Educating the Net Generation : How to Engage Students in the 21st Century

Educating the Net Generation : How to Engage Students in the 21st Century
Bob Pletka, Ed.D.
July 2007

The New Book from the Creator of the Critically Acclaimed My So-Called Digital Life

Educating the Net Generation: How to Engage Students in the 21st Century addresses the national problem of escalating high-school dropout rates and student disengagement, and offers solutions as to how to best involve students of the millennial generation. The book examines the unique characteristics of the Net Generation and explains how the educational expectations and needs of the Net Generation differ from their Gen-X parents and Baby Boomer grandparents. It also looks at why many students resist engaging in formalized education in schools and ultimately drop out.

Chapters featuring student interviews and photographs synthesize the perspectives of current high school students regarding their experiences, beliefs, and thoughts on learning, while a parallel set of parent interviews reveals what parents feel is important in their child’s education and how they would like to see schools engage their children in learning.

Recommendations for changes in school policy and the financial investment critical to turning the situation around are also included, along with an inventory/ checklist for parents, teachers, and school administrators to determine if their individual school environment has what it takes to keep students motivated and engaged.

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Introduction: The Role of Information and Communication Technology in Our Children’s Lives
Chapter 1: The Emerging Net Generation
Chapter 2: Obsolescence and Mediocre Schools
Chapter 3: Student Voices
Chapter 4: My So-Called Digital Life
Chapter 5: What Parents Want from Their Children’s Schools
Chapter 6: What Schools Can Learn from Starbucks, Scrapbooking, and Deep-Sea Fishing
Chapter 7: Solutions to the Problem of Student Dropout and Disengagement
Appendix: Inventory for Parents
Survey I
Survey II
Inventory for Teachers
Educational Resources
Selected References
Photo Credits

