Keeping Students Motivated

14 Mar

Friends. Romance. Home life. Snow days. Testing. Summer. Work. Sports. Sleep.

And we wonder why it’s so darn tough to keep kids motivated to learn. Man, this has been the hot topic in  our buildings all year since I began teaching eleven years ago. A friend just posted this great piece from the KQED blog “Mind/Shift,” and it really got me excited to start thinking again about deeper learning and learning for transfer. How do we keep kids motivated? We invite them to join conversations, and we make sure we’re all learning together. That’s my starting block anyway. Being a teacher is so exciting! Sometimes it’s easy to forget that.

Have a great Friday!


Great Ideas from Readers

30 Jan

I love the New York Times’ Learning Network. Here’s a link to a cool series they’ve put together of great ideas from readers on using the NYTimes in classrooms. Enjoy!

What is relevant to a sixth grader?

4 Nov

I have been so excited to have met a smattering of senior English teachers over the past few years who work with their seniors on resumes and college application essays. Senior English teachers, in some ways, you have it so good because you can tell your kids – “These essays will turn into dollars for you if you do them well!” – and that will be true. And there’s so much great stuff out there – check out today’s post from the Learning Network or this weekend’s article in “Education Life” on admissions videos to help kids see what’s being created for this genre. 

Now, how do we do that for 11th graders? or 6th graders? I mean, do those guys even know what they like? I’m kidding, of course, but with seniors, life outside of school is so about to happen that they can be pretty well convinced that they’d better get their acts together. Sixth graders? Not so much. So how do we make what we read and write relevant to them? 

It’s time for some comments, folks. Really, what do you do? Any success stories out there to share?

A Response to “Five Reasons the Common Core is Ruining Childhood”

1 Nov

The Huffington Post published this article on the Common Core last week, and I’ve felt moderately uneasy ever since. This is the kind of thing that I keep hearing people say, but it really doesn’t make sense, and I’ll explain why. The author, Katie Hurley, centers her criticism around 5 main issues that she blames on the CCSS: (1) increased stress; (2) creativity is dead; (3) inadequate time to socialize; (4) poor eating habits and insufficient exercise; and (5) no time to decompress. Let me begin by saying that, Ms. Hurley, I agree with you on all five of these points. Kids are stressed. Teachers feel like they don’t have time to teach creatively, and kids are suffering from less time to socialize, exercise, and decompress. However, Common Core is not to blame for this situation.

Ms. Hurley writes that the “hyper focus on core areas of learning and the constant testing to ensure that material is being memorized” stresses kids. Yep. Constant testing does stress kids, but show me anywhere in the Common Core that suggests we ask kids to memorize material. In fact, this is one of the major strengths of Common Core. What could kids memorize that would help them learn to “write arguments and support claims with valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence”? What could they memorize that would help them to learn to “examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content”? If you want to see what the Common Core actually requires kids to do, go and read the standards. You might be surprised.

“Busy work is the name of the game.”

Again, Ms. Hurley, what does this have to do with the standards? I agree. Kids are exposed to a sickening amount of mind-numbing busy work, but that’s not the fault of these standards. These standards ask kids to read, write, and think in complex ways. The literacy standards want kids to write coherently; to develop and strengthen writing through planning, revising, and trying new approaches; to use technology; to share their writing products and respond to feedback; to research, solve problems, and synthesize sources; to analyze and reflect. It’s hard not to be creative with such a plethora of options. Isn’t this what we adults are doing already? Now, there’s a lot of bad teaching out there. That doesn’t have anything to do with the Common Core Standards. That has to do with trying to manage 25 individuals in one room at the same time. (And don’t say that research on class size shows that it doesn’t make a difference. If you’ve ever taught or had a kid in school, you know that it does.) That has to do with ZERO time in the day to work with colleagues, read professional literature, or participate in conversations. We spend SO. MUCH. MORE. time talking about paperwork than we do about actually doing our jobs. Give us a break! Teachers don’t feel like they can be creative because there are big tests out there being held over their heads, but that’s not the fault of the Common Core.

