Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Teens and Summer Jobs: Working to Cure the Summertime Blues

Much like the lifestyles associated with differing genres of music, country music has always glorified traditional perspectives of American life, embodying traditional values of patriotism, religion, romantic love, traditional marriage, and living as a working class man. Appreciated by both young and old, country music echoes trials and tribulations, lessons learned, and represents the art of combining music with story telling.  In 1994, Georgia born, country music singer and song writer, Alan Jackson, known as much for his country boy image as his music, placed his southern, honkytonk sound on Eddie Cochran's 1958 hit song, Ain't No Cure for the Summertime Blues.

I'm gonna take two weeks, gonna have a vacation
I'm gonna take my problem to the United Nation
Well I called my congressman and he said quote
"I'd like to help you son, but you're too young to vote"

Obvious Extrinsic Rewards
Such are the words that many vacationing high school students can relate to especially if they are cramming in hours for summer jobs. In fact, teens with summer jobs probably relate to living as a working class man too. Many teens take on the work to earn dollars for important matters like helping out with their car insurance, paying cell phone bills, buying trendy, new clothes, and many other reasons.  After all, everybody who is anybody in the world of teenagers must possess some essentials before earning the right to be recognized as a modern teen.

Identifying Intrinsic Rewards
While these are all good motivators for teens to work summer jobs, there are a few good lessons that we, as their parents, their teachers, their bosses, and their political leaders should consider. What is it about a summer job that motivates teens to remain dedicated to wearing uniforms on a daily basis, keeping a calendar with their work schedule written on it, interacting with strangers, working overtime, staying engaged until the shift is done?  Most would say “it’s all about the money.” However, considering the fact that teens want to be the “driver” of not only their own cars, but of their own lives as well, it should also be considered that teens might actually be motivated by the sense of accomplishment they receive when that paycheck comes their way.
The fact that two weeks of consistent, steady work habits have resulted in a monetary reward might also make them feel successful and valued. When we translate those ideas into educational thought, isn’t it possible that at the core, it can also be said that teens are motivated by results that give them a sense of accomplishment, and make them feel successful, and valued. Yes, it definitely is not only possible, but probable as well. 

This is a lesson for high school leaders and educators to remember when these students arrive back in our schools and classes next fall. Ideally, when a student receives a grade in a course, the grade should provide the same satisfaction. But as we know, sadly, not all students perceive this result with the same value. So the question is, how can students connect the intrinsic rewards from earning dollars to earning good grades?

Translating Extrinsic Into Intrinsic
Imagine the type of grades students would receive if teachers could harness the same passion and fervor teens demonstrate for monetary rewards when it comes to completing their school assignments. We thought about how classroom teachers could lasso this aspect of student motivation and bring it into classroom accomplishment? We also began to consider how to maintain retention for our Honors/AP courses? The answers to these questions are exactly what inspired the creation of our Honors/AP Summer Reading groups. With an understanding that Honors students are most likely the ones who are more motivated by intrinsic rewards, we realize they still struggle with completing the summer assignment, and, as a result, with already one incomplete assignment, their struggle to remain in the course continues even after school begins. 
Apart from selecting easier books to read, our teachers grappled with the type of activities that should accompany the assignment. They considered written assignments that would promote engagement and motivation. They thought about the weight of the grade.  In spite of many good strategies for accountability, all proved unsuccessful as students returned from summer break only to schedule appointments with their counselors to get their schedule changed to another class in efforts to avoid starting out with failing grade.

Consequently, educational research indicates that while teaching strategies are important, the number one factor influencing positive student achievement is high student engagement. We concluded that what suffers the most over the long, summer break is student engagement, because many teens still need structured guidance with time management. As a way of coping with the lack of structure guidance during the summer, teens replace school with a job, their teachers are replaced with bosses, their social interactions with those of co-workers, and content study is replaced with labor!

Focusing on Intrinsic Rewards 
The main purpose of the groups is about supporting student engagement with the assignment and not mandating expectations. We decided that the key to this support would be a structure that offered students the encouragement throughout the summer. As a result, we designed a program that would support Honors/AP students with weekly meeting times with an English teacher who would support them with goal setting, annotating texts, informal discussions about their books, question answering, reflective writing, reading logs, and positive interactions with peers.

While students participating in our summer reading groups will not receive any monetary (extrinsic) reward for their work, they will also not be penalized for choosing not to participate either.  But, it is our hope and expectation that the experience of successful completion of the assignment, and positive academic discussion with their peers will help promote the type of intrinsic rewards students need to maintain interesting, satisfying, and challenging coursework throughout the rest of their high school years.

What are some other successful ideas that promote student engagement during long breaks?

Well my mom and pop told me, "Son you gotta make some money,
If you want to use the car to go ridin' next Sunday"
Well I didn't go to work, told the boss I was sick
"Well you can't use the car 'cause you didn't work a lick"
Sometimes I wonder what I'm a gonna do
But there ain't no cure for the summertime blues


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