Get Up & Dance: 5 Ways to Motivate Zombie Students

arts education virtual learning

“In your head, in your head, they are dying…” -The Cranberries, “Zombie”

The saddest moments I’ve experienced recently with the students I work with, especially with the jaded older ones who are close to graduating, have occurred when they have told me, “I don’t have any passions” or “I can’t remember the last time I felt intrinsically motivated.”
“My god, what has happened to you?” I think, looking at the tell-tale signs: their glassy-eyed expressions, their alarming pallor, their shuffling gait. They’ve become “well-schooled” zombies.
We could get bogged down with discussing how doing school has sucked the joy out of their lives, how pressures about grades or teachers or parents or SAT tests (extrinsic motivators) have caused them to care less about learning and perform less well.  Instead of finding joy in learning, they focus on the most pressing or most threatening enemy to be dispatched: 50 math problems in need of annihilation, 50 pages of meaningless prose to slog through, armies of forms and applications to destroy.
But let’s not prowl around in that particular dark corridor too much. Let’s try, instead, to reclaim our zombie students’ souls by bringing their love of learning back to life.

1. Read Dan Pink’s Drive with your students.

It helps to understand how motivation really works, and it’s not necessarily how you might expect. Pink’s book, written in his conversational layman’s style, draws on the substantial research of noted scholar Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and others, so you and your students will learn something about psychology, one of those weirdly neglected subjects in school, especially considering how students’ identities are morphing is one of their key interests at this point in their lives.
They will quickly grasp the concept of autonomy, one of the three key ingredients Pink describes as essential to motivation for doing creative work — something teenagers are certainly hungry for. Help them translate their desire for autonomy into an authentic undertaking driven by their passions and guided by your experience with scaffolding projects toward completion.  Discuss mastery: the consistent, painstaking practice it requires, the moments of trial and error and learning from failure, the fact that true mastery is never reached but how it draws you on nonetheless.
Help your students articulate how it feels to be immersed in flow. Explore what it means to embrace purpose, to act with a sense of contributing to something larger than ourselves. Talk about what this means in terms of character growth and connecting to a larger community. Play around with FedEx Days and ROWEs.  Answer Pink’s “two simple questions that can change your life.”
If you don’t have time to discuss the book, at least watch the RSA Animate version of a speech by Pink outlining the central points of Drive (already viewed by millions).  Converse in person and continue your conversation online in blogs. Teach your students to push back respectfully and to share their thinking transparently. Value reflection.

2. Listen to and share inspirational stories.

Stories of the past help us make sense of our lives; stories that inspire can help us imagine our futures. One of the best resources for such stories is TedTalks. My gnarliest upperclassmen melt before adorable Adora Svitak as she advises us all about “What Adults Can Learn from Kids.”  Laugh together at the surprising insights on leadership offered by Derek Sivers’ talk on “How to Start a Movement.” Consider the transformation of J.D. Schramm as he calls on us to “Break the Silence of Suicide Attempts Survivors.”
When I share my own story, I hold up a prop: a 12″ square canvas painted with a black background given to me by a former colleague just in case I might want to paint some day. I keep it out in my office as a reminder that creativity awaits me any time I’m ready to pick up a brush. I am not a painter, but the canvas tells me I can become one.
Have your students share their own stories. They can share their passions and “ideas worth spreading” in TED-style talks of their own. Hold your own TEDx event, or collaborate with other schools, as we have, for TEDxYouthDay. Or consider joining the storytelling community of DS 106, a college-level open online course developed at the University of Mary Washington and dedicated to creative growth and expressive self-agency for “learners from around the globe.”

3. Don’t underestimate creative brainstorming techniques.

Think of brainstorming strategies as way to stretch your thinking before engaging your brain in a long run. Too often I see teachers give creativity short shrift. Go make a movie, they say off-handedly, when their students get antsy from sitting and listening to too many mind-numbing lectures. Or, worse, they assign their students to create a lesson on an assigned topic, and, “Yes, you can earn extra credit for creativity,” they proclaim as an afterthought. (And then they reward the most mediocre attempts at “creativity” with oodles of extra points because they justify to themselves, “I’m not creative, so how can I possibly judge.”)
Photography is your ally here. Many of our students create stuff every day — on their cell phones. They take pictures of things they notice and find visually appealing, sharing their most interesting finds with friends via texts or Facebook status updates. As John Berger writes in “Understanding a Photograph,” photographs “bear witness to a human choice being exercised in a given situation.” Empowered by the images they create, our students can begin to decipher the secrets of their own meaningful choices.
I once created a lesson based on my students’ most recent phone photos. Commenting on the success of the app Instagram in Wired magazine, Clive Thompson declares, “Photos are the global lingua franca.” Back in the dark ages, I had to scrounge up enough digital cameras for a class photo project; now I can count on my students to have access to cameras by reaching in in their pockets.  Why don’t we liberate that tool to help our students make meaning from what they see?
Resources for brainstorming are numerous. offers an exhaustive list of tools for giving a jolt to zombie students’ listless imaginations.  The Literacy Through Photography program developed by Fotofest International offers an entire curriculum that employs the synergy of language and photography to help students access their switched-off imaginations.  It doesn’t have to be digital. I like the technique of having students create a vision board to rediscover what they love. Or consider the concept of a hackjam to help your students rework the zombie code in their brains.

