A 1-Hour Assignment that Stops Kids From Failing?

12 Feb

Yep, you read right: there is a 1-hour writing assignment that will make your students significantly less likely to fail out of school. In fact, there’s a writing assignment that can do just about anything. We’ll get to more of them in the next few months.


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The Assignment

Take one class period and ask your students to write about a value they hold, such as honesty or loyalty, or even just good friendships. This incredibly simple exercise can change the course of their lives. Researcher Gregory Walton has done some fascinating work in this area. Check out what the LA Times has to say about it:

“Simply writing an essay about a personally important value, like relationships with good friends, seems to have changed attitudes toward school and, consequently, how well the essay writers did in a particular course. Only 3% failed the course for which they wrote the essay, compared with 11% of the control group. That’s critical because data show that students who fail classes in middle school are prime candidates to drop out before graduating.”

But why does it work?

Who knows? My guess is that by asking students to think about and affirm their values, we send them the implicit message that their values are, indeed, valuable, and that they should spend time thinking about and acting in accordance with those values. Writing down an idea is a hugely powerful affirmation of that idea, and when students affirm their personal values, it boosts their confidence and gives them agency. When students feel as though they are the masters of their own fate, they are probably a lot more likely to make good decisions.


7 Responses to “A 1-Hour Assignment that Stops Kids From Failing?”

  1. Jackie February 13, 2012 at 12:49 pm #

    I love this idea! This might make a good ending to my Catcher in The Rye unit too…..

    • thatwritinglady February 13, 2012 at 12:58 pm #

      That’s a great idea–let me know how it goes!

      • Jackie February 13, 2012 at 8:30 pm #

        Have you done it with students? I’m wondering how to frame it for them–they wrote a “This I Believe” essay in September in their history classes, so I can’t use that idea as a prompt. Any tips?

      • thatwritinglady February 17, 2012 at 3:51 pm #

        I have! I actually use it on the first day of class to get an expository writing sample. Here is how I phrase it:

        “Tell me: what is an important value that you have? (Examples of values: honesty, compassion, kindness, teamwork, self-respect, faith, perseverance, loyalty, forgiveness, leadership, patience, creativity, service). Why do you think that this value is important? Be specific and detailed; give examples of how and when you think people should demonstrate this value.”

        Another way to go might be to have them engage in dialogue with a character or historical figure that they are studying using a prompt like this: “Based on how Stalin acted, what do you think he valued above all else? If you could write him a letter telling him what he should have valued instead, what would you say to him? How are your values similar to or different from his?”

  2. thatwritinglady February 21, 2012 at 1:14 pm #

    Thanks for the link!


  1. Re-Entry « A Patchwork Life - February 21, 2012

    […] he will for many more.  You’ve got a job to get back to, papers to assign and grade, new exercises to try with your students, new challenges and changes there […]

  2. Writing on Values « A Patchwork Life - February 27, 2012

    […] as usual, I returned the visit to find her blog. The entry that caught my attention was one titled A 1-Hour Assignment that Stops Kids from Failing–great title, right? Upon reading further, I found the prompt really inspiring for use with my […]

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