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Chapter 6:
Motivation and
Morale Boosters

Sometimes, even though you have energy, enthusiasm, and a student-centered approach to teaching, your students slump in their seats and yawn at you. Even though youve spent hours creating interesting lessons, they arent interested. Even though you are well educated and passionate about your subject, your students dont appear to care one fig. They sigh and watch the clock. They daydream and tune you out. They roll their eyes at each other and shake their heads.

These students are doing their best to convince you that they hate learning, that they dont care about school, that they are just too cool to be bothered. I maintain that if they come to school, they do care, but that past teachers have squeezed or lectured or graded the creativity, imagination, and sense of play out of them. You can reintroduce your students to the joy of learning. In the words of my mentor, Al Black, All you have to do is get their attention.

Here are twenty-eight suggestions that may help you get your students attention. I have used every one of these techniques in my classroom, and they work. And Id like to add that my teaching experience is not limited to at-risk, disenchanted teens. I have taught a wide variety of students, from non-English-speaking high school freshmen to university graduate students. Regardless of their age, intellectual ability, and academic background, my students have all responded to these approaches.


Brains, like engines, dont operate at peak efficiency if they are low on fuel, clogged by dirty oil, or missing small but critical parts. If your students are all well fed, adequately parented, emotionally well-adjusted, and well educated, you probably wont face any serious problems when you try to motivate them to learn. But if they are hungry, tired, suffering from emotional stress, or poorly educated, you have a challenge on your hands. Dont despair. What you bring to your students is just as important as what your students bring to your classroom.

We have all heard the statistics, and we have learned from our own experiences that the teachers attitude toward his or her students is the primary factor in student success. When we believe that students can succeed, they succeed. But your belief is only half of the solution to the problem of poor performance. Your belief alone isnt enough; you must help your students believe that success is possible. When students believe they can succeed, they try and they learn. But if they dont believe success is possible, it doesnt matter how intelligent the student or how easy the material, they will not try. When you honestly believe that all students can learn (they can) and when you convince your students that success is possible, you hold the key that unlocks the door to learning.

How do you convince students that success is possible? Some people suggest that you provide an exercise or activity that guarantees success for every student. I disagree with that approach. Usually such success experiences are far too easy and therefore defeat their own purpose. Instead of convincing students that they are capable of achieving, easy assignments and esteem-boosting activities send the message that students arent capable of handling truly difficult challenges. In other words, you gave them an easy assignment because you believe they are dumb. So instead of creating an easy task, assign a truly difficult task and then help your students complete it. When you introduce the task, explain that it is difficult and that you dont expect anybody to do it perfectly -- including yourself. Tell them you are going to tackle this project because you believe they are intelligent and that you know they can learn because you see evidence of many things they have already learned: they can read and dress themselves; they know their own addresses and phone numbers; they can play musical instruments and a hundred different games; they know the words to a lot of songs; they can fix meals; they know how to operate machines and kitchen gadgets and computers and VCRs.

Where do you find the challenging assignment? One good place to look is at your own school. If you teach second grade, for example, ask a fourth-grade teacher for a sample vocabulary lesson. Tell your students that they are going to do an assignment that kids two whole grades ahead of them are doing, just to see what those kids are learning. And if they do a good job, they will earn extra credit. If you teach middle school or high school, find a college textbook that has an interesting essay. Tell your students that they are going to read something that college students read; show them the textbook so that they can see that you are telling the truth. Explain that their brains work just as well as the brains of college students, but they dont challenge them the way college kids do. Assure them that if they dont know all of the words in the essay, you will help them because that is your job. Then read the essay aloud in class, discuss it, and ask your students to write their responses to the reading. When they finish this project, some student will very likely say, That wasnt so hard. And this is your cue to respond, Of course it isnt, because everybody in this class knows how to think, and thinking is the key to learning. We have good brains in this room, so lets use them.


Find out how your students feel about school, themselves, and your subject. You could ask your students how they feel. Some of them will be eager to tell you, but most students opt to observe instead of participate in class discussions; they dont want to talk about school. They dont want to write essays or paragraphs about school either. But most of them will be willing to give you a few comments, if you insist. Go ahead and insist, because you want maximum input from them on this topic. Distribute index cards and ask your students to write down their thoughts about school in general and your subject(s) in particular.

Tell your students that they earn credit for cooperating and that everybody who fills out a card will earn the maximum grade. Make sure that they understand that names are optional, so that they can freely state their opinions without fear of offending you or feeling vulnerable. (If you walk down the rows and collect the cards in order, putting each one on the bottom of the stack, you will be able to figure out which students said what, just in case you find any extreme comments that need your attention.)

Some groups will go to town on this project, but others will require a little prompting. For your visual learners, write these questions on the board:

  • What do you like most about school?
  • What do you like least?
  • What are your favorite/least favorite subjects?
  • Do you like to read? Why or why not?

This next step is optional, depending on your students. If they are reasonably well-behaved and paying attention, you might consider reading a few comments from the cards, after you have collected enough that students wont be able to identify the author. Read comments that you think might elicit a response from others: I hate writing because I always run out of stuff to say, for example, may prompt a discussion and alert you to the need for a lesson on prewriting and developing ideas.

Whether you discuss the cards or not, thank your students for taking the time to let you know their opinions. Take the cards home and read them carefully. Look at the spelling, sentence structure, vocabulary, and handwriting for clues to student personalities and areas of difficulty. Look for areas of common concern and specific problems that you can address in the future. Make a note of any special interests or hobbies, and incorporate those into your lessons whenever possible. You may be surprised by the positive student response to even a simple comment, such as Learning to identify an adjective is easier than tying a fishing fly, or This is a great vocabulary word for rappers because it is onomatopoeic and rhymes with so many other words.


If you havent already done the I have to and I cant exercise from Chapter Four, this is a good time to do the exercise and discuss the power of choice. This exercise usually has a remarkable effect on students perceptions of school attendance. At the end of the exercise, they have to admit that they choose to come to school and that they can choose to succeed or fail.

Also discuss Maslows hierarchy of needs, if you havent already done that (see Chapter Four for a brief outline). If you have discussed this theory, remind your students that they must fulfill their need to be accepted and respected by a group so that they wont become targets for people who will be a bad influence on them. Tell them that you want to help them be successful students and successful people and that this is one way they can help themselves. If you spend a little time on activities whose sole purpose is to help your students be successful, they get the message that you truly care about them; and its hard to hate somebody who likes you and tries to help you in spite of your negative attitude.

After you have adjusted your students attitudes, its time to adjust your own. You may think your attitude is just fine, but if you are having a problem with discipline, motivation, or participation, then you may be part of the problem. Perhaps you arent prepared when class begins, so students follow your disorganized example. Or maybe you believe you are treating your students with respect, but you have a hidden agenda that you are going to save them from themselvesand they have detected your patronizing attitude.

