In my classroom I have two large signs on the whiteboard. These signs identify two things I refuse to let my students say: “can’t” and “is this good?”. Hopefully the reasoning for the first is obvious, the second might take a little explaining.
You see, my eighth graders are professional critics. Ask any middle school teacher. Eighth graders are good at being critical. They are critical of daily lessons, books, movies, music, fashion, etc. However, as much as they criticize other people, my students criticize themselves more than anything. Time and time again I have students bringing me work asking “Is this good?” or even stating, “I know this isn’t good”. As a teacher that is hard, especially when you have really good writers who don’t believe in themselves.
In order to combat this problem, and motivate my students, I have started to make a shift in my classroom. The goal is to create a positive writing space that fuels confidence. In all fairness, I am a second year teacher, so I certainly do not have all the answers. I do know, though, what works for me and what doesn’t. I also know what works for my students and what doesn’t.
This being said, I have reduced restrictions and requirements on writing. I have given my students more choice in what they write. But, the simplest “strategy” that has worked in my classroom has been giving my students meaningful assignments. This strategy is two-fold; I don’t want to grade a ton of meaningless busy work, and my students don’t want to write a ton of meaningless busy work. So, it works out for the both of us!
Now, of course, what is meaningful to some, may not to be to others. You will always have this problem. However, when you think about what your kids are writing there is a difference between assigning any old narrative and assigning a narrative in which your students tell the story of their core beliefs and how they came to believe in them. This is called our “This I Believe Narrative” and you would be blown away by what some of my 8th graders believe in.
Meaningful assignments are personal, they are fueled by emotion and opinion, by thought and discussion. Meaningful assignments give students a voice and an outlet for that voice.
My first year of teaching my students wrote a speech. Their prompt was “How my best brings out the best in others”. I had students who had not written a thing all year, complete two minute speeches and beyond, because for the first time they were given a voice. For the first time, their assignment was personal and meaningful.
This year, at a completely different school, I had my students complete the same speech. The school I came from and the school where I currently teach could not be more different in terms of student population, and yet, the speech was just as successful. I have no doubt this is because all students want a voice. All students want to be heard. All they need is a place to be heard.
By taking off restrictions, offering choice, and creating meaningful assignments for my students, I have given them a chance to be good writers. Because of this, my students don’t feel like they are writing just another essay, they feel like they are getting their voice. They aren’t overly critical, because they are writing what they know to be true. They are more motivated to write, and their writing is much more powerful.
Brittany Owen is a 3rd year teacher at DCG Meadows teaching 8th grade Language Arts.