Peeling Away at Motivation

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In the recent past, I have taught bilingual students and regular students. Bilingual students have not yet passed a test of English literacy necessary to enter regular classes. I observe that it seems much easier to motivate my bilingual students. No doubt many factors are in play.

One factor is life in the factory. Lulu’s mom had worked in the factory for two years when I first spoke with her. She put in long hours at minimum wage inserting a small part inside another small part with no idea what she was actually making. She was working hard, hoping for “a job on the floor.” The people on the floor got better pay and health benefits. Mom had never gone to high school. Lulu was a bilingual student with a lot of strikes against her — a single parent, poverty and limited English among them. But Lulu knew one thing for certain: She never wanted to get stuck inside that factory. I’d watch Lulu work. She attacked her chapter readings ferociously, studied corrections on her papers with care. She asked questions. She intended to go to college and to lay claim to her part of the American dream.
More fortunate students often whine. ‘That’s too much work! I have a game tonight!” or “I can’t. We are going to see Ironman!” or “That’s way too much to read. I’ve got math homework.” They toss the corrected paper straight in the trash.
Motivation’s a frightful topic to analyze. Outliers crop up all the time, kids who work like Lulu because of some dream they hold onto. Part of that dream may include details like, “and then I’ll get a nice house for me and my mom where she can rest when she wants, and she’ll have a garden, and new furniture and pretty curtains.” Sometimes I’m sure it’s an advantage to be a little hungry, or at least to understand what life’s like at $8.57 an hour.
But many students in similar situations have given up. And many with all the advantages of middle-class life appear to have given up too. We need to figure out why this is happening.