Updated: Sep 25, 2018
Awhile back, I heard my friend and NC poet, Allan Wolf, compare a nagging bit of information, buried (sometimes quietly, but never silently) in the back of your mind, to the pea of The Princess and the Pea fame. Both tiny and seemingly benign. And both, in their own way, incapable of being ignored. I love this analogy. I love the idea that some things, no matter how many cognitive mattresses you pile on top of them, just won't be silenced.
This article, on strategies to keep kids from giving up, has become a cognitive "pea" for me. No matter how much I try, I can't get it out of my mind.
Now... before I go any further, I should say that I like the Teach Thought blog. I read it regularly and have gratefully shared good stuff from them both before and after seeing this piece. Further, I don't know the author of this article, but I'm 100% convinced that they are devoted to making a difference for kids.
It's just, as I read this article (and reread it again just now) I couldn't help but think of other strategies, (strategies that are more closely linked to instruction than to classroom management), for making it easier for kids to stick with something, especially when that something is hard.
So... while I have no problem with the suggestions listed in the original piece, I'd humbly offer the following additions/alternatives to the list:
Create assignments that are worthy of your students' time: Despite what they might say, kids are not motivated by easy work. They want and deserve opportunities to do something epic. What's more, they know the difference between quantity and quality. More work is not the same as challenging work. If you want kids to persevere and not give up, be respectful of their time and involve them in work that means something. After all, Jack Andraka was not inspired to do something amazing by a worksheet or a trifold board.
Create assignments that focus on what kids accomplish, rather than just on what they produce: Kids need to be rewarded for taking risks, for trying something new, for dusting themselves off when they stumble and for accomplishing stuff that the original rubric couldn't have imagined. Rather than focusing so much on what the final product looks like, we need to give credit for the journey. Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating that we give everyone an "A for Effort" but what I am saying is that if a kid feels like they'll only get credit for climbing Everest if their flag makes it to the top, they've got little incentive to shoot for the next base-camp when things get tough.
Create assignments that privilege student voice, student questions and student interests: In Creating Minds, Howard Gardner posits that one of the traits frequently exhibited by geniuses is the childlike ability to wonder. Kids wonder stuff. They ask why. They imagine. They dream. And they think about ways to create the stuff their magical little brains cook up. UNTIL they get to school and we teach them that the only thing that matters is the right answer. If we want kids to stick with challenging work, we need to let them have a voice in how that work is crafted. We need to allow them to find the answers to THEIR questions, solve the problems that THEY care about and pursue things THEY are interested in.
Create assignments that matter in the real world: "Why are we doing this?" is a legitimate question. It's not disrespectful or cheeky. AND it deserves an answer other than "because it is on the test" or "because I said so." Kids need to know (which is different from being told) that the tasks they're being given relate to life outside of the classroom. One of my eduheroes, Kevin Honeycutt, created a classroom environment in which students tackled the art curriculum as entrepreneurs: picking CEOs who then hired employees, who then had to accomplish certain tasks or risk being fired. They managed budgets, created marketing campaigns, learned how to interview for jobs and developed countless other workplace skills all while covering the entirety of the art curriculum. The work was hard but Kevin's students, many of whom were tough customers, stuck it out because they knew it was real.
Here's the thing: kids don't (naturally) give up. If you've ever seen a kid involved in a task they find motivating (whether it's building the world's largest Lego creation, beating the *next* level of their favorite game, practicing for a gymnastics/soccer/basketball/chess competition or writing a piece of fan fiction) they are tenacious. They become devoted to it and NOTHING can stop them. Not giving up is just what kids do... until they get to school. Call me crazy, but I think this, as often as not, has as much to do with the quality of the assignment as it does with its difficulty.
All of that said, I think librarians have an obligation and opportunity to provide instructional environments that engage students in the kinds of meaningful work that classroom teachers so often feel they can't tackle because of the ever looming test. Rock star librarians like John Draughon and Stuart Annand (from Asheville, NC), encourage students to pursue their interest in photography by helping them take and develop old school film photographs in a the makeshift library darkroom, all while collaborating with chemistry teachers to shine a light on the chemical reactions taking place during the process. Similarly, library leaders Shannon Miller and Andy Plemmons (in Iowa and Georgia, respectively), harness their students' love of rainbow loom bracelets to create a service project that connects those very kids to thousands of others from around the world in an effort to help other kids in a particularly impoverished area of India. And my new BFF Todd Nesloney (a math teacher/future principal in Houston Texas), reserves a certain percentage of his instructional day to provide his students with experiences he knows they would otherwise never have: like transforming his classroom into a operating room, coming to class dressed in character or having weekly mystery skypes with kids from around the world. It CAN be done. And as librarians, we have the space and the resources.
All we need is the will.