I once had a student who was notorious for falling asleep in class. His nodding off was not a critique of the teacher’s ability to create an exciting lesson, but the result of his tendency to spend late nights on the phone with his many girlfriends. He was a very bright young man who sincerely wanted to do well in school, but according to his father was so handsome and charming that the girls flocked to him. Being a gentleman, he simply had no idea how to turn them away without hurting their feelings. Thus, he spent many hours each evening calming and reassuring them with extended sessions on the phone.
While I agreed with the father’s assessment of his son’s personality, I was unwilling to use it as an excuse for his lackluster academic performance and his daytime slumbers. I was determined to help the boy to reassess his routines and prioritize his activities to focus more on learning and less on expanding his social reputation. I scheduled a private conference with this student and asked him what he thought it would take to keep him awake during my Algebra I class. He thanked me for caring about him and made a bold suggestion.
His idea was to allow him to sit right in front of the area where I provided my instruction in functions and polynomials and such. Since this was in the times between chalky blackboards and computerized smart boards, I mostly delivered my lessons with an overhead projector. I used whiteboard markers to write my examples on glass screen of the projector and all the while I had the benefit of facing the students rather than turning my back to them. I used a spray bottle filled with water to quickly erase an example and create a clean slate for moving on to the next one. Therein came the brilliant crux of the young man’s idea for keeping him wide awake no matter how tired he became from his nightly sojourns with girls. He wanted me to spray him in the face with my water bottle as soon as he nodded off.
My initial reaction to his idea was incredulity. While it demonstrated that he was indeed quite creative, it did nothing to amend his propensity for staying up all night entertaining the ladies. I felt that the correct route to classroom attention and participation lay in getting him to sleep at night so that he would be alert during the day. Nonetheless I agreed to place him right in front of me while I taught, hoping that he would be embarrassed to fall asleep in such close proximity to my ire.
For a couple of days he was able to engage in the lessons and prove himself to be as intelligent as I was sure he was. Sadly, his resolution to refocus his routines collapsed before the end of the school week. Soon I would witness the fluttering of his eyelids as he struggled to stay away. While I was able to lean over the projector and give him a nudge to keep his attention, the continual need to wake him up broke the flow of my teaching and slowed down the pace of the lesson. Our interaction became a sideshow and source of laughter for the rest of the students. The plan was a total bust until I finally lost it one day, picked up my spray bottle and aimed it in his direction.
As the fine mist of water landed on his head he immediately sat up straight and smiled at me as if to thank me for my willingness to work with him. On that first foray the entire class dissolved into a wave of hysterical laughter. When the sleepy student corrected them by insisting that he was like a Pavlovian dog who needed reinforcement to change his bad behavior, they somehow understood that they had just witnessed a serious moment and they immediately resumed a more studious demeanor.
I continued the lesson with great success. I had to spray the drowsy student a few more times, but he always came back with a determination to ignore the need to doze that his body was urging him to do. Over time our experiment proved to be fruitful. The young man would often last for an entire class period without surrendering to slumber even when his eyelids became heavy. He demonstrated his intellect with delving questions and informed answers. He began turning in his homework regularly and making exemplary grades on his tests. He liked the way he felt and worked harder and harder, falling into a state of slumber less and less.
Eventually the hero of this story stopped sleeping in his other classes as well. He came to school bright eyed and ready to work. He admitted to me that now he had a problem with falling asleep while talking to his girlfriends. Since nobody was there to awaken him he more often than not managed to sleep through the night after dozing off in mid-sentence.
I never again pointed my spray bottle at another student. Somehow even with the positive results that I had my slumberer, it felt unbecoming to resort to such tactics to keep my students awake during lessons. Instead I tried to make my teaching more interesting and relevant to them. I worked with them to learn how to take control of their daily routines as well. I’d still have an occasional child of Rip van Winkle show up for class, but never again would I encounter a student who was a certified day sleeper. I would not forget that charismatic soul who had his days and nights turned around. I hope that he is still doing well. He was certainly charming, but more importantly, he was so very bright. It was worth the effort to help him discover his potential even if the method for doing so was unorthodox. Sometimes thinking out of the box produces miracles.