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“Isolated… Crazy Driven… Digitally Obsessed”: Who Are the Gen Zers?

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By Renée Shea

The Education chapter is many teachers’ choice to start off the AP® Lang course, usually after introducing rhetoric in an opening chapter or two. The central text by Fareed Zakaria on the value of a liberal education and the classic work by Frederick Douglass on the vital link between liberty and education are substantial and, certainly in the case of Douglass, challenging pieces. Other Voices offer a range of views on the nature, purpose, and methods of education; the Conversation asks students to weigh in on “The Future of High School.” It’s fairly high-powered and lofty stuff.

So maybe before (or while) they take on these texts, they should think about themselves – do a little meta-exploring on how they learn, not to mention what they want or think they need to learn. A NY Times article announced “The iGen Shift” – that is, the generation born between 1995 and 2012 (known alternatively as iGen or Gen Zers). While the article focuses on ways colleges are appealing to this generation, you’ve got them right in front of you: discussing how accurate the article is from their own perspective might be a good way to spark a conversation as part of this chapter.

Whether students read the whole article (which wouldn’t take very long), here are a few suggestions to get a conversation going.

  1. Laura Pappano, the author of this article, characterized the iGen or Gen Zers as follows: “A generation that rarely reads books or emails, breathes through social media, feels isolated and stressed but is crazy driven and wants to solve the world’s problems (not just volunteer)…” To what extent do you think this is an accurate description of your generation?
  2. Pappano cites Ohio State University’s decision to issue iPads to 11,000 incoming students and has begun to design courses that are “iPad required.” Is this a good strategy to engage students? Should it start in high school? If your school already does this (with iPads, Chrome Books, etc.), what are the advantages and drawbacks?
  3. Pappano cites experts who say that this generation was shaped by the Great Recession of 2008 when they saw family members lose jobs and struggle to maintain financial stability. Thus, Gen Zers are “focused on debt and insist that they get skills and experiences that will lead to a career.” Based on your experience and observation does this focus on career skills result in you and your peers devaluing or not caring about the humanities? As you think about college choices, will you look for opportunities to take liberal arts courses?
  4. Another characterization of your generation cited in the article is based on research that shows “despite their digital obsession … this generation favors visual, face-to-face communication over texting. They are not always good at live social interaction, but they crave it.” True – in part or whole?
  5. One example of a school’s efforts to communicate to the iGen on their own terms is Princeton University’s orientation video for the class of 2022.  Based on Taylor Swift’s “22,” the video was directed by a sophomore student.  Have a look at it on YouTube: Is this an effective video to communicate with your generation? Or does it risk seeming “goofy” or “like your grandfather trying to say swag” – criticisms the article cites of adults who think that they’re appealing to the students by being their version of hip.
  6. A sidebar to the article describes “innovative ways that some colleges and universities are engaging their iGen students.” Here’s one: setting up a “Stress Management and Resiliency Training Lab… [that offers brief] “sessions where students learn mindfulness and deep-breathing techniques to lower anxiety while hooked up to a biofeedback monitor” that shows how their body reacts to stress. Why do you think this effort does or does not show an authentic understanding of the needs and concerns of Gen Zers? 
  7. Not surprisingly, this article occasioned a raft of comments (available online). How do you respond to this one:  “If the idea is to actually help [iGen] prepare for the workforce, pandering to their desire to have every little thing tailored to their personal preferences is the last thing colleges should be doing.”
  8. After exploring some of these questions and issues, what advice would you give your school – administrators or teachers – about the most effective way to communicate with, motivate, and engage your generation?

Even a short excursion into a few of these questions can provide some context for the readings in TLC’s Education chapter. Just be careful with the “swag” and the “shade!”

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