How much do you listen, really listen, to your students? And how do you respond to their comments? Do you always have the last word? Do you correct their grammar when they are talking passionately about something? Do you imply that your values and standards and lifestyle are superior to theirs? Do you belittle their ideas or brush off their concerns as trivial? Do you use a dismissive tone of voice? Even if you think you are always courteous and respectful, try setting up a tape recorder near your desk and taping your class for thirty minutes. You may be surprised to hear the tone of your voice or the way you speak differently to different students. (I have tried this myself and was unpleasantly surprised the first time.)

Many teachers have trouble getting students to talk to them. The same students who talk each others ears off may suddenly become tongue-tied if you ask them to talk to you. Or you may have one or two students who dominate every class discussion. In order to involve everybody in your class, I would suggest that you try beginning each class period by asking, Who has a question? You can ask me anything about anything. If I dont know the answer, I will find out where we can locate the information.

Students dont automatically respond to this approach. It make take several days or weeks of asking this before somebody finally responds. Once somebody responds, others will follow. But you may have to do a lot of prompting to get that first response. You might find that if you ask your own question and answer it out loud, students may respond. You might say, I was thinking about reality TV shows last night. And I wonder if those shows could really be called reality because the people know they are being filmed, so they probably dont act like they would if they werent being filmed. Some of them act like they are just picking fights with each other because they know they will get attention and more people will see them. If nobody comments, just say, Well, thats what I was thinking. Then start your lessons.

The next day you might say, Who has a question? Anybody? Lets wait a minute to see if anybody has one. Wait a full minute to see if anybody can think of one. Watch the clock for a full minute. If nobody speaks, say, Well, I was just wondering what happens to change our society so drastically. When I was a kid, the only people who had tattoos were bikers and ex-convicts and people who wanted to make a statement. Today tattoos are like jewelry. I wonder what happened to change that. Then wait a second to see if anybody responds. Choose a student who seems to be considering your comments and ask if he or she has a comment. If not, start your lesson.

Continue each day asking your own question for two or three weeks, even a month if you can think of enough comments. If nobody ever responds, then you might want to consider trying a different approach. But dont give up easily. And dont think your students arent interested. They will be listening even if they pretend they arent.

Although this technique works very well for me, it wasnt originally my idea. A few years ago, I attended an awards ceremony for a student who had won an essay contest. He wrote about his teacher: Our teacher used to come in every morning and say, What do you want to know? The boy told me, Nobody ever answered him, but he kept asking. Finally, after a really long time, I asked him a question. The next day I asked another one. Pretty soon other kids were asking questions, and we started talking about all kinds of stuff. And after a while, we got to like school again. That teacher showed us that we had forgotten how to dream. He gave that back to us. Thats why I wrote my essay about him.

After meeting that student, I tried his teachers approach. It worked so well that I have continued to use it in every class, regardless of my students age or academic background. One of my former students, a young man who was in my class in 1993, recently sent me an e-mail in response to my request for advice to teachers who want to connect with students. Alex wrote:
I liked when you took time to have class discussions at the beginning of class for a few minutes. Sometimes you would focus on one student, and the rest of the class was paying attention because they knew they might be next. I did not feel pressure when you asked me a question because at the end, no matter what our response was, you always made us feel good for responding. You listened to us. After that warm welcome to class, it did not matter what kind of hard work you gave us. We tried our best to do the work.

One more tweak to your attitude may be in order. If you earned consistently high grades in school or if you havent been to school for a while, try taking a very difficult class, one that you will have to struggle to pass. If you are creative, for example, enroll in statistics or advanced mathematics. If you are scientific-minded, try an art class. Your goal is not to earn an A but to remember (or find out for the first time) how it feels to be intelligent yet unable to easily grasp a new concept. Some teachers find that an academic adjustment enables them to better empathize with their students. If you share your own struggles with your students, even better. They may be surprised at first to learn that you cant ace everything. In fact, they may not believe you. You may have to bring in an assignment or exam with a low grade to provide proof. This wont diminish you in their eyes, and they wont lose respect for you either. They will realize that you are human, and they may begin treating you more like a human being.


Unless you teach art, music, or some other creative class, you may tend to focus all your lessons on left-brain (logical) activities. Although making generalizations can be dangerous, I believe it would be safe to suggest that the majority of teachers are left-brain thinkers. Left-brainers like school because their natural learning style coincides with the most common teaching styles. Unfortunately, the majority of students are not left-brain thinkers. For the sake of argument, lets assume that half the students in a given class are right-brain (creative) thinkers. They think differently from their left-brain teachers, and they often become discouraged or uninterested in school because they are made to feel unintelligent by virtue of their learning styles.

You can change the dynamics in your classroom by adding some right-brain activities and educational games. Word games that do not involve definitions or spelling are good choices. Exhibit 6.1 contains a word puzzle that I like to use to identify my right-brain students. Dont read the answers immediately. Instead, read the directions and try to solve each puzzle. If you are a left-brainer, this may be very frustrating for you.

If you do this exercise with your students, you may find that the students who enjoy it most are those who do not have the highest grades in your class. The scholars sometimes become very upset because they are used to being smarter and faster than their classmates. Your right-brain students will enjoy being the smart kids for a change. (Be prepared: some right-brainer may figure out alternative answers that arent on the answer list but are equally correct.)

After you do your right-brain activity, tell your students that you would like to help them identify their own learning styles (be sure to write the three primary styles on the board for your visual learners): auditory (listeners), visual (lookers), kinesthetic (movers). Then ask your students to think about how they approach a new game. Do they like to have somebody explain the game and the rules and give them verbal instructions? Do they like to watch other people play for a while and then jump in themselves? Or would they prefer to just get into the game and learn as they go along?

Another example that helps students identify their learning styles is to give them directions. For example, tell them to imagine that they have asked you how to get to the post office. First, say, You exit the school and turn right. Go two blocks and take the next left turn. Go up the hill and around a curve, then take the second right. After the second stop sign, turn left and then make an immediate right into the parking lot. Ask how many students feel confident that they can get to the post office after listening to your instructions. Those who raise their hands are your auditory learners (probably a small percentage of students).

Next, draw a map on the board or distribute copies of a map you have drawn. Use the same instructions that you gave verbally. Now ask how many students feel confident that they can get to the post office. Probably more than half your class will raise their hands; these are your visual learners.

Watch for students who are frowning at the map or turning it sideways. Perhaps they are tilting their heads. Ask, If I drove you to the post office right now, how many of you would be able to retrace that same route, even if we drove it only once? Those frowning students (your kinesthetic learners) will shoot their hands into the air, relieved to learn that there is a third alternative.

Now go over the three styles and teach your students how to ask for help from their teachers, tutors, or parents. Students who become confused often say, I dont get it. And teachers repeat what they have said, either more loudly or more slowly. But that response will help only auditory learners. Auditory learners do need to say, Could you please repeat that? or Could you please explain that to me again, a little more slowly? Visual learners need to say, I cant quite picture that. If I could see a drawing or a graph or video or something, I think I could understand it better. Maybe an example would help me. And your kinesthetic learners need to say, I learn by doing things. Could you walk me through a couple of examples, step-by-step, so that I can practice doing them and get the hang of it?

