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

If you are interested in having a thinking-centered classroom, get ready to step out of your comfort zone! First and foremost, know your students and state and national standards 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 plans, 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. View a motivational animated short, TedTalk, or other media and practice thinking skills to determine
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    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. Friday reflections should relate to weekly motivation, but they also should include specific behaviors we’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 that is dependent on student need. This year, my kiddos want
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    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,
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    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.

Ten Ways to Grow Readers (out of System & Self-proclaimed Non-readers)

When I began a new position as our school’s literacy specialist in August, I knew my first step was to hook kids with a love of books. How else would I get students who are reading 2-6 years below their grade level up to their current grade level within one school year? I teach 34 reading intervention students in grades 6, 7, and 8. Right now, at the end of first semester, all students have shown growth on our district assessment and 18 of 34 are reading at their current grade level. I have one more semester to get the other 16 students there, and I will. (Why do I say that? Because part of the definition of “teacher” is someone who believes in growth and equity. How will I do it? I’ll share that in a later post, but I have additions to the plan that I list here, because we cannot expect different results from doing the same things, right?)

Looking back on my first semester as a literacy specialist and my 13 years as a language arts teacher, this is what works for my students:

What works?

  1. Read aloud. Read to your entire class, to small groups, and to individual students. As soon as you notice a student’s disinterest in reading, read aloud. You can do this during conferences or ask for volunteers from the community. Emily Bushwald once said, “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” When we have school-aged students who aren’t readers yet, we need to recreate that experience for them. No kidding, even my 14 year-olds love being read to.
  2. Beg, borrow, and buy to create a diverse classroom library that promotes student
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    Part of our classroom library- in this section, informational books are organized by topic.

    choice in reading. Students who don’t love reading yet need quick access to a wide variety of high-interest books and they need your help finding the needle in the haystack.

  3. Design comfy reading spots. Make your classroom feel like a living
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    Our meeting place- for lessons, discussions, and reading. We have lots of other nooks and crannies perfect for curling up with a book. My intention was to mimic the places all readers love to read.

    room, bookstore or cafe. Think of the places you learned to love books and recreate them for your students. I wrote about this idea in “This I Know: On Becoming a Reader.

  4. Let students know their reading levels and teach them why levels matter. This might seem a bit dramatic, but it is heartbreaking to hear my reading intervention students say that they had never known why they were in intervention classes, that they hadn’t been told their reading levels, and that they’d been told that the district and state assessments aren’t really important, so they shouldn’t worry about them. If you work with children, you know that this translates to “reading well doesn’t really matter and these tests are a waste of time.” Students should know their levels and know how and why to raise them. Point blank- people who cannot read don’t like to read. People who cannot read are taken advantage of. It is our responsibility to change this.
  5. DO NOT make students read books within their current reading levels. Reader leveling is a tool to monitor progress, and it serves its purpose well when kids know how to use it. Teach students how to find books that are a good fit and teach them what to do when they really want to read a book that feels hard for them. We cannot expect students to adopt a growth mindset if we don’t have one ourselves, and we cannot change non-readers to readers without the mindset that allows for change and growth. *Picture this: Say you have a New Year’s resolution to exercise more. So, you sign up for a 5K. You see that this race, a race that seems out of your league but sounds like a ton of fun, will motivate you to begin walking each day! You know that you’ll eventually begin running a bit, and next you’ll be able to run the entire 3.2 miles! Now picture this: Your personal trainer tells you not to attempt it. She says that no matter what she tries to teach you, you cannot even get close to that level of fitness. How do you feel about that?
  6. Target instruction based on student needs, and give kiddos tons of time to read. Use assessments, reading conferences, student reflections, discussions with your students’ content area teachers, and their own books in instruction. Keep in close contact with your students’ other teachers and let students know that all of you are in on the same goal: making them readers. Teach students to monitor their progress and to become part of deciding what they need in instruction. When we use their own books to do this, they’re more likely to practice these strategies on their own. This doesn’t mean we should stop using shared excerpts and articles, but it does mean students who cannot read yet, need instruction in their chosen novels.
  7. Teach students what readers do. I encourage all teachers to study PEBC’s Thinking Strategies. Teach these strategies directly, then model them, and gradually release students while giving feedback as they practice them. The thinking strategies are life-changing for non-readers. Once these kiddos learn the thinking moves proficient readers use, they feel such relief! These are strategies that all good readers use, but our struggling readers don’t realize they should.
  8. Share your reading life. Show students the books you’re reading, share your thinking and your struggles with them, and do the assignments you ask kids to do (If  you don’t want to try an assignment, then assign more interesting work- work real readers do.) I bring my current novel to and from school, even if I don’t plan to read it. I put it on our coffee table where we meet, and I refer to it on the fly and use it when I’m modeling a strategy. At this point in the year, kids ask me about what I’m reading all of the time. Kids who wouldn’t have given a second thought to care six months ago! I also share the professional books I use (I wouldn’t be surprised if some students know the authors of Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading and Reading Nonfiction: Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies by name!) Students need to see that we are teaching skills and strategies that are based on research and that we are always learning new things ourselves.
  9. Visit your students’ other classes to help bridge what students are learning about reading in your class to other contents. This has been most helpful to my eighth graders, and
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    Student replicas of  parts of the brain (an idea from the book The Growth Mindset Coach)