With a tinge of fatherly anxiety, I remember bringing my six-year-old son, with his neatly combed blond hair and his nine-part cherub, one-part poltergeist personality, to the opening day of his school to meet his teacher. I introduced my son to the teacher, a petite woman from head to toe, generously proportioned around the middle. With the teacher standing before me, my son stared down at his feet shyly, partly leaning on me. This very happy, grandmotherly woman reached out her arms and said, “David come here.” She embraced him in a hug that caused him to disappear in her welcoming arms, and continued, “David, we are going to have a great year together!” When I finally saw him emerge again from beneath the folds in her dress, I saw this sheepish grin on his face and my anxiety melted. The warmth and care I saw that day continued all year. That grandmotherly teacher loved my son, and she had my complete trust.
As parents, we may not all expect our child’s teacher to welcome them with such enthusiasm, nor would most of our teenage children want that type of reception from their teacher; but underneath, we hope that the teacher will love our children at least a fraction of how much we love our own. We put a tremendous amount of trust in the teachers of our children; and, for the most part, I have found teachers to be compassionate, caring, and ardent defenders of our kids. As an example of one of the many fine teachers I have met in the district in which I work, Mrs. Bristol coordinates the teen pregnancy program and watches over her teenage girls, teaches them, and cares for their babies like a mother lion. She ferociously protects her kids, and I’ve seen her more than one time take on a district administrator who was slow to act on a needed request for her kids. I can say, without a doubt, that she loves those kids like her own. As parents, we are relieved to know there are many Mrs. Bristols in the world who teach our children. In fact, in poll after poll, such as the annual Education Gallup Poll, when parents are asked about the quality of education in their own child’s school and their own child’s teacher, most parents give the local school and their child’s teacher high marks (As and Bs).
In addition to a caring, compassionate teacher, parents of middle and high school students repeatedly make a similar request for what they want out of their children’s education. At back-to-school nights, during parent evening, in classrooms, through phone calls, and even at coffeehouses, parents tell me they want teachers to inspire their children to reach their potential. One early morning, when I was talking to a mother of a middle school student and asked her what she saw as the purpose of school, she said, “To help her son aspire to become something more.” Some parents have said it slightly differently, but many want the same thing for their children. Some say “they want the school to prepare their children to get good jobs or go to great universities.” One feisty mother, in a phone call, told me she had one son who would go to the university (“he was always a good student”), but she worried about her other son who “did not have an academic bent. He did not know what he was going to do after high school” but “the school [and she meant me also] needed to do something for boys like hers to help them prepare to enter the job world.” Recently, at the California League of Middle Schools’ Awards Banquet for Distinguished Middle School Teachers in our district, a letter from President Bush was read to those attending. His message connected with the parents and inspired the educators among us when he said good teachers “kindle the American Dream in our children.”
James Truslow Adams in the 1930s first introduced the elusive concept of the American Dream in his book The Epic of America when he wrote that the American Dream is “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
The aforementioned mother who had called me about her two sons wanted this American Dream for each of them, with their different abilities and achievement levels, but her hope sprang from the same fierce love for her two children. She wanted them, as James Truslow wrote, to “be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they were innately capable” of doing.
In addition to many parents agreeing on the purpose of education, many parents often agree about how their children should be educated. I had an opportunity to have some parents who were also school PTA presidents share their thoughts about education. Interestingly, there are some parallels between the themes from the students in the earlier chapters and what these parents wanted for their children. For example, the PTA parents also mentioned that personal one-on-one assistance was important, especially when their children were struggling to learn. Some parents just wanted to be notified if their child was not succeeding so that they could do something about it: “I would like to know if there is any way that the teachers can communicate to a parent of a student who is struggling before it is too late.” Another parent, commenting on the importance of individual teacher-to-student assistance, wrote: “I would like teachers to set aside time for one-on-one time with each student on a regular basis. I believe that is the best way to understand their students and for the student to become comfortable with the teacher. The more comfortable the students are with the teacher, the more willing they will be to express themselves.”
Parents also mentioned they feel that the channels of communication that schools use are not sufficient to keep them informed: “The online grades are very helpful, but are not updated as often as needed. By the time the end of the first trimester came, the grades that were posted online were not the grades that came home on the report card.”
In addition to the importance of one-on-one personal assistance, parents, like their sons and daughters, wanted the curriculum to be relevant. For example, one parent remarked, “I would like to see high school teachers use materials, information, and stories that my son can relate to. By making it personal, he would take a greater interest in listening to the teacher and thus actually hear what he is supposed to be listening to.”
Another parent wrote: “I think it is so important to make learning relevant to students. This student engagement piece is critical to whether students tune into the learning or tune it out.”
Another parallel between parents and students was the importance of an interactive curriculum in which students are actively involved in learning. One parent noted, “The interactivity of the curriculum is a key component.” A second parent contended, “I would love to see projects done in various mediums other than essays; projects like the History Day, the USO show, and Junior Exhibition make learning more interesting; and students get to show off some talents that rarely get to be seen in the classroom anymore.”
Another parent added, “I would love to see more teachers use an interactive curriculum that involves role-playing, music, art and lots of discovery learning.”
Finally, parents often mentioned that student disinterest was a concern to them. For example, one parent wrote: “There is a general lack of understanding on the teachers’ part that students get very bored. Bring it to a level that interests them. Understand that they are there to learn and it is a big disappointment to waste their time with a boring same ol’ same ol’ teaching style day after day.”
Another parent explained, “I think when my children are given assignments that allow them to show some creativity in their work this engages them. Repetitious work tends to numb them and [they] rush to complete it rather than understand it.”
I think, after reading the parent comments and the aforementioned student quotes, one might say, as the President of Sacred Heart, Dr. Cernera, articulated to an audience of university students and faculty, “that school is not always fun, it is hard work.” This sentiment was echoed by author Thomas Friedman, who lamented that the educational work ethic of many students has degraded partially due to coddling parents. Friedman further illustrated his point when he shared a conversation he had with an accomplished student from Yale in which the distinguished graduate criticized other students who “want to do stuff that is fun. But there is no fun in algebra or memorizing the multiplication tables. But [those fundamentals] eventually become freshmen chemistry. And that’s boring too . . . So it’s not until you get to your senior level of advanced classes that you can start to have fun.”
Based on my own experience and research, this assumption misses the underlying issue because most of the students and parents whom I interviewed are not expecting fun in class, nor do the parents with whom I have spoken want classes to be easy. In contrast, parents want a rigorous curriculum, as this parent mentioned: “I would like to see that kids that are ready for more of a challenge are provided an opportunity or forum to expand their education. Can there be competitions (either group or individual) that challenge all of a grade level?”
Parents ask us in education to provide instruction that is relevant, interactive, and meaningful in order to assist their children to reach their potential. Parents want their children to be challenged in school, and even many students want to work hard when they see the relevance of the studies. For example, even though some students in my research mentioned giving minimal effort in school when they found the work irrelevant, in the Emaze project these same students were willing to persist during difficulty, work long hours into the night, and work on the weekends in order to complete essays for the project.