And of course, teachers need to remember that different students learn in different ways, so we need to vary our methods of instruction to incorporate visuals and movement, as well as listening activities. When you discuss a new concept, for example, be sure to provide some kind of visual to accompany your verbal introduction. And make sure that you walk students through several examples. Your kinesthetic learners need to do the examples themselves, however. Copying your work from the board isnt enough for them; they need to do the work themselves with your guidance.

In subjects such as math, this is especially important. If you simply present the lesson and then instruct students to complete an assignment, some students will get about half the answers right and it may appear that they understand. But those correct answers may be accidental or the result of faulty logic. Correcting faulty logic is important for long-term student success. My eight-year-old nephew, for example, looked as though he understood the concept of carrying numbers to another column when adding three-digit numbers. He got about sixty percent of his math problems correct. Because he did get sixty percent correct, his teacher and his parents thought Anthony was simply being lazy or trying to work too fast. When he did his math homework at my house one night, I asked Anthony to explain each step he made. When he carried a number, it was often incorrect, because as he explained, If the number is ten or higher, you write a number up here and keep going. When I showed Anthony how to correctly carry a number, he was thrilled and his math grades immediately began to improve.

Regardless of your subject, its important to check thoroughly for student understanding. After you look at examples of a new concept in the textbook and work out a few on the board, some students still will not be able to do the assignment on their own. Watching you complete an example isnt enough. Hearing repeated instruction is not enough. Students need to do a few examples themselves, with your guidance, until the new concept clicks for them.


Students are far more likely to cooperate when they have the opportunity to provide feedback to their instructors about the level of difficulty, specific or optional requirements, and the time allowed for completing their assignments. Of course, its important to remind students that you, the teacher, make the decisions about what and how you teach but that you would appreciate their input and will not retaliate if they provide honest, constructive criticism. Some students may need a reminder that constructive criticism offers a thoughtful suggestion for improving something. (If you get some ridiculous or mean-spirited comments, dont reward the students who wrote those comments by responding to them; file their worthless feedback in the trash can during a private moment.) Thank the students who provide honest feedback and tell them you will consider their comments as you plan future assignments. Depending on your students age, maturity, and personalities, you may decide to allow them to provide anonymous feedback. I usually make names optional (and most students do include their names because they want me to know that they gave a thoughtful response).

Monthly feedback works for some teachers; others like to wait until the end of a unit or the end of a quarter or grading period. I prefer frequent feedback because in my experience, students morale improves when they know I care about their feelings.

Whether you allow students to comment on your teaching style or methods is up to you. Some teachers prefer to stick to lesson content and format, activities and projects, quizzes and tests. Here are two different groups of feedback questions that I have found useful. If you ask open-ended questions, such as those in Exhibit 6.2, be sure to allow ample space. Students tend to write very brief answers when the spaces are small.

For younger students, immature students, or groups that insist they are allergic to writing, I use a simpler form, such as the one in Exhibit 6.3.


If you havent already done so, you might consider discussing Maslows hierarchy of needs with your students. Of course, you may have to simplify the wording for younger children, but even little ones understand the importance of belonging and feeling accepted by others. Aside from helping students better understand themselves and their own behavior, discussing this theory shows your students that you truly care about them and are trying to help them be successful people. A teacher who doesnt care about his or her students isnt going to spend time trying to help them feel emotionally stable.


Students who misbehave often have poor problem-solving skills. Instead of thinking through a situation, they react and do the first thing that comes to mind. Until they can deal effectively with their personal problems, students wont be able to concentrate on your lessons, so it is to your benefit to teach them problem-solving skills. The model I use in my classes is a combination of models I learned during military training and later at corporate seminars. Basically, problem solving is a cycle, much like goal setting. We can teach children how to solve problems logically by showing them the steps involved in the cycle and providing a chance for them to practice. Some teachers like to present a problem that their students face: gang violence, peer pressure to use drugs, bullies, or ways to deal with parents divorce. You may elect to use something less personal and more universal during your introduction to problem solving so that your students have a chance to practice the model without erupting into arguments over personal issues. I like to use these sample problems: (1) my friends always want to copy my homework; or (2) a few students disrupt the class and make it hard for everybody to learn.

Brainstorming is often students favorite step in the process, but often they forget that the key to successful brainstorming is to make no judgments about others suggestions during the brainstorming session, no matter how outlandish or silly the suggestions may sound. A silly suggestion may spark a truly innovative and effective solution to a problem, but the spark will never ignite if people laugh at each others ideas. You may have to make the first crazy suggestions in order to encourage your students to think creatively. Another thing to keep in mind is that brainstorming in a large group tends to disintegrate into a series of smaller conversations, leaving one or two people working with the group leader. Smaller groups, with three to five people, are more effective for brainstorming.

Because children tend to act first and think later, the next step, analyzing the possible solutions, is the most important for them to practice. Students also need frequent reminders that simply choosing a solution doesnt mean they have solved a problem. They must implement the solution, evaluate its effectiveness, and select an alternative if the first choice isnt successful. At first they may complain that this process is too detailed or time-consuming, but with practice it becomes a quick and easy habit and one that will help them effectively handle problems that arise in school as well as their future careers and personal lives.

Exhibit 6.4 provides a brief outline of the problem-solving process, and Exhibit 6.5 gives some sample problems that my students suggested. Undoubtedly, your students will be able to suggest additional problems. Again you may need to simplify the instructions, but young children are excellent at brainstorming and making suggestions. When you solve a problem involving your own students, ask them to focus on solving the problem and not on assigning punishments.

After we teach the model and solve some sample problems, we are not finished with this topic. We need to refer back to the model frequently and demonstrate our own problem-solving skills during the school year as we encounter problems in our classroom. Some classroom problems can become class projects, but you may choose to keep others as a teacher problem. If a student plagiarizes a term paper, for example, you would not be likely to publicize the incident. Even when you dont allow students to participate in solving a problem in your classroom, however, you can emphasize the importance of logical problem solving, by explaining to your students how you brainstormed, selected, and implemented a solution and how you evaluated the effectiveness of your solution.

After you have done the problem-solving activity, you will be able to refer back to it when students misbehave. Instead of assigning consequences or punishments, ask them to step outside or sit at their desks and see if they can think of a way to solve a particular behavior problem. A solution-seeking approach will change the dynamic between you and your students. Instead of you taking responsibility for what happens to them, you are placing the responsibility for their behavior on their own shoulders, where it belongs. Further, many students actually enjoy learning how to monitor, assess, and alter their behavior.


