February 18, 2007

Motivating Grade Obsessed Students to Write with Passion

I want to share a long excerpt of a discussion that took place during my Spring 2007 6-Traits writing class. We were discussing the difficulty some were having in motivating young writers to find their own ideas about writing. ~ Dennis

Question posted in class:

"My students have great difficulties generating ideas. My students have passion to get A+ but no passion to express their feelings. I really have to argue with some of my students trying to convince them that they must have some issues to write about, but they insist there are none! Perhaps the technology discussed in the lecture [Mind Mapping Tools] can help me to motivate them to become a bit more passionate about some topic for their writing."

Response from Mark:

"They are telling you what they are passionate about - their grades. So use it.

I teach to the same mentality in my district. And had a similar problem in reading last year. I struggled for a solution for the longest time until I was looking in a math binder for a mini lesson; of all places to find a reading solution.

My math professor got all of the math phobic students in the teaching program. He began the year by informing us that we were beginning with an "F" but that can change as long as we were willing to show, effort, willingness, and passion for this subject. Otherwise, he promised that we would wash out of the teaching program. I never had so much fun in math before, and you never saw a more passionate group about math in any class.

I used the same approach with my reading group... It took some setting up. I had to have a clear plan to insure most if not all of my students would do well, I had to convince my principal to let me do it and even with her approval, she was looking over my shoulder constantly; and I had a lot of heat from parents at first. But in the end the kids had a great time while Exceeding expectations, and the parents and district were happy with the results. I was too.

I tend to go with my instincts, my instincts say, if they do not meet your expectations then their grade should reflect their unwillingness to try.

I know that sounds harsh but, if you conference with them and tell them this is your grade unless you can use what I am teaching you, and passionately convince me you deserve a higher self selected grade this is what you will receive.

Then let the bidding begin through self-collected portfolios with letters that explain why these samples should be considered for a higher grade. Then give them your take on the samples along with suggestions for improvement. The more they have to haggle the more passionate their writing will become and the more they will pay attention to what you are teaching.

I can't say where but somewhere along the line the grade, or the need for a better grade tends to slip out of the mix, as the challenge that subject offers takes over. It happened to me as a student in the math class and I saw it happen to my students in my reading class. Their just comes a point where you know what your grade will be and who's responsible for that. At any rate writing is now connected to something important to them and becomes relevant; just a thought.

Melissa Replied:

Mark, I LOVE this idea. I teach "rough" kids with little to no motivation to go to school, let alone put in any effort to be there. However, I have noticed in recent months that a good amount of them have suddenly woken up and realize that they DO want an education and they DO want to make good grades.

Like many of the other people have said, they THINK that by merely turning in the assignment, it deserves an A. I like the fact that this is a "contract" with them--they still are empowered as they have the choice to do what is required to make the grade, or accept the low one; there are no surprises at the end of the grading period.

I wonder if I could implement something like this in my current job. We are starting a new novel in a couple of weeks, your project ideas sound great and could work. Hmmm....you've got me very excited about trying this. The only ones I would have to convince are my Principal and students (most of my kids don't have parents). I'll let you know if it works out. Thanks for the great info!

Mark replies:

Melissa, It would have to be brain stormed and changed for the subject and environment. When I went through it in math at each semester the professor would have us submit our three ah..ha moments in the class along with a reflection on each moment.

Since we were allowed to redo any paper as often as we wanted and he would re-grade as often as we redid the assignment all papers had to be without any mathematical errors. In addition he had us read autobiographies of mathematicians, books about numbers, and had guest speakers come in and talk with us about how numbers are used in the work place. We had to do a reflection on at least two of these events.

So each semester we turned in three assignments with rationale, two reflections on guest speakers, and our daily math journal, along with the grade we felt we deserved and how these papers supported our belief. That's how we were graded.

In my reading class, we read trade books - one of them from a past semester was a book called the Landry News. Each week they had vocabulary work they needed to do and a choice of activates that they would work on over the week and submit with what grade they felt it deserved. If it did deserve the grade I would enter the grade in my book and that was it. If it did not, I entered the low grade, returned the assignment with feedback and they were expected to re-do it over the weekend for re-submission on Monday.

If the paper was not resubmitted I sent a letter home explaining to the parent the grade their child chose to accept and remind them a new project was due on Friday. (That's where the heat came from). But they never missed more than one assignment.

Sample Assignments

  • Some examples were things like making a board game that represents the book.
  • Or retell the story from another characters point of view, anything that reached into comprehension.
  • At the end of the book we had a debate with the principal and the school councilor as the mediators. Each person in my class sat around a table with a sheet of paper that would be used for a self-evaluation.
  • At the top of that paper was a note reminding them that they had to make a compelling and (book) relevant contribution to the discussion.

At the end of the debate they were asked to complete this reflection on their performance in the debate and tell me what grade they felt they deserved. As long as they turned in all assignments, stayed on topic, in character, and contributed they got the grade they asked for. And believe me they were far harder on themselves than I would have been.

This is just one book and one example. For Letters from Rifika by Karen Hesse, they needed to make a CIA information slide show of the Tebrot family and their trip to America so that Rifika could be cleared to enter America. The list goes on...

Now, with my writing class I have never had to mention grades this year... They know my expectation. For my part, keeping what I want focused helps me target the specific missed assignments from each student very early on. This is how I do it. In writing I give them a week at the end of each trimester to put together a trimester portfolio with three things in it.

  • All assignments called "Perfeckt" usually about ten of them.
  • One of the three teacher directed essays for that grading period. Their choice.
  • Three samples out of their portfolio along with a sheet that explains the grade they feel they deserve and how these samples support their grading.

They know they need to be consistently working on these pieces. As soon as they select a portfolio piece they know they can redo (in their own time) as often as is necessary and I will re-grade it as often as they submit it. They are accustomed to thinking of the other assignments as targeted lessons that teach them things they can use to improve their portfolio. Because, I will re-grade portfolio pieces as often as they like they know all samples have to be strong in conventions. I give one-on-one help with the other traits in their sample, and they know they have to show improvement in some way. By the time they submit their trimester portfolio they already have a good idea what their grade will be.

And that's it. Is it a lot of work? yes… Is it worth it? YOU BET!!!"

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