Zombie Detection

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 conversations such as these? Why do so many students seem to turn into zombies during school hours, only to come alive after classs? Classrooms are ideal places to explore why the process of zombification (Stine, 1999). What are the 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? As Wannarka and Ruhl (2008) point out, classroom seating has a big impact on behaviors. Deciding where to sit is a form of non-verbal communication and many students say "keep away" by sitting at the back of the room, far away from the teacher.

Second, observe body language. After a bit of head dropping or the eyelids close completely is a sign that the process of zombification is starting. Ken Shore has provide some practical solutions for dealing with sleeping in class. Short-term solutions include waking the student, providing more stimulating activities that engage students, and calling on students unexpectedly, we also need to consider long-term solutions. Are students spending too much time on the Internet? Do they have healthy sleep patterns? And is the material you are supposedly "teaching" sufficiently engaging?

It is not uncommon for students to feel drowsy sometimes during the day. However, if this is a common occurance then the entire school ecology needs to be examined. What teacher-student interactions encourage zombielike behaviors? What narratives do students offer when they "chill out" during classroom time? Let's face it: some classrooms are cemetaries. And teachers are partly to blame.

"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:

  1. Engage – At some point let persons displaying evasive, zombielike behaviors know that you recognize their existence and also see through the bluff. Many zombies are consciously underachieving. They aren't stupid; they have just figured out that the system sometimes rewards passivity (Ciaccia, 2004). Somehow communicate your conviction that they have a worthwhile place in the scheme of things and that they are doing a disservice through underperformance. Those who zone out frequently often feel placeless and are used to being stuck in corners. The limelight of human awareness can awaken some. Others, however, are so deeply rooted in shame and denial that nothing seems to work. It takes most people a long time to make a habit of zoning out. Once that habit is set, don't expect a quick fix. The key point of engagement is caring communication. And if you don't really care whether or not a student seems to zone out or not, then don't pretend to.

  2. Mirror – Many zombies have no idea how they appear to others and act as if they not to even care. In some way, teachers need to communicate what they see, even if it is confrontative. Do not pretend everything is fine when it actually isn't. Part of mirroring is finding out what brings zombies to life and then seeing if you can't bring that behavior into the classroom. Zombies are used to deception and often adept deceivers themselves. Simple truth can be powerful. . . . yet it is often hard to predict with precision when that will get through.

  3. Appreciate – If noticed at all, people who zone out habitually tend to get attention only for what they do wrong. Rarely is there any appreciation for the things they do right. As a consequence, many passive students develop a habit of non-doing. The system sometimes rewards students who avoid the risk of trying rather than those who make valiant efforts but fail. To break out of the habit of passivity, actual performance has to be recognized and rewarded. Mature zombies might even see that virtue has its own rewards, but don't count on it. Perfectionistic standards about performance need to be discarded and a willingness to learn from mistakes embraced (Adderholdt-Elliott, 1987).

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.