Unfortunately, many students (and even more unfortunately, many of their parents) believe that an argument is a fight, with a winner and a loser. They have learned their arguing skills from watching talk shows and undignified TV courtroom dramas and comedies. Reminding them to be polite, considerate, or respectful isnt enough for most students, because they honestly dont know how to maintain a respectful attitude while arguing with somebody else.

After reading a number of articles about effective arguing, I designed some handouts for my students that describes successful and unsuccessful behaviors during arguments. Before I distribute the handouts, I ask students to think about the last time they witnessed or were involved in an argument. I dont ask them to discuss their personal lives, but I ask them if they can describe some of the behaviors they saw, including their own. They usually list all the unsuccessful behaviors on my handout, although they may use different terminology. Next, I ask, What is an argument? Nearly always several people say, Its a fight. I ask if they can think of another definition. Usually they cant. If you encounter a group who can, you have the foundation for a good group discussion.

After we talk about arguments, I write this on the board: An argument involves two or more people, each person expressing an opinion with the hope of changing the other peoples minds about a particular subject. The point of an argument is to exchange ideas and opinionsnot to win or lose. At the end of an argument, we have several possibilities: (1) all of the people involved change their minds and accept another persons ideas; (2) some people change their minds while others stick to their original opinions; or (3) nobody changes his or her mind.

I ask students to think about what happens when somebody loses an argument. They respond with a variety of answers, all basically stating the same thing: people who lose arguments want to regain their dignity, seek revenge, or get even. Losers are determined to win the next round. Sometimes a loser will start another argument just to see whether he or she can win. And this cycle goes around and around and around, but nobody ever really wins. Instead of an argument, the people become involved in a power struggle.

Then I give students the handouts (Exhibits 6.6 and 6.7).


Once you have taught your students how to argue, its time to teach them how to argue with -- and simply talk to -- teachers. Few students know how to talk to any adult, but even fewer know how to hold an effective conversation with a teacher. Some children cant seem to talk to any adult without getting into an argument that makes both parties want to scream. In those cases I dont think the kids are trying to be irritating. They dont possess a shred of tact, and they dont know how to discuss or argue without putting people on the defensive. Therefore, they think adults are ill-tempered and unreasonable.

Bad timing is the primary cause of student-staff communication problems. The worst time to argue about grades or request help is exactly when most students demand attention -- just before or after class. Teachers have a hundred little tasks to perform during those three or four minutes, and student demands may irritate or exasperate them. Tell your students that if they want to talk to you or another staff member, approaching just before class begins or just after it ends is fine but only to ask when it would be convenient to have a longer talk. Be specific. Teach them to say, I would like to talk to you. When would be a good time?

When the teacher names a date or time, the student needs to write that time down to confirm the appointment and as a reminder. Making the appointment is the first step; the second step is gathering information. If a student wants to discuss her grade on an exam or report card, she needs to bring the exam or report card to the meeting. If the student wants to request help on a difficult lesson, he needs to bring the textbook or worksheet with him and be able to pinpoint the place where he is having trouble.

The third step is the most important. Students need to use tact in their discussions with teachers. Instead of insulting or demanding action from a teacher, students need to request information. We must explain to students that stomping into a teachers room and announcing, You made a mistake on my grade, is not likely to inspire a warm welcome. The teacher isnt going to say, Why, certainly, Johnny, let me just grab my grade book and change that D to an A.

Students often think that they have license to be rude when a teacher makes a mistake in grading. But we must make students understand that nobody likes to look foolish, and teachers are in a particularly vulnerable position because they have to safeguard their authority in order to be effective in the classroom. When a student accuses a teacher of making a mistake in grading, he or she is very likely to say, I gave you the grade you earned.

Role playing is a good way for students to practice these new skills. Have your students approach you with a real or practice problem. Here are several suggested conversation starters:

  • I really want to earn a good grade in your class. Could you tell me what I can do to bring up my grade?
  • I really studied for this test, and I dont understand some of the answers. Could you go over them with me and explain where I got confused?
  • At home Ive been trying to keep track of all my grades in my classes, and I must have made a mistake because I thought I had an A [or a B or C] in your class. Could you go over my grades with me and show me where I went wrong?
  • I thought I did a really good job on this assignment, but I got a low grade. Could you tell me what I could have done to improve it, so that I can do better on the next assignment?

    Explain to your students that these new, polite approaches give the teacher an opportunity to correct an error without losing face. The teachers grade book may contain a mistake; the teacher may realize that a test question was confusing or that the student turned in work that the teacher failed to record in the grade book.

    If the teacher responds graciously, the student should say thank-you and be proud of acting like a responsible and polite young person. If the teacher responds in a grouchy, rude, or unhelpful manner, the student needs to ask a parent or the principal for help.

    The same conversational rules apply to other adults. We must teach our students to begin the conversation by asking for assistance or information. Write some negative comments on the board, such as, Miss Jones is a crabby old fart, or Mr. Smith is jerking me around with my grade. Then, ask students to come up with comments that will demonstrate their tactfulness and good manners. You might have to suggest something to get them started. I have a problem, and I wondered if you could help me, is a good beginning.

    Students need to learn one more thing about communicating with teachers: how to ask teachers for help. Students usually say, I dont get it, or I cant do this. Then they expect the teacher to help them. This is especially true in math classes where the teacher then repeats the instructions, and the student repeats his or her complaint. The teacher thinks the student would understand if he or she did the homework and solved the problems in class, but the student insists that he cant do the homework or problems because the teacher hasnt properly explained how to do them. If you find yourself involved in one of these conversational cycles, this is a heads-up that you need to teach, or remind, your students how to ask for help.

    Students must learn to articulate their needs. We can teach them to do this by teaching them how to backtrack in their textbooks, workbooks, or notes to pinpoint the exact place where they got lost. We must insist that they show us the point from which they cant continue, so that we can see what the student needs to understand (one prealgebra student who asked me for help didnt understand what a negative number was; another didnt understand a number line).

    When you are certain that your students know how to ask for help, you can identify serious problems more easily. If a student cant do even the first problems or questions in an assignment after repeated discussions with you, the student needs a comprehensive review session, remedial classes, a tutor, or perhaps a visit to the school nurse for a hearing and vision exam (even if he or she has already been tested because an illness can affect vision or hearing after the student has been tested).


    Ironically, the students who claim to care the least about school are the same ones who complain the most about the bad grades they earn. During my first year of teaching, I had one class of accelerated and one class of remedial English students. The college-bound students accepted their first-quarter grades with a few sighs and moans, but the self-proclaimed too-cool-for-school remedial students spent an entire class period arguing about their grades. Some begged; others demanded an audit of my grade book or questioned my sanity.

    After the deluge of complaints after report cards went out, I tried holding individual conferences to keep students informed of their progress. Next, I tried giving students periodic written progress reports. Twice each month, while they were busy working, I would circulate through the room and hand them slips of paper showing their current grade. I would stop by the students desk and place the paper facedown.

