Archive | April, 2012

Are You Teaching Your Kids to Hate Writing?

24 Apr

In this blog, I spend a lot of time talking about how I try to teach my students to love writing. Just as important, though, is NOT teaching your students to hate writing–something that many teachers, myself included, do accidentally all the time.

Here are three surefire ways to teach your students to hate writing (and some ideas for how to avoid them):

1. Use writing as a punishment. We are all familiar with the image of an Anne-of-Green-Gables-type kid being forced to write “I will not lose my temper” a hundred times on a blackboard. We laugh at the idea, but modern teachers still pull this kind of stunt all the time. Have you ever heard (or said), “If y’all don’t settle down, I’m giving you twice as much homework tonight!” or “Since you all were horrible to the substitute teacher, you all have to write a five-page apology letter to her.”

But here’s my question: Has giving extra writing assignments as punishment ever made a disruptive child sit down, cock their head thoughtfully, and say, “Why golly! You’re so right, teacher! I really should love learning more than I do. I’ll be sure to work hard and care deeply about the quality of my academic papers from here on out”? Classroom rules and consequences are an important part of many well-managed classrooms, but there are plenty of useful consequences that are non-academic, such as lunch detentions or phone calls home, and using these can help your student separate their behavioral consequences from their interest in their schoolwork.

2. Don’t give any feedback. Students thrive on feedback; they love to know what they are doing well and what they need more help with. Without timely, meaningful feedback, writing assignments can feel like writing to a pen pal who never writes you back–draining and pointless.

3. Don’t let your students do creative writing projects. It can be hard to save time for creative projects when we are faced with countless testing requirements, but it is more important now than ever. Writing poetry, stories, and plays inspires students to care about writing (and it also teaches them important skills, as well.) Consider setting aside one day each week for creative projects, or offering creative responses as a more fun alternative to literary essays or multiple choice tests.

What do you do to keep your students excited about writing? Let me know in the comments section!

Want Your Students to Write More? Tell Them to Write Less.

13 Apr
girl, writing Deutsch: Maedchen, beim Schreiben

girl, writing Deutsch: Maedchen, beim Schreiben (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A blank page isn’t just a piece of paper. To some, a blank page represents possibility and creativity. To most people, though, (especially students) it just looks like a failure in progress.

I have watched hundreds of students admit defeat the moment they pulled out a fresh sheet of paper. They tell me, “I don’t know what to write,” or “I can’t write,” or even, “I don’t feel like writing.” But I have one simple trick that gets them over the hurdle, and it has never failed me:

I write the first sentence for them.

It looks like this:

“Jaquan, what have you got so far?” (Jaquan shrugs passively and looks down at his blank page.) “You mind if I help you get started?” (Jaquan shrugs passively again and I pick up his pencil.) “We’re writing similes for ourselves. So let’s start with weather. If you were a kind of weather, what kind of weather would you be?”

He thinks. “A storm.”

“I like that. What makes you say a storm?”

“‘Cause I get mad.”

“When do you get mad?”

He ponders this for a moment. “When my brother takes my stuff.”

“Great. I’ll write down, ‘When my brother takes my things, I am like an angry storm.’ Is that okay?” I write it down, and Jaquan reads it over, pleased. “Awesome. That’s really good. How about we take turns writing? You do one, and then I’ll come back and write the next one for you. Why don’t you write about an animal. Tell me what kind of animal you would be and why.”

Jaquan picks up his pencil and starts to write.

Sometimes, that’s all it takes. Sometimes I take turns with the student for a few minutes before I say something like, “Oops, looks like Terrell needs my help, too. Why don’t you keep writing and let me know if you need help. You’re doing great.”

So why does it work? I have two theories:

1. It shows your student that you care. By taking the time to write down their words yourself, you are validating their thoughts and showing the student that you care about what they have to say. This alone is enough to inspire most stuck students.

2. It gets rid of the scary blank page. Facing down a blank page can be daunting. By writing down the first few sentences yourself, you help the student overcome their fear of getting started.

Of course, I understand that in a hectic classroom you may not always have time to do it yourself. If you can’t personally write down what your student says, here are some other options:

  • Have students work in teams and write down what the other says. If you have recording devices, this is a great time to use them.
  • Try using dictation software, if you’ve got it.

Do you ever write for your students? How does it work for you?

Got Lazy Students? Get Them Writing With One Simple Trick.

10 Apr
US Navy 021114-N-5862D-007 Students playing fl...

US Navy 021114-N-5862D-007 Students playing flag football (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few weeks ago, I had a student who kept goofing off during writing time. He had written barely a sentence, and he kept distracting the students around him. I knew that he was clever and fully capable of doing the assignment; he was just being lazy.

