Some thoughts for teachers by T Newfields
"So Johnny, what do you want to do when you grow up?"
"And Mary, how will you spend this weekend?"
"Chill out. Gotta recharge me batteries."
"How did you spend last weekend, Jake?"
"Rest, of course."
Have you ever been taken aback by dead conversations such as these? Why do so many bright students turn into zombies? Classrooms are ideal places to explore why the process of zombification (Stine, 1999) sometimes occurs. Here are a few early warning signals that students might be zoning out, disengaging, and slowly ossifying.
First, notice the seating. Who usually sits in the far corners of a room? Deciding where to sit is a form of non-verbal communication and many students say "keep away." Do you find students who prefer to be consistently quiet and "tune out" classroom experiences? Second, observe body language. Halfway into some lessons you might notice their eyelids becoming heavy. After a bit of head dropping, the eyelids close completely. The movement of the chest usually attests that sombulensce has set iN. The third way to detect a living sleeper is through questioning. If there is a startled look of incomprehension, chances are person is either coming from (or heading towards) a catatonic state. Then again, perhaps the question was dead to begin with. How often do teachers ask living questions? Is the entire mode of teacher-student interaction somehow zombielike?
Most students who zone out skillfully mask the shame that they have no idea what's going on in class – or resentment that they have little interest. The classroom represents a complex reality in some ways threatening their beautifully vapid internal simplicity. The chasm between what's in the texts and in their heads often appears insurmountable. It's all too tempting to "chill out" during boring lectures and inept teachers almost encourage this. As long as they do not create a stir, it's amazing how disengaged students can be.
When classroom bells ring, sleepers generally awaken. Yet some never rouse from slumber . . . . even when their eyes are open, they move in a fog of unknowing. Zombies vary widely in terms of competence. Some are savants in narrow fields while others are inept in most aspects of their lives, relying on others to cover for them. The presence of an enabler is a good signal that a living dead person is near by.
With thick condoms wrapped around their psyches, many zombies move through life seemingly unscathed by insults, innuendos, inane gossip, and inept power plays. Such blessed boneheads seem immune to all maladies other than ignorance itself. Whereas many people feel compelled to vocalize about the unknowns confronting them or make symbolic gestures about their perceived place in surrounding hierarchies, adept somnulents elegantly zone out all nonsense and interface with the world only when necessary. In a society filled with frustrating levels of madness and many blatant incongruities, sleepers may be the best survivors. Even though they're derided as "stupid" or "slow-on-the-uptake", inside some are keenly awake. With tortoise shells safely covering their skulls, at times they are saner than the world around them.
"So Charles, what will you do after class?"
"And when vacation comes, Marie, what are you looking forward to?"
How should teachers respond to such students? Most students who habitually zone out of classes are so accustomed to being ignored or mildly ridiculed that this is a complex question. Generally somnulents can slide smoothly through educational systems because they have an uncanny knack for figuring out what minimal levels of performance are needed to pass. Here are three steps conscientious instructors might wish to explore:
Finally, take good a self-inventory and make sure that you are mostly alive. It is far too easy for teachers to blame student for zombielike behaviors. Chances are, passive resistance such as sleeping is probably a good barometer of how engaging a class is. Many teachers are half-zombies and get caught in routines that are clearly catatonic. Keep a spirit of critical inquiry alive in class: both within yourself and within your students. A constant koan for reflective practitioners should be, "Why is this activity being done?" If you cannot think of a compelling reason, perhaps it is time to change the activity. Classrooms should be places for awakening, not zombie training grounds.
Adderholdt-Elliott, M. (1987). Perfectionism: What's bad about being too good. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publications.
Ciaccia, J. (2004) A Brief History of Stupidity. Retrieved June 9, 2007 http://www.useless-knowledge.com/articles/apr/may068.html
Stine, R. L. (1999) Zombie School. New York: Scholastic.