Archive | July, 2012

How to Help Your Students Write Faster

27 Jul


Zoom and Bored

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thanks to my addiction to the WordPress stats page, I now know that the search term “teach students to write faster” brings several people to this blog every day. (Google doesn’t seem to mind that I’ve never actually written on this topic before.) Since so many people seem to be concerned about this topic, I thought that I would share my two cents.

So you would like your students to write faster? I have a short answer and a long answer for you.


Long answer:  Imagine that you are trying to learn how to knit. You are awkwardly fumbling with the needles. The yarn keeps getting tangled. On most rows, you have to pull all the stitches and start over at least three times before you finally do it right. You know that this is normal–it takes everybody a while to get the hang of it–but you still feel frustrated and defeated.

Now imagine a scary old lady standing next to you, staring at every move you make, telling you, “Go FASTER! Knit FASTER! Come on–you can do better than that!”

Do you think that would help you any? Or would it just make you nervous and slow you down?

Wouldn’t it be better if the old lady said something like, “Good job! I know it’s tough, but you’re doing well for a beginner. Take your time and just keep practicing. Here, let me help you with that stitch.”

The same goes for students who are learning how to write. I know that standardized tests put a lot of pressure on teachers to get their students to write quickly, but intense scrutiny and pressure will only make a hard task seem impossible.

Writing is difficult. Good writing often takes a very long time. James Joyce famously wrote only seven or eight words a day for most of his career. Worrying about how fast your students write isn’t going to help them write faster; the only real way to get a student to write faster is to let them practice in peace, with supportive feedback (good rule of thumb: three compliments to every criticism).

Why do you think so many teachers are interested in making their students write faster, rather than better? What ideas and advice do you have? Let me know in the comments section!






Stop Your Kids from Whining in 3 Easy Steps

17 Jul

no_whining (Photo credit: frotzed2)

In my last post, I wrote about an amazingly resilient student of mine. I also mentioned a student who would complain about anything (literally: she once stopped class to announce to me, sniffling, “My nose itches!”)

This sparked a great discussion in the comments section, and I thought that I would share some tactics that I’ve recently discovered for preventing whining in the classroom, and for bringing out the resilient, adorable darling within every kid:

Step 1. Clearly define “whining” with your kids. In my book, whining is:

  • Asking me to solve a problem that you could have solved yourself. (For example: the floor is sticky here! Well, go get a napkin and clean it up. I am not your maid.)
  • Complaining about a problem that cannot be solved. (For example: Maria doesn’t like me! I’m sorry that’s the case, hon, but I can’t make her like you, and you have to learn to accept the fact that not everybody will always like you. Other examples: I’m tired, I’m hungry, it’s hot. I can’t give you a bed, feed you, or change the weather in the middle of class. Sorry.)
  • Comparing yourself to another kid. For example: But you let Billy do a special project yesterday–so I should get to do one, too!  or You got me in trouble for this, but you didn’t get mad at Anthony! This is the toughest one to swallow, especially with younger kids who are obsessed with fairnessbut I can’t always catch every classroom misdemeanor, and to be a good teacher, you sometimes have to accommodate individual needs. This means that kids who are falling behind might get more attention than kids who are doing fine. Kids who are ahead of the game might get to do special enrichment projects. Sometimes, kids get away with breaking a rule because I don’t see the infraction. Is this fair? No. Is it necessary? Absolutely. Your students need to accept this. 
  • Pouting because you didn’t get what you wanted. (For example: our team lost the game because Lucy wasn’t fast enough! or I don’t want to practice multiplication today!) Too bad, kiddo. Unless it is either physically injuring you or seriously hindering your ability to learn, you’ve got to learn how to handle being in situations that you don’t like, sometimes. It’s a valuable life skill.

Step 2. Outlaw whining–and have consequences to back it up. This worked wonders with my itchy-nosed student–I told her that the next time she pouted and stopped participating in class, I would ask her to leave. She tested the waters once, but when I pointed out that she was pouting, and that this meant she would have to leave the class if she kept it up, she pulled herself together and joined right in. We haven’t had a problem with her since, and it’s been great to watch her apply her newly discovered energy to some really wonderful, creative work!

Step 3.  Offer constructive ways for students to share their needs and opinions. Whining is about attention–kids who are whiners just want you to listen to them. So give them attention for creating solutions and offering suggestions! Here are some tools that work well:

  • Class Comment Box. Offer students a place to put complaints and suggestions after class is over; this way, it doesn’t disrupt your work, but you still get to see what kids are thinking and adjust to their needs.
  • Individual Conferences. If you check in with your students individually, it will help clear the air of any serious problems and develop the trust that will allow them to accept your decisions even when they don’t like them.

Do you have any tactics for preventing whining? Please share them!

You Won’t Believe What This Kid Did

10 Jul

Right now, I’m teaching summer writing classes at a Boys and Girls Club. I have a 9-year-old girl in my class whose house burned down in February. She escaped the fire by throwing  a TV through a stuck window, but not everyone in the house was so lucky. Her stepfather died that night, and her mother only barely survived (she just came home from the burn unit, more than four months later.) After the fire, my student couldn’t go stay with her father or her brothers because they are all in jail. She currently lives with her older sister and three “ratchety” cousins (her words, not mine). She has every excuse in the world to be sullen, disengaged, and badly behaved.

But here’s the thing: she isn’t. Not even a little bit. Last week, she missed a class because she was out of town. Here is what she did when she got back:

She voluntarily left lunchtime–a prime time for social fun–half an hour early so that she could come to my class, find out what she had missed, and catch up before the next class started.

I didn’t ask her to do this. No one would have. It’s a casual summer course, and any adult would be willing to cut her some slack. But she didn’t want slack. She just showed up, sat down, and asked me for the assignments from the week before. Consider my mind officially blown.

Just for comparison: there’s another student in my class who came up to me one afternoon, sniffling and pouting, to complain, “My nose itches!” (No, I’m not making this up.)

Why is it, do you think, that some students are so much more self-directed and resilient than others? How can we teach all kids to be as incredible as this one student of mine? I’d love to hear your ideas!