Thursday, June 12, 2014

Motivation ...

A quick argument for science as the answer to student motivation.

We've all heard teachers complain about students not wanting to write or engage in the writing process. An interesting article in the April edition of the ASCD magazine EL called Writing is Taught, Not Caught, Carol Jago cited a long tradition of low-level writing prompts that we continue to use as a reason for this equally low motivation level. And that is part of it, for sure. As a new teacher, I stole (used?) writing prompts from my teaching team and understood that some kids would write prolifically and others, relatively succinct. That that was just the deal. It didn't occur to me that the willingness to really think and write about a topic, or lack thereof, was in large part up to me. The first answer came with student choice. I could engage my students by offering them a choice of what to write about. However, this often resulted in similar writing results based on super open-ended questions. Only my responses to students changed from, "Can you describe/explain this [boring topic] more?" to "You chose this [slightly less boring] topic, write more." Choice just freed me up from guilt and put the responsibility on the student. Which I was fine with for way too long. Now I know that there's something better than choice: importance.

Importance: the idea that what students are writing is actually important. Not just for their grade, or for practice, or for fluency, but for their community, their world. It's relevance, it's contextualization. This importance is what results in real motivation.

The real question is how do you develop units/investigations/activities that are actually important? That people outside of your classroom actually care about?

A group of third graders investigating their schoolyard

Not kit-based, cookie-cutter lab science ... real science. Science based in their local ecology, science that is rich in data-collection, science that describes patterns and changes. It's the citizen science project that engages students in collecting sand crab data, it's the water quality project in the local creek, it's the schoolyard habitat restoration project, the conservation unit that results in cafeteria waste audits or geotagging litter and measuring your collective impact, it's the engineering project where students build models of the proposed new pier.

To motivate students to write, it's old school ABC - Activity Before Content. You start with a real-world, important long-term investigation. And you write about it. You write your predictions, you write your background knowledge,  you write about your observations, your data, your next questions, the connections you make, the revisions you do, even the reference material you read. Not in a science-fairy way, in a real, reflective and inquisitive way. It lends itself to writing mini-lessons, writer's workshops, and real writing instruction. It demands sharing your writing with a larger audience - communicating your results, your message.

And that motivates.