    after visiting their classes they asked if they could start staying after school to get help with homework from their content classes. It’s been helpful to teach them how to use the thinking strategies in math, science, and social studies.

  10. Teach students to adopt a growth mindset, set goals, be assertive, confront inequity, persevere, and believe in their worth. We teachers know that we teach more than content and standards. Students and I begin each week with a motivational lesson that I see students need. Some examples are growth mindset, reflection, perseverance, equity, and positive thinking. If you’re interested, you can read some of these lessons under the category Friday Reflections in the main menu.

When I met my students in August, I let them know that my goal was for all 34 of them read at grade level by the end of the year. I shared how we would do it, I shared their current reading levels, and against all odds, I managed to create a safe place for kids to struggle, be honest about their hurdles, and cheer each other on.

Keep Moving Forward

For a minute, I felt really good about 18 of 34 students reading at grade level this point in the year, but that vanished quickly. We owe learners more. Within the 16 who need to keep moving toward grade level, ten students are on the right track, but we aren’t even close to easy street yet and six students need something different or more or… I will figure it out. Next year, I will do better quicker because I’ll have this year to reflect on.

In the spirit of full disclosure and the importance of reflection, I’ll share one of my biggest and most embarrassing mistakes from this semester.

One BIG Mistake

I have a sixth-grade student who seemed to become less shy as the year wore on: eventually, she’d asked to come in during my morning planning time to read alone and with me, to get help with writing and she’d started talking more in class. She’d been telling me for months that she’d been reading at night with her mother and sister, and I could sense that she really was. When we took our district MAPS assessment at the beginning of the school year, she’d dropped 13 points from her 5th Grade score in the Spring. When we took MAPS again in December, she’d regained the 13 and added three additional points. I had been thinking that she would grow more than that because she’d been working in class and at home, I’d noticed her sharing her thoughts more often and she’d begun to explain to other students how to figure out reading struggles.

This child is identified by our English Language Acquisition Department, so when she and I saw this test result I asked her whether she comprehends better in Spanish or English. Without missing a beat, she nodded yes. Then I asked if she ever reads in Spanish, and again with out missing a beat, she said, “Yes, every night.”

EVERY NIGHT? Why hadn’t I thought to ask that before now? I would have asked her to come in and read one-on-one in English long before she’d decided to do it on her own! Here is a child who had put in the effort and had grown more confident as the year led on. I mistook that confidence as a result of increased comprehension ability, and part of it clearly was, but I see now that a bigger reason she became more outspoken is that she was speaking English more often now because she was back in school where English is the primary language.

Huge mistake on my part, and its not one I’ll make again. It’s embarrassing because it reveals my English-speaking egocentrism. It didn’t even occur to me that she’d be reading in Spanish at home even though I knew her family spoke Spanish at home. I LOVE that she is reading Spanish at home! Being able to speak AND read in another language has so many benefits- personally, socially, in her education and eventually her professional life!

Needless to say, I’ll ask her to come read with me during non-teaching times, and I’ll figure out how we can maintain her English during the summer. I’m learning a lot this year, and there will come a day when my all of my students do grow 6-7 grade levels in one semester. Don’t believe me? Keep in touch. I love a challenge.

On Teaching: What am I Thankful for and What Will I Give?

