So you have to figure out, “What’s a better way to ask it?”

Or maybe what you do is out three questions on the board and say, “Write down your answers to this and think about it.” Then you give them five minutes, and you come back at it with a slightly different question. And now they’ve all had time to think about it, so they’re more comfortable.

Vicki: OK. Martha, as we finish up, give us a 30-second pep talk about how to beat boredom in our classroom.

How to beat boredom

Martha: I believe that the first step toward beating boredom is realizing that it’s important that boredom is an actual barrier to learning. It’s not just an excuse, and it’s not a rite of passage for high school kids.

I think once we’re committed to beating it, then we’re going to start thinking about, “What are those strategies? Can I incorporate simulations? Can I involve my students in discussions? Should I give them real world problems to solve? Can I give them tasks that are going to be really meaningful — like getting involved in a political issue, going to a protest, writing a letter?”

I think getting yourself pumped up about figuring out ways you can engage students and make what you’re doing really meaningful and relevant — I think that’s where you start.

Vicki: Teachers, I want to leave you with this. I was listening to a John Maxwell video the other day, and he said something interesting. He said, “Experience isn’t a teacher. Reflective experience is.”

Some people just have twenty years in a job, and they have one year of true reflective experience where they learned. We don’t want to be that.

As Martha has talked about, we want to reflect on how we’re doing.

When something’s not reaching a class, we want to figure out, “What are their interests? How can I get excited? What are they excited about? What can we do?” because we do want to have an excited, engaged classroom.

And remember, I love the point Martha made earlier. We don’t have to be entertaining to be engaging. I think that's an important difference there, so get out there and reach those kids and get them engaged!

Contact us about the show:

Transcribed by Kymberli Mulford

Bio as submitted

Martha is a nationally recognized high school economics and social studies teacher and active teaching advocate. She is the author of Beat Boredom: Engaging Tuned-Out Teenagers, (Stenhouse, 2018). She is also Founder and CEO of NeverBore, an education consulting and content company that provides teachers and school systems with research-based curriculum and workshops that make teaching more engaging and interactive.

With 20+ years of teaching experience, Martha has deep expertise in creating classroom environments that facilitate critical thinking skills as well as deep understanding of core concepts. Having led multiple student teams to championships and finalist positions at various Economics, Personal Finance and Entrepreneurship competitions, Martha is an authority in methods that actualize the potential in students to achieve and reach beyond average.

She is the current Education Committee Chair within the Minnesota Council for Economic Education, and she holds a Masters in Education Entrepreneurship from the University of Pennsylvania School of Education, a Masters in History from the University of Minnesota, and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from the University of Michigan.


Twitter: @MarthaSRush

Disclosure of Material Connection: This is a “sponsored podcast episode.” The company who sponsored it compensated me via cash payment, gift, or something else of value to include a reference to their product. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I believe will be good for my readers and are from companies I can recommend. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” This company has no impact on the editorial content of the show.

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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Vicki Davis writes The Cool Cat Teacher Blog for classroom teachers everywhere