Being the Shuffle in Our Students’ iPods

How do we motivate our students? In the face of boring curriculum and test-driven lessons, there is no panacea for making kids want to do (Hey! Overturning the system as it is just isn’t an option!!) Every child has their own unique motivations to do or not do work. But first, a personal story.

Back when I was a junior in high school, I developed an urge to drop some pounds. My motivation was vanity. It is hard to believe thinking back, but there came a time when I hit a size 38 in the waist. The next size up was 40! And I was like, “HECK TO THE NO, THAT IS NOT HAPPENING.”

So I stopped eating ice cream (frozen yogurt in my parents’ house) and candy, and I began walking to and from school (three miles each way). I went for long walks on the weekends (like 14-miles-long long). I never hit the 40 waist and, in fact, by the end of high school, had dropped all the way down to a 33. Man, I was svelte.

I see a vision of myself walking with my blue Memorex CD player (the newest model that could play CD-Rs!) and a pocket full of slim cases so I could switch music on the go. How thoroughly modern of me. Lots of times, the music kept me going. I liked the changes in pace and adjusted my strides to match the beats. Plus, I found that ear buds shoved deep into the ear canals gave me a chance to hear more layers of the songs than I previously had, and also appreciate the lyrics more.

In college, I maintained a similar regimen, and with a beautiful gym on campus, I took advantage (but to be fair, weekly $1 Yeunglings and $.25 wings are a bit of a detriment to the fit lifestyle). Following a few months of a local gym membership after graduating, I let myself become a stagnation station. Walks were all too infrequent and, you know what? The 33 waist pants no longer fit!

Meh. I had no motivation. But, I wasn’t approaching that 38 special again, so I was cool.

Now, however, I see family members working to whip their rears into gear – prompted by health issues and eye-openers – and I say to myself, “That should be me, too.” This summer, I’ve been telling myself to move more. The problem I have is motivation. Yes, once I’m into the groove of a walk/jog/tennis match, I feel the endorphins and the sweat and feel good. But it is just such…a…drag…to…get…out…there…and…do…it.


Everyone finds motivation in different places. This week, I went to the park with my sister. She wanted me to run alongside her, but I had had enough. So she told me we were going to run to the top of the hill. I said, “Have fun with that.” I had no motivation. Making it to the top of a hill didn’t matter to me. Her saying we were going to do it didn’t matter. Her motivation was to get to the top of the hill and be able to say, “I ran up that.” Mine was to walk it.

I had a hunch I knew what could inspire the urge, though. So I went home and ordered my first new iPod in 10 years. With it, I became the third person in my immediate family to own a pedometer, and that in itself was exciting, too. I told myself when the iPod came that I would get out there for a walk, and maybe a jog.

To my excitement, it arrived less than 24 hours after purchase. I created a “Music to Move To” playlist and loaded it up. Then, as the sun was setting and I was getting stir crazy, I started the pedometer and the music and hit the pavement. All it took to get me moving was a new toy and a surprising shuffle that brilliantly segued from gems by Britney Spears into gems by Bon Jovi (no joke). I felt like my old (young) self again!

How does this apply in the classroom? Let’s say my sister is a teacher (okay, she really is). Like she told me we were going to run to the top of the hill, she says to the student, “We’re going to do this math problem. Come on!” The student has no desire – it’s a stupid math problem that means something only to the teacher. So, if the student does it at all, he does it half-heartedly. No motivation to do it and so no real investment in personal betterment.

But if the student figures out a way to trick himself – or the teacher finds a way to trick him – into getting the work done, like making it into a game or a nice real world application, motivation might strike. There’s a big difference between being told, “We’re going to do this!” and thinking, “I’m going to do this!”

This is where a teacher needs to be flexible and embrace differences in students’ personalities, values, personal expectations strengths, and learning styles. Every child comes with their own motivations (or lack thereof). Our goal must be to motivate all of them thoroughly, but it’s very often the case that more than one try is needed. They need different beats, different sounds, different singers. They need a shuffle in their iPod!

If we can be the shuffle in our students’ iPods, we will surely watch them walk for miles!


4 responses to “Being the Shuffle in Our Students’ iPods

  1. I think you’re on the right track, but you spend a whole post on the anecdote without giving any concrete suggestions for motivating students.

    What do you think are some specific ways of motivating a kid to do that math problem? How can you communicate that there really is something in it for them?

    We’re working on this at School for Tomorrow ( or, and any suggestions/dialogue would be appreciated.


    • I was just thinking that. There are tons of ways to get kids motivated when they just don’t seem to care. I would say we should always assume they do care, that’s for starters. It all depends on the students’ age, interests, etc. For some kids, working with a buddy is a great motivator. For some, a behavior plan. For all, real world application of what they are learning. A former supervisor of mine used to always say, “Good teaching is urgent,” that is, the kids see the immediate need and potential benefit of learning what is being taught. Many of the blogs I wrote under the tag “motivation” have some ideas that have worked for me: . Enjoy, and thanks for the comment!

  2. It’s a fabulous anecdote, especially since I used to do the same thing with my cd player and my bike. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Off and Running | From the Desk of Mr. Foteah

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