My solution? I turned my back to the student and focused, instead, on a friend of his who was doing a great job. I praised her (loud enough for the disruptive student to hear) and joked with her for a minute about a funny line she had written. I smiled at her and told her to keep doing exactly what she was doing.

Then I turned back to the disruptive student. I asked to read his work and picked up the (nearly blank) sheet of paper. I smiled and raised an eyebrow: “Really? That’s all you got? You got some real catching up to do if you want to keep up with these other guys. Check out the great metaphor that Shondra just wrote.” I said. I put his paper back down on his desk and turned away to praise another successful student.

You might think that this was mean (and if you do, you probably this that this is mean, too)–but my student didn’t think so. He actually smiled, laughed, and got to work.

Thirty seconds later, he was scribbling furiously. He even asked his friend to look at her paper so that he could see what she had done and (I quote him directly here) “Do it better.” His final piece was fantastic, and he felt happy and proud at the end of class.

Competition–ranging from formal contests to informal rivalries–is an instant cure for laziness. Some teachers are hesitant to use it because they are afraid that it creates a tense or adversarial atmosphere. While I understand that concern, I believe that competition can actually create a jovial and supportive atmosphere, when used well. Kids love playing sports, even though they lose games all the time.  In the same way, students enjoy academic competitions, even if they don’t win them every time–in fact, losing just may inspire them to work harder next time.

Fair warning: this isn’t the right tactic for every student. Here are a few things to keep in mind when introducing competition into your classroom:

  • This works best for students who are confident, resilient, and have a good sense of humor (and with whom you have a good relationship). If you don’t don’t get along well with a student, or if they take offense easily, then they might feel attacked rather than encouraged.
  • The younger a student is, the more likely it is that competition will light a fire under them. It’s a surefire technique up until around 8th grade. Unfortunately, high school students are more likely to try to “logic” themselves out of working by saying things like, “I don’t care if Stacy’s poem is better than mine. I’m not going to be a writer anyway.” Making high school students compete in teams is often more effective because energetic students are likely to inspire their lazier teammates to work harder.
  • Make sure that you only challenge students who have the capacity to do much better than they are currently doing. If a student is obviously trying their hardest but still failing, it is cruel to compare them to their classmates. The best way to help a student like that is to praise them for their hard work and offer them assistance. If, however, students are not trying at all–or doing only the bare minimum when you know that they can do much more–they are fair game for a little friendly competition.
  • Don’t use this tactic on students who suffer from anxiety, social problems, or a serious lack of confidence. This kind of direct confrontation can be harmful to students who already suffer from social anxiety.

Do you use competition in your classroom? What works best for you? Let me know in the comments section!

Why Farts, Zits, and Slobber Are Good for Your Classroom

2 Apr
Acne vulgaris ill artlibre jn

Acne vulgaris ill artlibre jn (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have never understood why so many writing teachers tell their students they can only write “nice” things, like poems about sunsets or florid thank you notes. I don’t mind these assignments, exactly (and I certainly think there is value in thank you notes), but I can’t tell you how many times my students have almost ruined a truthful and hilarious essay by saying something like, “But I can’t write that! It isn’t nice.”

Well, news flash: life isn’t nice. In fact, life is kind of gross. Especially when you’re in middle school, and you haven’t yet figured out what to do with body hair or deodorant. As teachers, I think we have to embrace that grossness and give our students a safe place to talk about it.

My favorite lesson in the Cure for IDK repertoire is the love poems lesson–precisely because we encourage students to write about exactly the things that aren’t nice about their loved one. Encouraging students to look at the people they love from an unflattering angle consistently results in the most vibrant, truthful, specific, and detailed writing my students have ever done. In case you don’t believe me, here’s an example from 4th-grader Diamond Sledge about her older brother:

Crusty Love

Your pimples rub against my face so roughly,
It feels like they are going to pop on my face,
And your stubble chin hairs feel like little ants biting me.
When will it stop?
When we sit on the couch together,
You have toenails that are 10 feet long
with bunions on them,
And enough dirt to fertilize a garden.
They scratch me so deep, it makes me want to scream.
Your big fat head gets in the way at the movies,
When you are in front of me,
Your stinking feet are always in the way when I am sleeping,
Your garbage-smelling breath always in my face when you talk
to me,
Your big frog-like eyes always staring me down in the face,
Your big fat crusted lips trying to kiss me all the time,
All you do when you talk is spit a pool in my face,
Even though I know you love me,
You have got to stop not taking showers!

Try giving your students an equally gross writing assignment, and let me know how it goes!