And, you know, my biggest, truly biggest concern for my own daughter when she entered kindergarten last year was about time – time for recess, time to exercise, time to talk with her friends, time to eat her lunch at her own pace, time to sit for a moment and rest. At barely five, I didn’t want my barely-not-a-baby girl to be doing something academic for 7 hours, 5 days a week. I wanted her to have time to develop relationships and play and get some oxygen in her blood. And this doesn’t change as kids get older. However, once again, this is unrelated to the Common Core standards. The CCSS elevate our expectations for quality work. We can’t ask kids to fill in worksheets and have them magically come out understanding how to read, write, and think for themselves. Teaching is changing under CC, and that’s a good thing. All of the negativity surrounding this conversation has to do with missteps in implementation: what will these new tests look like? will districts require all teachers to teach the same texts, the same units? Let’s hope that our administrators can step up to support us as we deepen our practice and engage our students in richer and more relevant work than most of them have experienced in school and not burden us with more meaningless tests and less autonomy. Let’s not, however, bash the CCSS. It’s essential that we understand the difference between high standards and poorly-designed tests.

(And, on that note, if you’re interested in assessments, check out Organic Writing Assessment: Dynamic Criteria Mapping in Action for a look into how local control over testing could generate information that teachers might actually value and could use to improve their teaching. Imagine that.)

Reading the Whole Book

24 Oct

I came across this blog post today, which is totally something I should have already written, considering how often I think it. The piece is written by Ariel Sacks, who is an English teacher who also just wrote the book Whole Novels for the Whole Class. Her main point is this – it’s no wonder that kids don’t like reading these days because we’re always interrupting them. The metaphor she gives is a great one – how would we feel if we were at the theater and suddenly, after the second scene, the lights came on, and someone started asking us questions. Buzzkill! I hate that. 

I’ve had experiences a few times recently that have been really eye opening to me involving being asked to read a text that I actually love and then also having to answer questions about that text. Now, I’m not talking about thought-provoking questions but fact-finding questions like “What color was the driver’s suit?” and “What was the man carrying?” I mean, I love literature, and when I really love a text, I want to talk about it, but I want to read it first. I want some time to digest it on its own. And then I don’t want someone asking me the kinds of questions you ask someone if you don’t trust that they’ve done their reading. Ask me something interesting (that does not have a right or wrong answer, please!). 

It’s this disharmony between the aesthetic and efferent tasks of reading for pleasure vs. reading for information that make me think the next time I teach any literature in class, I’ll do it in the form of a book group or lit circle but not as a central component of the course. I know that I’m definitely in the minority of English teachers when I say that I’d rather get kids engaged in critical reading, thinking, and writing when they’re working in non-fiction. Let’s savor that fiction. Dissection does not lead to love. 

Motivating Students and Not Licking Desks

21 Oct

So many of us are struggling to help our students to see the relevance of classroom assignments to their lives and to help motivate students to do their best work. Though this article is from the perspective of a college instructor, I think that middle and high school teachers can glean a number of good ideas from her article. Namely, let’s create authentic tasks for our kiddos! They’ll believe us in our never-ending campaign to try to convince them that writing is important if we actually help them to do important writing. 

My sister is in her first year of college, and I wish her freshman writing instructor were practicing some of these ideas. My sister, who is an animal science major, was most recently asked to write a descriptive paper about an item in her dorm room – she chose her desk – in which she uses her five senses. Snooze fest! And good luck trying to convince someone who loves science that this writing (My desk tastes like…chili?) is going to help her – ever. That’s the tremendously sad thing. Descriptive writing is, of course, hugely important in the sciences, but my sister isn’t buying it. Bring her a real-world example of science writing, and let her try her hand at that. I mean, I have two degrees in English and 10 years of teaching experience in the field, and I have never had to lick my desk. Let’s try not to ask our students to lick theirs. 

On that note, check out this awesome article on the immortal jellyfish. This is one of the best pieces of science writing I’ve read recently. Let’s do more of this!

To Tweet, or Not to Tweet?

14 Oct

Okay, friends. I need your advice: Twitter, yes or no?

I have to admit that I am slightly perplexed by Twitter. Those of you who know me are probably not surprised by that, considering that I still own a flip phone, don’t text, use a paper map… You know, some might call me a luddite, but it’s not true! I’m just highly sensitive to time wasting, and I don’t want to be poking around on the internet while my kids are playing on the playground. Sigh.

Anyway, it seems a bit like Twitter is the place to be these days, especially for educators. What do you guys think? Time waster or fertile ground of discovery?

Thanks for your input 🙂