    Good work, Id write, or Youre moving up. Hang in there. To failing students Id write, Your grade is not passing right now, but if you want some help, let me know. You are a bright young man [or woman], and Im glad you are in my class. Regardless of the grade, I shook the students hand. Some kids preferred not to shake, because they didnt want to give the impression that they cared about school. To them Id give a quick and silent thumbs-up. When semester report cards arrived, moans and groans were down by about half, but clearly the other half of my students believed that I had somehow robbed them of their due.

    The first day of the second semester, I offered my students a deal. Everybody who came to class every single day (no unexcused absences), earned at least a C on every classroom and homework assignment without copying, cooperated with me and participated in every lesson, and earned a C or higher on every quiz would earn a passing grade, even if they flunked their final exam.

    What are you trying to do, psych us out? one boy asked. Ryan was one of the brightest, least motivated young people Ive ever had the pleasure of trying to teach. He earned an A on every assignment he did, but he did only half the assignments, so he ended up with 50 percent and an F on his report card. Ryan wasnt the only underachiever in his class. Failing grades, missing credits, truancy, and bad attitudes were much more common than good attitudes and high grades.

    Absolutely, I told Ryan. I am trying to psych you out. I dont believe its possible to come to class every single day, honestly try to learn, complete all your assignments by yourself with a passing grade, and still fail to learn what Im teaching. Anybody who does all those things and who has a functioning brain will pass. You all have functioning brains, so thats the deal Im offering you. Why not try it? You have nothing to lose, and you might find out that youre a lot smarter than you think you are.

    Ryan took me up on my offer and started doing all the assignments. His grades were at the top of the class, but he couldnt believe he was passing. Every day hed ask to see his grade in my grade book. It didnt matter that I told him every day that he was passing. He had to see it for himself, in writing, on the page. Soon other students started joining Ryan, clamoring to see their own grades. As a self-defense tactic, I created a wall chart for Ryans class that turned out to be an excellent motivator, even for my most unmotivated students.

    On a large sheet of poster board (I could have used a blank page from my grade book, but back then I didnt think to make a copy of the book before entering grades), I printed the names of the students in Ryans class down the left-hand side of the sheet and divided the rest of the sheet into small squares. I made sure to leave enough squares to list each assignment, including homework, quizzes, exams, and special projects. Above each square, I wrote the name of the assignment, using abbreviations such as w/s for worksheet and T for test (Sp T-1, for example, meant spelling test number one). If a student completed an assignment with a passing grade, he or she earned an X in the square for that assignment. I drew a green box around the square for students who failed or were absent. If the student made up the assignment before the deadline (which I wrote just below the name of the assignment so that there would be no doubt about due dates), then I placed an X in the box to show that the student had completed the assignment with a passing grade. I put a big red zero in the box for any assignment that was incomplete or failed without any attempt to bring the failed grade up to par.

    The chart didnt contain any grades, because I dont think its a good idea to humiliate students or try to create competition for grades as a motivator. Some people simply cant spell, for example; and although spelling doesnt indicate intelligence, poor spellers who are constantly compared to others feel like failures. I wanted my students to compete with themselves, to make sure there was an X in every box. /P>

    If you have all Xs, there is no way that you can fail my class, I assured them. The quality of your work will determine whether you earn an A or a D, but if you do the work, youre going to pass this class.

    Even my most unmotivated, apathetic students couldnt ignore the string of red zeros placed beside their names. They didnt rush into my room and run to check the chart as most students did; they shuffled in, yawned, sidled a few steps until they could check the chart while pretending to glance casually over their shoulders at something more compelling. During the first report period that I posted the chart, the students in my lowest-achieving class complained that it wasnt fair that they couldnt make up all those missed assignments. I made a super-duper, incredible, onetime offer: a three-week grace period during which students could make up any missing or failed work. After that, deadlines would be nonnegotiable.

    It worked. A few red zeros remained on the chart when the next report cards came out, but every single student passed my class.

    When my other classes saw the progress chart for Ryans class, they demanded similar charts for their classes. Even the good students, who routinely took home report cards filled with As and Bs, wanted tangible proof of their progress and of the demands I would make of them. Thats when I realized that many unsuccessful students give up because they cant visualize themselves making real progress toward the end of a quarter or semester. To them school is an endless journey that is made more difficult by mountains of paperwork. When they see visual proof that they are succeeding, they stop pretending that they dont care. They may not become scholars, but they begin to believe that they may actually survive school and eventually graduate.

    If you are a visual learner, you might prefer to see a sample of my wall chart (Figure 6.1).


    A good way to demonstrate to students that you want to help them succeed, which in turn motivates them to try, is to teach them to read their transcripts. In spite of all the guidance that counselors give, many students blunder their way through school without knowing how to read their own transcripts; and a surprisingly high number dont know their school districts requirements for graduation. Even those students who do understand how to read their transcripts are often at a loss when it comes to correcting errors in their records.

    I realized that my own students knew very little about their own records when one of my seniors arrived on my doorstep in tears one day because a counselor had just informed her that she couldnt graduate with her class. She was missing one-half of a credit for math. I was as upset as Stacey was because the counselors had visited my classroom at the start of the semester and distributed official transcripts to all the seniors. When the counselors collected the transcripts after their presentation, they asked whether anybody had questions. Nobody had questions. I assumed that my students had followed the counselors instructions to review their records and would report any mistakes or missing information to the office immediately. Stacey not only failed to read her transcript, she forgot that she was missing one quarter of credit from a course she had failed during the second semester of her freshman year. She forgot, and nobody in the office noticed the missing half-credit until it was too late to make up the work. Fortunately for Stacey, one of the math teachers agreed to create an independent study course for her and administer the necessary exams. Thanks to that teacher, Stacey was able to wear her cap and gown and graduate with her class.

    When her classmates learned of Staceys dilemma, several of them admitted that they hadnt read their transcripts either or hadnt understood what they had read, in spite of the counselors offers of assistance. So when the counselors scheduled their presentation at the start of the following school year, I asked them if I might make copies of all my students transcripts so that we could keep them in our classroom and update them each quarter. They agreed, and I created a form on my word processor that listed the specific graduation requirements for our district. After I made a copy of the graduation checklist for each student, we spent a class period learning how to read the transcripts, comparing them to the checklist, and marking every requirement that students had successfully completed. If there was an incorrect or missing grade, I showed students how to write a memo to the guidance office and track the memo until guidance staff made the correction.

    Guidance office personnel are among the most overworked people in any school system, so I dont blame them for making an occasional error. As I explained to my students, It may be the counselors job to make sure you have the right classes, but they are people and they can make mistakes. They want you to graduate, but its your responsibility to make sure that you do. If your transcript isnt accurate or you dont have all the credits you need, the counselors will say they are sorry, but no one will be as sorry as you when you dont graduate with your class. Dont expect somebody else to be responsible for your success in life.