For many of us, Thanksgiving is a time to pause and feel thankful for family, friends, and for our blessings. When I was growing up, it also meant our traditional dinner from Grandma Phyllis- “corn mush”, mashed potatoes, homemade bread… with the fire in the background and all of us around the dining room table. It was the turning point from fall to winter, and winter was cookie baking, a window-peering walk down State Street to see Marshall Field’s Christmas windows, Santa PJ’s and GIFTS! My mama fought over Cabbage Patch dolls like the best of them!

Today, Thanksgiving means all of these things, but my thanks are a result of and have changed since I was a child who was granted these luxuries and privileges. And I also recognize my part in giving.

On Teaching: What am I thankful for?

  1. My students believe me. They had no reason to trust me when they walked into the classroom in August, and they made that clear. They trust me now. They also trust each other.
  2. I have colleagues I can run to, vent with, and be there for. I’ve been at my school for a long time. We’ve seen people come and go, and that’s not always easy. But we’ve become stronger with time. When I need ideas, input, or help? I have friends to ask.
  3. My administration believes in my thinking, understands family comes first, and supports my work. How incredible is it that I can be open and controversial, off the straight and narrow in terms of approach, and still have bosses who support me and raise me up?
  4. A community of educational revolutionaries– some whom I have not yet met! Online and in person, these people mirror my thinking, challenge my ideas, and share perspectives I haven’t realized.equity
  5. This blog. I do not stop thinking of education. Period. I need a place to put my ideas. I need them to be out there for others to read and think about in their own time. (There is a point each summer when the break is made. I never know when it’s coming, but once it happens, nothing brings me back until our first contract day!)

On Teaching: What will I give?

  1. I will advocate for my students beyond our local levels. I will be more involved in the politics of their needs at the state and national levels.
  2. I will find more substantial ways to connect my students’ families to our school life and to me.
  3. I will be certain that my students see themselves as pillars of our community. I’ll continue with my plan for students to build and care for Little Libraries in neighborhoods of their choice. (I ditched that idea after some negative feedback, but I’m back on board.) In just the last week, as one student reminded a female student that we all thought that she has what it takes to be president one day, another student, taken by surprise, said, “A Mexican president?” This student was also Mexican. The class laughed. (This is a class of 9 reading-intervention students, one of which is not Hispanic.)
  4. I will knock on colleagues doors, visit them at lunch, and follow them to their cars to ask what they want from me as a reading specialist. I’m going to listen more.
  5. I will make it certain that all of our students know it in their bones that every single peer is equal in worth. Many of our students do not know this. They recognize the inequality, and they’re not always offered equity. That leaves them with this: “I just don’t measure up.” They joke about it amongst themselves and across social, racial, economic, and educational divides, saying things like, “[This teacher] only helps the rich kids.” and “[This teacher] just thinks I’m always doing something bad, but I’m not.”

I hope that you have time to reflect on your “thanks” and figure out your “gives”. I know that teaching is all-consuming. It is also a ballet dance- between our passions and the passions and needs of the kids who come to us each day. I compare teaching to ballet because both are artistic, needing an ebb and flow to share the artistry. Both are highly structured, but an outsider might never notice this. Both are influential and invigorating, for the “dancers” and audience members.

I’d love to hear your thanks and gives. Comment here or send me a message. Let’s have this conversation.

Friday Reflection: Be the Change We Need

This week’s reflection asks students to think about school and classroom climate and to consider what they can do to create an accepting, helpful and kind learning atmosphere. When I originally wrote this piece, it was spurred by a study published in the Review of Educational Research showing that positive school climates can narrow achievement gaps, especially for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Yet, our civil unrest in the week following this election brought new meaning to this weekly reflection.

Not What I Planned, but it Happened

On Monday, I showed the short film and we discussed what the main character does and his effect on others. Kids loved it; they thought parts were funny and inspiring. We began a discussion of theme, and noticed other literary elements that help us construct understanding. Kids were prepared to carry the positive message into the week. Tuesday, my kids were shell-shocked. I listened. I told them they were safe. I explained checks and balances… and as much as I had prepared, I was not prepared.

On Wednesday, we watched Donald Trump’s acceptance speech and Hillary Clinton’s concession speech. We looked for their main messages, the language used to portray that message, and who their intended audiences were. I did this because it matters. I have never been the kind of parent and teacher to protect children from the truth. I am the kind of parent and teacher who will explain the truth in age-appropriate ways.

