It is 6:00 am. I stayed up all night playing with this blog and our Facebook page and Pinterest and Instagram and exploring this app and that extension and whatever else called on me to click on it. I didn’t even realize I’d blown the night up until my Fitbit buzzed telling me to get up and workout. Thank God it is a holiday!
I cannot help but think (besides about how tired I will be all day) about engagement. I remember a while ago I read Danial Pink’s book Drive and then watched the RSA Animate video on motivation. We really will spend time, lots of time, doing the things we want to do be it reading, writing, learning a new skill, climbing a mountain, or sinking into the social-media–abyss. We just have to want to.
So how do we get our students to WANT TO do the things we know will make a difference in their lives, namely, read more, write more, communicate better, think more critically?
We keep trying.
i just finished a semester with my students. I wish I could say that every child read more than he ever has in his life, wrote better than she ever has since she held a pencil, learned to speak with ‘proper’ English and clear eye contact, and thought like a rocket scientist trying to get a man to the moon.
Some did. Some did, and honestly, the first few days of school, I didn’t think they would. But I kept trying.
Here’s a list of the top 10 things I kept doing, even when I was tired, even when I thought they weren’t listening, even when we all wanted to hide behind dark curtains and ring a bell for a cup of tea. (That will be me later today.)
We read at the beginning of class every day (almost — we had about six days throughout the semester when something somehow got in the way of that, i.e., fire drills, assemblies, wonky bell schedules, my car dying on the way to school).
We talked about books A LOT. Book talks, reading challenges, reading goals, tweeting book selfies, and more.
We wrote about our books enough to practice writing about our books. Theme statements, mirroring sentences, analyzing characters and conflict and plot — just enough to keep our minds learning and practicing the art of noticing an author’s craft.
We wrote about topics we care about. With the exception of the first essay students wrote, which was all the junior English teachers committed to as a pre-assessment, students chose their own topics or wrote their own prompts. Donald Murray in Learning by Teaching says the hardest part of writing is deciding on what to write about, yet we so often take that hard thinking from our writers. The worst essays my students wrote was the only one in which I gave a prompt, and before you think it’s just because that was their first essay, nope, I asked them. They just didn’t care — and that is the worst way to start off the year in a writing class.
We read mentor texts and learned comprehension skills and studied author’s craft. I chose highly engaging texts about current events in our society: police shootings and being shot, taking a knee during the national anthem, race relations, our prison system, immigration issues — all topics that make us ask as many questions as the writers answer. Inquiry lived in our discussions.
We talked one-on-one about our reading and our writing. I conferred more than I have in the past, taking notes so I wouldn’t forget as students told me about their reading lives and their writing woes. We spoke to one another as readers and writers. We grew to like each other as individuals with a variety of interests, backgrounds, ideas, and dreams.
We shared a bit of ourselves — mostly in our writing — than we ever thought we would. Abusive mothers, alcoholic fathers, hurtful and harrowing pasts and how we grow up out of them. We talked about respect within families and how we can hurt the people we love the best when we ignore their love because it’s masked in fear and strict parenting.
We celebrated our writing by sharing what we wrote, by performing spoken word poems, reading our narratives, or reading our quickwrites. We left feedback on sticky notes and flooded our writers.
We grew in confidence and that showed in our work. I held students accountable with high expectations — and lots of mercy. Most rose to the challenge, even those in their first AP class and those far behind who needed to catch up. Most exceeded their own expectations.
We joined communities of readers and writers on social media, building a positive digital footprint that shows we are scholars, students who care about their literacy and want to go to college. We wrote 140 character book reviews and explored Goodreads and shared covers of the books we were reading. #IMWAYR #readersunite #FridayREADS #FarmersREAD
I will miss the juniors in my block class who are done with English for the year. They were a joy, although a challenge, pretty much every day. And my AP kiddos, they are ready for the kind of learning we will do to face down that exam come May.
We will keep doing what we do: Whatever it Takes to Grow as Readers and Writers (even if it means a lack of sleep.)
What do you do to motivate your learners? Please share your ideas in the comments.
Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 to the Fighting Farmers at Lewisville High School. She adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus Christ: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all love more than we think we can. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.