    I gave each student a file folder to label, and we filed their transcripts in a file cabinet near my desk. After each report card, we spent a few minutes recording the new credits on the graduation checklists. With the transcript reviews, the graduation checklists, and the progress charts posted on my classrooms walls, many students who had once shrugged and ignored their disastrous report cards became convinced that they could graduateand most of them did. Seeing visible proof of their progress gave those students the hope they needed in order to believe in themselves.


    Unsuccessful students are rarely good goal setters. They blame their failures on other people, circumstances, or luck. One of the most valuable lessons you can teach your students is how to set realistic long-term goals, divide those goals into a series of short-term goals, and make a list of steps that they can take immediately to get started. Goal setting doesnt have to be a separate lesson. Regardless of your subject, you can incorporate goal setting into your curriculum by asking students at the start of any grading period to set a goal for their grade in your class. Ask them to write down their goal for the grading period and then list three things they can do that day to get started. Collect your students goal sheets and file them in a handy location. At regular intervals (Id suggest weekly to keep them on track), take out the goal sheets, ask students to evaluate their progress, make notes, and revise their short-term goals if necessary. Dont worry about the handful of students who will refuse to set goals. Focus on those students who appreciate that you are teaching them a valuable life skill.

    If you have the time and inclination, you might expand this exercise to include personal goals, such as setting a target weight for bench press, losing fifteen pounds, finding a job, improving a relationship with a family member, becoming a published writer, performing as a dancer or singer in public. For students who seem lost and unable to think of a single goal theyd like to achieve, you might consider researching John Goddard, author of Kayaks down the Nile (Brigham Young University Press, 1979). At age fifteen Goddard made a list of 127 goals that he wanted to accomplish in his lifetime. A voracious reader, he listed many unusual adventures in exotic locales, including mountain climbing in Peru and New Zealand and studying primitive cultures in Borneo and Brazil. His list also included less taxing feats such as typing fifty words per minute, owning an ocelot, building a telescope, learning to play polo, and lighting a match with a shot fired from a .22 rifle.

    Goddards story and his list of goals make an attention-getting introduction to goal setting. After reading his list, students who couldnt think of a thing they wanted to do often create long lists of goals for themselves. Your own list of life goals might be just as intriguing and inspiring to your students, especially if you check off the ones you have completed. How you approach the topic isnt as important as providing a model for students to follow. Children who have no experience in setting goals often throw their hands into the air and give up when they face new and challenging concepts or school subjects. After you teach them how to break a long-term goal down into manageable parts, they no longer feel so unable to cope. For example, several of my students admitted that they feared they would flunk geometry after the first day of class because the textbook looked really hard.

  • Ill never be able to learn all this stuff, one boy said in a trembling voice.
    >LI>You arent going to learn all that stuff in one week or even in one month, I said. Lets open the book and take a look.
    Everybody who had the class pulled out their textbooks. We looked through the table of contents and read some of the chapter titles. Then we counted the number of chapters and divided that number by the number of weeks in the semester. The result was about one chapter per week. So we looked through the first chapter and read the examples.

    Maybe it isnt that hard, the boy said.

    Dont you think you could learn this in one week, if you have a teacher to explain everything to you? I asked.

    The boy and his classmates agreed that they just might be able to. So we pulled out their goal-setting sheets and wrote, Read and understand Chapter One in the geometry book. By the time they reached Chapter Three, they insisted that they didnt need to write down each chapter as they finished it. After all, they explained, anybody could do one chapter if they had a whole week.


    Instead of dumbing down the curriculum when you work with unmotivated or underachieving students, try smartening it up instead. When you assign easy work, students receive a clear message: you dont consider them smart enough to do harder work. For elementary school students, use the GED spelling list in place of, or in addition to, your standard spelling list. Use the standard list for grades and the GED list for special credit. For older children, use the SAT vocabulary lists. Yes, those words are hard, but many vocabulary books are too easy; if your students know three out of ten new words on each list, the words are too easy. Again you can use the SAT list as special credit or bonus questions on your own vocabulary tests. Or write one word on the board each day and see if anybody can figure out what it means without any hints. Then try a hint or use the word in a sentence.

    If you teach students who expect to attend college after graduation, give their egos and their preparedness a boost by teaching them how to write response papers and the various essays required in freshman composition classes (narrative, explanatory, persuasive). Your local community college or university will have a writing center or an online Web site on which you can find instructional materials for your students.

    Regardless of your students age, introduce them to analogies. Lower-level students are rarely exposed to analogies (which may be one of the reasons they are such poor thinkers and struggle so much with algebra), yet most standardized tests, such as the SAT and GRE exams, consist primarily of analogies.


    We often tell children that mistakes are OK because everybody makes them, but we then turn around and punish students academically for being less than perfect. Imagine that your supervisor expected you to perform eight out of every ten tasks perfectly. Few salespeople can boast of a 70 percent success rate; most would be happy with 50 percent or even lower. Baseball players are considered top-notch if they can hit more than 30 percent of the pitches thrown at them. Yet we expect children to perform with 70 percent accuracy when they are working with unfamiliar material and learning new skills. How unreasonable can we get?

    Of course, we have to have tests, exams, and other measures to assess how well students are learning; but if we want children to be interested in learning, we must allow them to make mistakes without embarrassing or penalizing them. For example, instead of grading a regular classroom assignment as soon as students finish it, why not let them keep their papers while you go over each item and discuss the correct answers, possible answers, and common mistakes? Let students explain how they arrived at their answers, both wrong and right, and then allow them to redo the assignment before they turn it in. Their comprehension will improve, and they will be much more likely to remember the information if you correct any misconceptions immediately than if they have to wait a day or two (or six) to see how well they did. In the meantime that misinformation percolates in their brains and may work its way into their long-term memories.

    Celebrate mistakes, even yours. When you make a mistake, ask the students to give you a round of applause for demonstrating that although you are an educated and undoubtedly intelligent teacher, you are also a human being. Dont worry that students will lose respect for you when they learn that you arent perfect. On the contrary, they will respect you more for admitting your mistakes and helping them learn from theirs.

    During class discussions, when a student offers an incorrect answer or idea, instead of simply saying, Wrong or asking another student, try saying, Thats an interesting idea. How did you arrive at that conclusion? or I hadnt thought of that. Could you explain your thinking? Not only does this teach students that mistakes are acceptable, but you may identify misinformation before it solidifies in a students mind. For example, if a student identifies O as an improper fraction, that student may not understand the basic principles of fractions. If you ask how she arrived at that answer, you may be able to adjust her thinking and set her back on the right track.

