A Passion for Thinking: 9 Ways to Keep Students Motivated and Thinking

If you’re interested in having a thinking-centered classroom, get ready to step out of your comfort zone! Know your standards and students well, and track progress like a ninja. I say this because when student-thinking drives instruction, the big picture and students’ whole selves are on the table as we plan instruction, teach lessons, tweak our plan, confer with kiddos, and generally interact. It’s an on-going fluctuation of growth, goal, and whole child.

9 Ways to Keep Students Motivated and Thinking

  1. Make motivation and mindset a Monday morning ritual. This can happen in a number of ways and can easily incorporate curricular goals. We view a motivational animated short, TedTalk, or other media and practice thinking skills to determine
    fullsizerender-6
    A student reflects on why she chose a particular quote to motivate her.

    the theme or main idea. Each week is a new focus. Some focuses have been on our impact on others, growth mindset, empathy, and providing support to others.

  2. Make Friday reflections a regular thing. Reflecting is an integral part of learning because it helps us recognize what works and what doesn’t. Our Friday reflections relate to our weekly motivation, but they also include specific behaviors I’ve noticed kids need to reflect on and plan for in the week to come. You can see our reflections by clicking on the above links for motivational lessons.
  3. List a daily agenda and/or goals depending on student need and response. This year, my kiddos want
    ind-anchor-charts
    Individual anchor charts remind students of the information from our lessons or conferences.

    the basics: what are we doing. Their learning goals are far more flexible than one standard or even one step of a standard. I’ve learned to keep our agenda to a minimum and to keep our big picture goals on our walls (as anchor charts), in mini-notebooks (literally rubber-banded into their novels), and their individual goals in mini-anchor charts written on post-its in their novels.

  4. Resist negativity from students, parents, and even beloved colleagues. It’s not easy. Everyone needs to vent. Yet, when students vent about teachers, I put the onus back on students, and we look into what they need to do to fix things. When I vent, my cohorts gently put the onus back on me, and we problem-solve to fix the situation!
  5. Be their person. We all need “our person.” Adults seek personal connection at work, and kids crave that connection even more. When kids call us mom or dad by mistake, it’s music to our ears because they’ve connected to us. And when we notice a child who is struggling, we need to pool resources and find their person. My most recent experience is with a kiddo who wouldn’t engage. My classes are very small, and it allows all students to find inspiration, respond to the close instruction, and bond. He hadn’t. His language arts teacher and I would talk about him often, and she focused on him, tried different strategies and ideas, and eventually made the difference. On Friday, he finished his first novel in her class and ran into my class to tell me the news! On Friday, he thoughtfully completed his first weekly reflection! His language arts teacher was his advocate. She’d figured out what he needed, helped him get it, and he responded!
  6. Make it a group effort. Our goals are hanging on our door, written in their journals,
    vision-board
    One student’s vision board. Each week, a new image, quote or idea is added.

    pictured on their vision boards, and discussed daily. These are our goals. Students know that I’m invested in them, and they know the steps I’ve taken to help them succeed. Together, we made vision boards at the start of this semester. We think about these daily. We add to our boards and reflect on our goals weekly.

  7. Be kind, always. How we respond to students impacts whether they’ll shut down or think and process. We are bound to feel frustrated at times, but we need to explain that frustration in healthy ways, so that even when we’re discussing misbehavior or something else a student needs to improve, we do it from a place of care and concern for the child. When two students earned detention this week, we discussed the misbehavior in a meaningful way and students filled in their detention forms having thought about the impact of what they’d done. In addition, our school detentions are opportunities for students to reflect once more on the reasons for the misbehavior, learn strategies for mindfulness, and a chance to bond with another great teacher in our school. The effects are incredible. We have students who choose to go to a mindfulness class once a week after school because they loved what they’d learned about mindfulness during detention!
  8. Teach, preach, and show the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. This is an ongoing conversation. The easy way? Extrinsic. The harder, farther-reaching and farther-satisfying way? Intrinsic. This can feel impossible when working with kids who’ve never experienced intrinsic motivation, but its not. Giving students ownership of learning, scaffolding and differentiating so students grow and can celebrate successes, and creating a sense of connectedness and community all help students be intrinsically motivated.
  9. Belly laugh with students. Laughter bonds. In fact, yesterday was one of the best laughs yet! It was Honor Role Assembly Day, and although my kiddos had worked hard to learn to read, we’d only recently begun to transfer reading skills to other classes. So, only one of the 13 in our group was being honored. We were writing Friday Reflections when a gifted-comedian and strong-willed student blurted, “I’m bringin’ hot Cheetos to the assembly today. I’m puttin’ them in my pocket and I’m eatin’ them while they all walk up there…” I cannot begin to tell you the laughter! She had perfect execution. We’d been through such incredible transformations: We’d grown grade levels and RITs and lexiles and emotions and outside-our-boxes and finding-our-persons. We’d faltered and reflected and tried and we’d even let other students see us try- and that’s not easy when you’re 13 and comfortable with not trying! Then we talked about their growth and how much growth matters. We talked about the fact that reading and thinking matter most, and that once they’d begun reading at higher levels (most of them at grade level now), they were finally ready to follow my lead on grades, homework, and studying. The belly laughs were therapeutic.

Real learning only happens when students are thinking. And thinking is messy! It changes, grows, learns to maneuver, and empathize. It’s exciting and passionate! Thinking isn’t linear, nor should our teaching of it be.

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