Like many, I have been working and experimenting with the Common Core State Standards for the last few years. I say “experimenting” purposefully because we are all learning how to shift our thinking and create the best learning experiences in the classroom. Most recently, I learned an important lesson from my students while working on narrative writing: motivation is the best accommodation.
Motivation: Student Interest
In my inclusion classes I had students writing 300-word narratives about the American Dream, but this seemed like a daunting task in my intensive class. I wanted to address narrative, but break it into more manageable stages for students that traditionally struggle with writing. Instead of writing a traditional story, I asked these students to design a video game concept about the American Dream (the theme of our unit). I could still connect to the main writing standard for narrative:
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.8.3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences.
But, the video game concept immediately tapped into their interest: nine out of the 11 students are boys, and all in the class game at some level or another. This made the class more motivated to work; and together we generated qualifications for the assignment. In the end, students had to create characters, exposition, conflict, resolution, setting and theme, all as a part of their game concept. One of my students brought in some sample booklets from his video games so we could look at the layouts. Some contained great examples of monologues with the characters describing themselves; we read and discussed what they revealed about the character, and addressed point of view, monologue and character personalities. We also talked about imagery in describing characters and setting, as well as the problems that students’ characters needed to overcome, and how they related to the American Dream—all within the context of a video game. The conflicts the characters would face became the levels of the video game, and students could connect the theme and the resolution of the story with goal in winning the game. Given more time, I would have loved to add a design element; but, spring break was imminent, and this project was predominantly about the writing. Overall, I got the best work I’ve seen all year.
Make it Memorable to Motivate
This is tough to do all the time, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to be intentional about it. When you creating memorable experiences for students, you create powerful teaching tools and increase student interest as well.
For example, one day as a warm-up I asked the students to describe SpongeBob for a person who is blind. When they were ready, I had them read their descriptions aloud while I drew exactly what they said. Some of the pictures were just a scratch of yellow with two blue circles (eyes); others more like faceless yellow squares. One student finally provided enough details to create a recognizable picture. Once the “secret” was revealed, the class immediately wanted to try again. Are they actually asking to do another warm-up?
The second time around, the students were much more descriptive. Once they understood that they needed a lot of specific details in their writing, they could apply it to their character descriptions for their games. This made them more confident, which in turn made them more motivated to work.
The next day, we did the same warm-up exercise with SpongeBob’s house, which served as a way to discuss setting descriptions. These warm-ups were memorable because they engaged students’ interest as well as utilized multiple learning styles through images, writing, drawing and speaking. And, as we moved forward, we had something tangible to turn back to: Remember that time you described SpongeBob’s house so perfectly? or Can I draw a perfect picture from what you just read to me?
Motivation: Showing Strengths in Grading
In some ways this part is less about the Common Core, and more about my own thoughts on grading. I am not a fan of grading in general, and I am constantly on the lookout for ways to adjust what and how I grade. I decided to divide this assignment into seven parts (Exposition, Conflict, Resolution, Character Monologue, Character Description, Setting Description and Theme), each with its own grade. We spent weeks working on this project, planning, revising, writing and rewriting; and, I didn’t feel like one final grade would cover it.
Grading an assignment in parts serves a number of useful purposes both in and out of the classroom; but most importantly, it allows kids to see their own strengths, which builds motivation. It gives them a taste of success, and everyone likes to feel successful. The overall project may average to a C, but when a student sees that A next to Theme, they feel like they accomplished something. Too often, grades can demotivate students who struggle. Breaking assignments into parts lets the students know that a good grade is within their reach, which builds equity for future assignments and projects. If you show them that they can be successful, they’ll be more motivated to be successful.