4. Empower students to construct knowledge together.

Recently, I found myself about to set out with half my AP English Language students on a week-long school trip to Washington, DC. So I asked my juniors, who remained behind, to propose what they would like to learn during that week — it would be a treat to drop the structured AP curriculum for a bit. When no concrete proposals emerged (I should have followed my own brainstorming advice above), we discussed focusing on some of the “classic” poems that might help them get a jump on AP English Literature for next year.
Meanwhile, through my professional learning network (PLN), I learned about a website called Book Drum, which breaks down novels page by page and provides images and sounds for readers to better grasp the context of their reading. For example, the entry for To Kill a Mockingbird provides a photograph of a bowl of scuppernong grapes that might be unfamiliar to readers outside the South; another page offers a video of a Bobwhite issuing its distinctive call. Why not, I thought, do this with poems, and in a Google Document? The result was an exhilarating week of co-constructed learning.
The excitement in the room was palpable as students worked in teams to find images (what better way to teach the power of imagery) to convey important information about the poems they read. Imagine trying to come up with an image for “galumphing” from Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” For “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” my students from the barrios of Houston listened to the sounds of trees creaking under the weight of a heavy snowfall via a YouTube video, in order to fully appreciate the significance of watching “the woods fill up with snow” in Frost’s famous poem. The most powerful impact came from their line-by-line photographic illustrations for Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty.” On most occasions when I have taught this poem, I have spent an excruciating amount of time explaining “rose-moles” and “stippled” to glassy-eyed teenagers. In this case, the students constructed a visual representation of the blessings of natural diversity. My students’ co-constructed knowledge brought the poem alive. Students exclaimed out loud, “What a cool poem” and “This was fun. When can we do this again?”

5. Get up and dance.

Photo Courtesy of Newtown High School
Photo Courtesy of Newtown High School

Last October when I found myself staring into the wan, vacant faces of my AP English students, I knew I had to do something drastic.  I walked into the classroom and began to clear out the desks.  The students exchanged curious glances.  “Let’s get up and dance!” I entreated.
Looks of horror gawked back at me as I cued up the first of three Youtube instructional videos for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” dance.  I gave the truly mortified an out – they could videotape the rest of us, but we were going to set ourselves the task of mastering Michael’s moves.  After the last of the videos, and a good deal of rollicking hilarity, we desconstructed the videos – which was most effective? Why? What did they learn about detailing and analyzing a process for our upcoming essay assignment?  What did they learn about the King of Pop? What did they learn about learning?
This dancing thing wasn’t a fluke.  Sure, it mixed things up a bit to see their 50-something English teacher getting down to some bad (I mean good) tunes, but it also helped to turn up our kinesthetic learning to eleven.  If there is one style of learning that we often forget, it’s movement – and this tool for reinforcing learning could be one of our most essential instructional tools.  The Harvard Educational Review, assessing Eric Jensen’s Arts with the Brain in Mind offers Jensen’s assertion that:

“The research, the theory, and real-world classroom experience clearly support sustaining or increasing the role of movement in learning’ (p. 102). [Jensen] argues that schools should take advantage of the cognitive, emotional, social, collaborative, and neurological benefits of the kinesthetic arts.”

If  Joel Miller can dance his Ph.D. dissertation, why can’t we crank up the music to learn about the positive and negative attraction of electrons and protons or break dance to the parts of speech?
Sometimes it does seem as if the educational world is coming to an end.  But I know that as teachers, we can do more to create a happy ending to the horror that has become our students’ schooling – we can motivate our zombie students, bring them back to life, and rekindle their souls with real learning.

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Ray Griffin

I agree... we need to rethink schools... we dont need any more compliant student zombies in the world...
The old school paradigm is really as dead as a zombie..

james houlihan

I just saw a translation into Italian that Montale did of the Hopkins--that was a really important text for him.

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