A Tale of Two Classrooms
Students who have expectations of going on to the university or youths who come from families and communities with strong academic support in a particular content area may come into classes knowing the value of a particular subject and having sufficient background knowledge (e.g., a physician’s child may have some background knowledge of anatomy and physiology) to make connections on their own between generalized concepts and particular examples. However, many of our kids need assistance from the teacher, practitioners, or other more capable peers to help them build background knowledge, create connections from new concepts to their existing knowledge, and construct meaning from new information.
I remember reading E.D. Hirsch’s book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, in which he argued that it is important that all students know certain fundamental facts, words, scientific concepts, people, and places. I was a first-year, idealistic teacher at a wealthy private school and found his argument compelling enough to require my sixth graders to memorize and define 50 words a week from the list of important words found in the back of his book. At the beginning of the school year, I started with his A words and moved alphabetically through his list. At the beginning of each week, I assigned the list to the students, and I received positive responses from parents about this assignment even though some students disliked it. Despite the grumbling, students did the work; and if one didn’t turn in the assignment, all I needed to do was call the parent and the homework appeared the next day.
The following year, still a very inexperienced teacher, I taught sixth grade at the poorest public school in the Lake Elsinore Unified School District. I had a student whose mother was a prostitute, a boy whose father had been arrested for selling speed, and another boy whose father and two uncles were in prison for theft. There were also parents who had to work two jobs to support their families. Many of these parents worked long hours. The reception I received was quite different when I again assigned the list of words.
The first week I assigned the words, most students failed to turn in the assignment the following week. To punish the students, I gave them detention, took away part of their recess, and even called parents—all to no avail. As I entered the scores into the grade book one day after school, the school’s custodian came in to fix something in the room; hoping to get a sympathetic ear, I struck up a conversation, complaining that “these darn kids were lazy” and were not turning in their assignments. The janitor, John, in a gruff voice told me that he “didn’t really see the importance of most of the subjects we taught, such as history and science.” He did see the purpose of reading and some math skills, but “the rest of it was a waste of time for most of these kids.” Not getting the response I wanted, I resumed entering grades in my book.
This did not deter me from continuing to assign the words from the list alphabetically and calling parent after parent when students failed to turn in the work (mostly to no avail). One day, during another phone call to Mrs. Allen, whom I had not seen at back-to-school night or any of the other opening school events, she gave a long sigh on the phone. She told me, “I can’t get him to do his homework either. My husband isn’t around, and I work late most nights, and my son is in bed before I get home.” She then asked me, “Why are you assigning all these words [Solution, Algae, Volume, Surface Tension]? What’s this got to do with anything they’ll need to know to get a job—my son isn’t the college type?” To be honest, I don’t remember what I said; but I do remember thinking that I wasn’t at Sacred Heart School anymore. The parents and students just didn’t get it. I reluctantly admitted to myself that I needed to do something different. What I didn’t know was that I was the one who didn’t get it. These were hardworking blue-collar parents who had to work long hours to support their families; and some, like Mrs. Allen, who didn’t know exactly why her child needed to learn this, put their trust in me, and I was breeching that trust by failing to engage their children. Even though, at the time, I took Mrs. Allen’s question as a sign that she was not supporting me, she gave me a clue that day (“Why are you assigning…?”). I wasn’t doing a good job of making the connection for the students between what they were learning and the relevance it played in their lives and their future.
However, being a bit daft, again this did not deter me; I kept on assigning the words. But not long after that, on a hot day in September when the lake (only a mile from the school) had an algae bloom and the smell of dead fish wafted towards our classroom, one of the kids asked why the lake always stunk and why the fish kept dying. The thought struck me that this might be the basis of a lesson unit, and I quickly jotted down some notes. That evening I spent until late in the night planning my “Lake Unit,” in which we would incorporate the vocabulary from our science and some of Hirsh’s list of words.
The next day, I had students generate questions they had about the stinky lake with the blue green algae painted on the lake’s bank. From those questions, we created a list that we would work to answer through the course of the unit. (I also arranged for a field trip to the lake to gather water samples for measuring algae, nitrogen, and phosphorous levels.) I adjusted my infamous list to include words from our unit that would be due after we covered the knowledge and concepts as part of the Lake Unit. Additionally, students emailed the water district’s biologist with a list of interview questions, and students incorporated his answers and the vocabulary words into a Hyperstudio presentation with digital photographs of our samples and observations from the lake. The students received some local newspaper attention about their findings, and even the Public Relations Officer representing the local water district that partially controlled the lake’s water supply began calling us and talking with our students. (You can imagine, we were a PR nightmare for the water district, which was trying to encourage vacationers to ski and fish on the lake; and the “stinky” lake quotes from the kids weren’t generating the type of press they wanted. However, they were very kind to our kids, and they kept their concerns to themselves, eagerly giving our students information about the lake.) Our class did experiments based on the questions students generated while other students began doing their own experiments using the data gathered about the lake. We incorporated some of our math concepts and formulas by doing algorithmic calculations of the results data.
After more than one month on the unit, students were ready to share their findings with the community and parents. As we were planning our presentation, the custodian, John, popped into the hall where we were feebly trying to create a makeshift stage for the presentation and asked if we needed any help. We were eager to accept his assistance, and his expertise became apparent as he built us a stage complete with props over the next week leading up to the presentation. After he finished the stage and the students finished their research, the students presented their findings to a packed audience of parents and community members. Mrs. Allen sat proudly in the audience that night as her son Danny, along with others, explained their findings. My kids were so proud of how hard they had worked and what they had accomplished. However, I think their parents were more proud.
Even though some students participated at lower levels than others and some students didn’t think the activity was fun, student engagement was high, student participation increased, and the percentage of students completing the definitions of the infamous list of words rose dramatically. That year, I even saw an increase in standardized scores in the area of math (science wasn’t tested by the state at that time.) As an ancillary benefit to the project, I became good friends with John the custodian, who, on a series of Saturdays on his own time, built me a life-size ancient Greek temple for our unit on Greece. Periodically, he checked on my kids to see how they were doing, and they responded to his interest by sharing what they were learning. Later, he even worked with the students on weekends and after school to create a koi pond complete with a solar-powered waterfall and rimmed with flagstone. I don’t know if he ever changed his mind about whether he thought science and history were important; however, I do know that his engagement and interest in my students’ learning was important to them. His interest and the community and parent support for the Lake Presentation all helped to create value for the learning we were doing and further engaged the students.
I still believe E.D. Hirsch makes a compelling argument for cultural literacy; but when I assigned lists of words to students without the proper background information, relevance, or visual supports, I failed my students. Simply dismissing students as “lazy” because I assumed that they were expecting fun instead of hard work missed the point. Not until I helped to create meaning for the students from questions they asked and related it to their personal experiences were students able to make meaning from the vocabulary and science I was assigning.
When a student or a parent asks for an interesting, meaningful curriculum, we as educators should not trivialize the request as a euphemism for fun. Instead, their request should be honored as a reminder to us of what it means to bring excellence to education, for if we have an interactive, effective curriculum, we will help to create the conditions that will engage students, and we might find that we are able to resolve the problem of student dropout.

