As a high school freshman, I was woefully unprepared to meet the demands of my classes. I think I had the intellectual abilities, but I did not have the necessary time management or organization strategies. School had been easy for me up to grade eight, and I entered grade nine with no thoughts about devoting more time, effort or planning to my work. A typical day involved me coming home from school and going out to a friend’s house, or staying up too late playing the guitar. This left me finishing long papers and other projects late at night, which meant I was doing sub-par work. My grades dropped from As to Cs.
The next year, I dropped out of two of my four honors classes, thinking that the course load was to blame. Fortunately, my English teacher Miss Kelly had a plan of her own to help me succeed: she asked my friend Nora, a student who was organized, forward thinking and is successful today because of it, to help keep me on track. Nora talked to me about my school work, reminded me to finish assignments, and reviewed upcoming due dates. I didn’t have a miraculous turn around, but this accountability system worked. I’m grateful to Nora and Miss Kelly for their help, and I keep that story in mind when working with a student who seems to have the ability, but lacks the other skills required for academic success.
The ability to maintain focus, consistency and deliberate practice is one of the Super Powers of the 21st Century (along with listening and mindfulness, in my opinion) that students must learn in order to be successful adults in our modern world.
If you read any of the bloggers who write about habits, like Leo Baubauta of Zen Habits or James Clear, you’ll know that they don’t just tout one common system for every person and every habit. If you want to lose weight, start meditating, read more, or improve a relationship, you have to find the accountability and motivation system that works best for your personality, history and environment.
Why, then, when trying to build a lifelong habit of reading with my students, should I expect every student to respond to the same accountability system? And are traditional grades the best accountability system for encouraging a habit in students? I argue that external motivators like grades are a temporary motivator at best, and that teachers must differentiate their accountability systems for students, just as we differentiate learning activities and assessments.
Why not just use grades?
Punitively grading students who don’t read is one option, but this external motivator is not likely to promote a long-term love of reading. It’s more likely to promote students lying, cheating or pretending to read, in order to get the grade. That’s not their fault, it’s ours. If we set extrinsic goals for reading, the students will use whatever methods they can to meet those goals. Intrinsic motivation is what I want for student readers, but it is much more difficult to cultivate. Not every approach will work for every kid.
What’s a potential solution?
Many teachers I’ve talked to would agree that differentiating instruction and varying the type of learning activities that take place in the classroom are generally good teaching practices, because different things work for different students. During this past year, I started to look more at my own practices for reminding myself to take certain actions and how I tried to maintain habits, and match those practices to students who would benefit.
A few options:
- Some students like to set their own goals for pages or books that they’ll read in a week, month or marking period. Those students enjoy tracking their progress, monitoring themselves to get feedback, and honestly reflecting on how and if they met their goals. The reading ladders system, often discussed by Teri Lessesne in Reading Ladders and Penny Kittle in Book Love, works well as an end of term assessment for students who use this approach.
- Other students need consistent reminders and motivation, either from adult or else where. Daily conferencing might help these students stay on track. I’ve also encouraged some students use the reminders on their phones as an alarm to remind them to read or bring their books to school.
- Other students benefit from a social accountability measure–they need to know that others depending on them or will see the results of their work. Challenge these students to give a book talk by a specific date in order to reach these kids.
Teachers can helps students make consistent progress in the long term by explicitly teaching a variety of accountability methods, and when the assessment happens, some students will be more prepared because they’ve been putting in the effort thanks to their new way of staying on track. When I think about the times that individual students have succeeded in moving from non-readers to readers, it’s been the individualized approaches that have made the difference.
What implications does this have?
There’s a lot of buzz around personalized learning right now, and it’s often a tech-based conversation. But, if we ignore apps and devices, this is the original personalized learning: finding out what works for each individual student in front of me, and creating conditions where they can do hard work and succeed.