    I have to admit that I have been guilty of hiding my mistakes. During my first years as a teacher, when one of my wonderful activities bombed in class, I would collect the papers and throw them away after students left the room. Usually the students forgot about the fiasco, but if anybody asked, Id say, Oh, I havent had a chance to grade those papers yet. Eventually they would forget about the exercises that didnt work, but I didnt. After one of our discussions about mistakes, I realized how hypocritical it was for me to encourage my students to make mistakes and then hide my own. The next time an exercise failed miserably, I stopped the students and told them what I had hoped the activity would teach them. Then I asked them to form small groups and discuss the assignment. They could either fix the assignment so that it would work or decide it wasnt worth saving. In every case the students came up with a more challenging and complex assignment than I had. And in addition to the academic lessons, they learned that teachers arent perfect and that mistakes really can be stepping stones to improvement. After more than a decade of teaching, my lesson designs have improved, and I dont have many flops; but when I do, I share them with students. Surprisingly, revealing my mistakes doesnt diminish students respect for me; their respect actually increases.


    Modeling is one of the most effective ways to teach new skills. The less accomplished the students, the more they stand to gain from watching you perform the tasks you are trying to teach them. But even good students can benefit from observing your approach. When I assign journal writing, for example, I always sit down in the middle of the class with my own journal and do the assignment. If reluctant writers are watching, I touch the tip of my pencil to my lips for a second and look at the ceiling to show that I am trying to think of something to write. Then I pause periodically and frown at my paper. Perhaps I cross out a word and write in a different word, then nod my head to agree with myself that I have improved my writing. Occasionally I scratch my head, stare out the window, close my eyes, or make some other gesture to show that writing well can take some time and effort. At first students snicker and make comments, but I ignore them. If their comments are loud, I whisper, Shh. Im trying to think. I dont look at them. I keep concentrating on my writing. Eventually they follow my example.

    In a class with more scholarly students, I may not add the gestures, but I still pause occasionally to reread what I have written, make simple revisions, and perhaps circle a paragraph and draw a line to another location where I think that paragraph would more logically fit. I want them to see that first drafts dont have to be beautiful or perfect.

    And always I ask for a volunteer to read my journal. Although I dont grade journals on grammar and spelling, I do grade them on content. So I ask my students to grade my ideas, looking for logical development, details to support my main ideas, and so on.

    In addition to modeling behavior, I like to provide models for students so that they know what I consider adequate, good, and excellent work. If we want students to produce excellent work, we need to show them what excellent work looks like. Some capable but underperforming students spend their entire school careers unaware of the kind of work other students are doing. After a journal-writing exercise, I read out a few of the most thought-provoking entries, without revealing the authors names (students who want recognition always find a way to take credit for their writing). After students complete a literature worksheet in which they write short essay responses to questions, I delete the names and post samples of student work. I label a paper that answers the questions with minimal information and some grammar errors Adequate. A paper that demonstrates more student effort, with more complex and sophisticated answers will earn a Good rating. An Excellent paper will have complete answers, complex sentences, logical development of ideas with details to support the ideas, and few grammar or spelling errors.


    Children crave attention. If they cant catch our attention by behaving well, they will misbehave because they know that we wont ignore them when they do wrong. And we teachers know we should focus on the positive, but we still tend to accentuate the negative in school. We remember having to ask a student to sit down or be quiet, but we forget how many times that same student participated and cooperated and acted like a decent human being. With practice and persistence, we can learn to notice when children are behaving. There are many more opportunities to catch them being good than there are to catch them being bad. If we want children to be kind, considerate, compassionate, generous, and honorable, we need to notice and thank them when they do act in those ways. We dont have to give them candy or points, but we do need to give them praise.

    One way I remind myself to catch students being wonderful is to take three blank index cards to class every day with the names of three students written on them. During that day I make sure I notice when those students do something kind or admirablelending somebody a pen, offering to collect papers, picking up litter from the floor and placing it in the trash, erasing the board without my asking, helping another student complete an assignment. The act isnt important as long as it was honestly spontaneous. I take a minute to write notes that I hand to students at the end of class. The notes arent long: Thanks for helping to keep our classroom clean today. I appreciate you is enough. Dont be surprised if a student confides that yours was the first positive note any teacher ever wrote about him or her. Its enough to make a grown woman cry.


    Parents and guardians are used to receiving phone calls from school staff and teachers complaining about unexcused absences, tardiness, missed assignments, bad attitudes, and disrespectful behavior. Often they become defensive because they believe teachers are blaming them (and sometimes we are) for their childrens misdeeds. But they are equally responsible when their children behave respectfully and decently. So we need to call and let them know that we appreciate their efforts.

    When a student in your class behaves especially well, call the parent or guardian and say, I just wanted to thank you for doing such a good job of raising your son [daughter]. I know that kids dont behave well by accident. They were taught by their parents. I wish all my students were as well behaved as yours. Thank you for making my job easier.

    Likewise, when a student who isnt always cooperative does behave or completes an assigned task well, Im quick to call parents and let them know. The student receives positive attention from parents and comes back to my class with a desire to repeat that pleasant experience. In addition to creating a good relationship with parents and improving student performance, good-news phone calls let the students know that you and their parents are working together. Sometimes children try to play their teachers and parents against each other, but if you make the first contact a positive experience, you wont be a victim to that scam. And if you should ever need to call those same parents or guardians because of a behavior problem, you will find them much more receptive than they might have been otherwise.


    In a passing conversation, I once asked a high school junior what he planned to do after graduation.
    Ill probably go to prison, Julio said.
    Surprised, I asked him if he was in trouble with the law.
    No, he said.
    Then why would you go to prison?
    Because thats where all the men in my family go.
    Well, you dont have to go to prison. Youre going to graduate, and you already have a job waiting for you.
    You dont understand, he said. The men in my family always end up in prison.
    You dont understand, I said. You dont have to go to prison.

    Neither of us understood. Of course, I was upset by this conversation and determined to change the students mind. I never could. And he did eventually go to prison after graduation. But a couple of years later, one of his friends called me and said, Julio is out on parole, and he has a good job, and he just wanted you to know hes doing all right.

    From that experience I learned that I needed to change my approach. Instead of trying to bulldoze students into accepting my perception of them, I needed to find a way to help them change their perceptions of themselves as hopeless losers or powerless pawns -- a subtle but powerful difference. I began by asking the group general questions when I felt they were in a comfortable and talkative mood.
    How many people plan to go to college? (Some hands waved.)
    How many would like to go, but you dont think you can do it? (More hands.)
    How many people here think they will end up on welfare someday?
    How many people think they will travel all over the world?
    How many people see themselves having pretty good jobs?
    How many think they will probably go to prison?
    How many people think they will be married and have a family in ten years?
    How many people think theres a good chance they will be dead before they are thirty years old?

    I dont respond individually to students during this quick survey, but I do make notes of the students who raise their hands in response to the negative questions. Then, during the normal course of a school day, I find opportunities to tell those students how I see them and the possibilities for their future. For example, I might say, Do you know how much artistic talent you have? I see you as an architect or a graphic artist someday. To kids who are especially interested in computers, I say, You have such a good imagination, I bet youd make a great video game designer. I could also see you working as a systems analyst, helping people figure out what kind of computer system they need for their business.