Author Information

Bob Pletka

is the creator of My So-Called Digital Life and an associate superintendent of Vista Unified School District in Southern California. He has been a teacher in the Lake Elsinore Unified School District, an associate professor in education at National University, and a director of instruction and technology for Covina Unified School District. He also served as a city commissioner for the city of Murrieta. Bob lives with his wife, 10-year-old son, and 13-year-old daughter in Southern California.


Pletka here considers how to educate the millennial generation. Teaching kids born and raised on the Internet is fundamentally different, he argues, from teaching previous generations. Increasing high school dropout rates and widespread student disengagement are real problems, and Pletka explores the research on these conditions and talks with parents, teachers, and students about the needs of the latest generation. He offers credible strategies on how to reach these students in order to teach them. His authority on the subject is clear, and he includes lists of references and web resources for further study. Concise and well written, this book would be an asset to any academic library supporting education programs. It would also be useful in public libraries catering to parents and in school libraries supporting professional development for teachers and administrators.
— Library Journal

“Pletka is the author of My So-Called Digital Life, a book of student photographs and quotes about daily life in high school. This current resource can be considered an educator’s companion to that compendium. Pletka uses Digital Life project material to show educators how to increase student engagement (and thereby lower the current dropout rate of one-third). He proposes making school work relevant and personal to the students, engaging them in dialogue with the larger community. His crucial requirement (other than an interactive teaching style) is the availability and use of digital technologies by the students. Pletka’s insight into exactly what turns students off from learning comes from both student quotes and research studies backing up their stories. For low-achieving students, it is often an inability to understand, as well as a lack of one-on-one help. For high-achieving students it can be boredom—a result of taking notes from a textbook or listening to a teacher lecture day after day. The collaboration and interaction engendered by the inclusion of hands-on digital technology or group work in the classroom is recommended to mitigate both problems. Pletka is persuasive . . . this title is recommended to educators and parents for its insight into teen experiences and practical suggestions for change.”
VOYA (Voice of Youth Advocates)

“Pletka (associate superintendent, Vista Unified School District, CA) offers a lucid, engaging overview of the Net generation and its educational experiences. Reflecting on the data collected through the My So-Called Digital Life project, in which high school students documented five weeks in their lives, Pletka argues for a change in teaching methods to create a sense of community, collaboration, and purpose in learning. The monograph starts with an overview of the Net generation and how its relationship to information and communication technologies differs fundamentally from that of previous generations. Synthesizing authentic student perspectives on school life, Pletka presents an insightful examination of the reasons for recent increases in student dropout rates and disengagement from school learning. Information and communication technologies are poised to play a key part in this solution. The latter challenges parents and educators to create a learning environment that is relevant, connected to society, and meaningful in the context of the 21st century. Summing Up: Recommended. General readers, lower-division undergraduates, and practitioners.”