As the week wore on, we began discussing the protests and and acts of racism they’d been seeing in the news. We read articles about positive things other kids were doing to help their communities. My students were shaken- many have parents who are illegal immigrants. One student worried his family would have to break up. Others wondered what would happen to their health insurance. Others said that they have gay family members and they couldn’t understand why people were so upset by that. These questions told me that my students’ parents had been worrying all week too. This short film and our theme anchored us for the week; I’m thanking my lucky stars because it was by a miracle I’d happened to use it. It is light enough to provide hope in a trying time and serious enough to matter. And the characters are Thai. In subtle and direct ways this short video showed exactly what we needed it to show this week.

By Friday, after days of discussing, reading, writing, and discussing more, my kiddos had figured out which social issues matter most to them and which one issue they want to research and discuss in-depth next week. As I’ve said before, I teach very small classes of kids who were reading anywhere from 2-7 years below grade level when we began our work this year. Our work together this week grew them years in terms of their thinking. The fact that they’re so interested in fixing the social injustices they see- that they’ll read and discuss and act on what they learn? That will grow them years in terms of their reading. And the human rights lessons we will teach each other and others along the way… insurmountable. Uncountable. Undeniably life changing for them and for me.

I hope that your students find comfort and can see themselves in this short film. I hope your discussions fill them with a sense of “I can do this too” and “This is the world we want.”

I hope.

Friday Reflection

Each Friday includes a theme, media, reflection prompts, and a brief class discussion with compliments for individual students or for us a group. The entire process takes 20 minutes or less once students get the hang of it, and provides huge dividends when done consistently.

Weekly Theme

“You must be the change you want to see in the world.”

-Mahatma Gandhi

Media

In this weekly reflection, we use two types of media. First, is a short film on being the change you wish to see in the world. Next is an NPR interview with Natalie Hampton, a high school student who created the ‘Sit with Us’ app so students can find someone to eat lunch with rather than eating alone. Another example of kindness I plan to share with students is this story of  student, Amanda Moore, who used Google translate to ask a new classmate to sit with her at lunch.

One of my students showed me the video for this reflection! How could I pass that up? The short video follows a man on his daily route through the city. Without fail and always with a positive spirit, this man helps others, shares anything he has with those in need, and looks at problems with the mindset to solve them!

(I know this is a given, but be sure to view the video before playing it for students. It is appropriate for all levels, but please view it before showing it to them.)

*My students will watch this video once before we reflect on Friday. As we view it, we’ll make note of the Notice and Note Signposts to analyze character motivation, predict plot, and uncover themes. We’ve been using the signposts for several weeks now, so students will be able to recognize the signposts and ask and answer the questions quickly with this film. (For more information about teaching the Signposts, see “Three Things I Learned by Doing My Own Signpost Assignment” and “Evolving Understandings: Dig Deep with Signposts“)

Reflection Prompts

  • If you could make one change in our school right now, what would it be? Describe
    why you would change it. What ideas do you have on how to change it?
  • What kind actions can we do for each other in class and others in our school on a daily basis?

Discussion

  • Discuss what you noticed the man doing each day. How did those actions affect the others in the video? How did they begin acting differently following his kindness and generosity?
  • Discuss how things would have been different if the man in our video would have been annoyed with the woman and her child begging for money, or not even noticed the woman who needed help with her cart. What would the effects have been then?
  • Any compliments for anyone? (This question is intentionally left open-ended because kids will surprise you once they’re comfortable enough to share. I ask the question regardless of the stage my class is in and share my own compliments if students aren’t ready to be open with each other yet.)

Reflecting on our learning, behavior, and feelings and making plans for our next steps accelerates growth in all areas. In our classroom, students reflect often. We do this at preset points in the process, and we do it naturally when one of us realizes it’s time to take a minute to look at what we’ve been struggling with or accomplished. Without fail, we take time every Friday because it provides closure for the week and sets the stage for Mondays when we set weekly goals. What types of reflections do you do with students? Share what’s been most effective or pieces of the reflection process you and your students are struggling with. The more we share, the more we grow.

I’d love to hear what you’ve done with your students to help them feel safe, understand what is happening, and work on social justice issues. Feel free to comment below or send a message. Thank you.