    I persist in telling students how I see them, every chance I get. And it works. Eventually they begin to see themselves as people with talents and skills. Sometimes I even ask them to humor me and try a visualization experiment. I ask them to close their eyes and imagine themselves getting up in the morning, getting dressed, grabbing their briefcase and a cup of coffee, and driving to work in a spiffy car. Then they enter the reception area of a big company, greet the receptionist, and head for their office, where they turn on the computer and check their mail.

    Another day I might ask them to imagine that they get up very early, eat a hearty breakfast, and grab their toolboxes. They jump into their pickup trucks and head off to a construction site where they will install kitchen cabinets in a new housing development.

    These scenarios are very helpful because most students have no real idea of what any occupation involves. They may hear about jobs from the counselors and see people portraying different occupational roles in movies, but they dont really know what those people actually do on the job. I encourage them to think of themselves in a variety of situations until they find one that feels right for them.

    Another way I try to change students perceptions of themselves is to ask experts to tell them for me. I have invited handwriting experts to analyze my students handwriting and focus on their positive traits (this was a huge hit). Local businesspeople will come to your classroom and conduct mock interviews with your studentsand give positive feedback and constructive criticism about their interviewing skills. Parents or other teachers who have experience in creative arts or business are often willing to come in and teach a skill in order to tap into untested talent among your students. A sculptor or painter may inspire a student simply by noting his or her eye for color.

    This may seem like hocus-pocus and New Age karma crap, but it isnt. When you say to a student, I see you as an intelligent, talented person, that student can no longer think of himself as a stupid or untalented mess. He wont change his perception immediately, but we do know that once you introduce a new idea to a brain, it cant go back to its former state. The seed of that new idea will grow, even if it isnt watered.


    Be prepared to help students who fall behind or race ahead of the pack. When lessons are too hard or too easy, students tend to tune out and give up or to seek ways to entertain themselves, often at their classmates and teachers expense. Aside from making it easier to manage your classroom, your young tortoises and hares will receive a better education if you spend a little time preparing lessons that meet their needs. You dont have to create a separate curriculum, just do a little tweaking. For severely dyslexic students, skip the spelling test grades and replace them with worksheets with spelling strategies and practice exercises (you can find plenty of examples online, in textbooks at your own school, or in bookstores). During group or team exercises, pair your slow students with compassionate students or assign yourself to their group.

    Most teachers are prepared with extra assignments, enrichment activities, peer tutoring, or other interventions for the laggards in their classes; but many teachers fail to consider students who are ahead of the game. And many teachers fail to recognize that their loudmouths and stand-up comics may be looking for ways to entertain themselves because they are bored by lessons that are too easy for them. Sadly, some teachers even feel threatened by brilliant students, instead of delighted to have the opportunity to encourage and guide them.

    When you suspect that a student may be misbehaving from boredom, call the student aside and tell him what you suspect. Give him some assignments or a diagnostic exam that will allow you to assess his skill and knowledge level accurately. If he does score high, then offer to recommend him for transfer to a gifted or advanced placement class. If transfer is not an option or the student prefers to remain in your class, then negotiate a contract and have him sign it, agreeing to cooperate with you in order to be permitted to remain in your class. Make it clear that you will expect the student to take the same quizzes and exams as the other students but may excuse him from doing routine assignments as long as his grades remain high. Then design a series of independent projects for your exceptional student. Dont make more work for yourself. Simply outline the projects. For example, younger students may enjoy working on the computer, doing basic research in the library, creating a science project, enrolling in an online course, or acting as your classroom aide. Older students who plan to attend college can benefit from doing SAT preparation exercises (there are plenty of books available) or learning how to research and write thesis papers or response papers such as those they will be assigned during college composition or literature classes.

    When assigning independent work, emphasize learning and progress over grades, so that students have the opportunity to learn for learnings sakeone of the best lessons you can teach a child. Also be prepared to drop the independent work if the student starts to cooperate and do the regular activities. Sometimes students just need your acknowledgment of their superiority or their struggle to stay with the class. One rambunctious young man actually wrote me a note that said, Thanks for showing me that Im smart and I dont have to be the loudest person in the room. Im sorry I caused you so much extra work, but now I feel a lot better. He folded his note into a tiny square and handed it to me before he ran out of the room on the last day of school before Christmas vacation. When he returned in the new year, he didnt need the extra assignments. He joined the class and earned the A he should have had in the first place.


    I remember clearly when one of my students said, I know you like Isabel better than you like me because she earns better grades than I do. His remark prompted a class discussion, and nearly every student agreed that teachers like their A students better than they like the others. I explained that teachers appreciate hard workers and are delighted when students earn high grades but that we dont dislike students who earn poor grades. We may dislike the behavior of students with poor grades. We wish they would do homework, behave themselves, pay attention, try harder, participate in class, and accept our help; but we dont dislike them for making mistakes or for struggling to learn (and if we do, we shouldnt be teachers).

    Of course, we need to be honest. We need to draw a distinction between students who struggle to learn and students who intentionally disrupt the class out of boredom or spite. Nobody likes it when a person creates unnecessary stress or extra work. But again it is the behavior we dont like, not necessarily the person.

    Remind your students frequently that an A person with poor grades can work to improve his or her grades but an F person with high grades still has a rotten personalityand that is a sad, sad thing to have.


    Many schools have peer-tutoring programs, and usually those programs are popular and successful. Unfortunately, not all schools can offer peer tutoring. You can give your students the same benefits of a peer-tutoring program by forming work teams at the start of the year and providing opportunities for those students to work together on difficult assignments. Instead of requiring students to sit quietly at their desks and work individually, give them time and encouragement to work togetherwhich, by the way, is much more like the way they will work at college or at their jobs in the future. Few people work solo all the time. Your room wont be as quiet, but the increased morale and improved performance may help you ignore the noise.

    Dont pit your teams against each other; pit all the teams against the curriculum. Instead of making the goal be to beat each other, set a goal for the class to complete a unit by a certain deadline or for everybody to earn a minimum grade on a test. Encourage students to exchange phone numbers so that they can call each other nights and weekends to study together or provide advice and encouragement over the phone.

    If your administrators are cooperative, ask them to schedule the students in your work teams in classes with each other the following year. Even better, ask to keep the same students (or some of them) for two or three years. Recent studies show that pairing teachers and students for two or three years pays off. Students develop very strong bonds when they work together, and they respond very positively (so do their grades) when schools permit their teams to stay together for two or three years. Students are far less likely to get into trouble or drop out of school when they have a peer support group.


    Every group of students has a unique dynamic and will interact differently. You cannot judge ahead of time how students will respond to each other, but you can save a lot of stress and time by planning how you will handle situations in which students need to work together. Before you assign working pairs or groups, pay attention to the way your students interact. If you havent already identified your outcasts and bullies, and rival gang members (see Chapter Five), find out who they are before you expect students to work together.

    In a class that seems to have a lot of rivalry, you might elect to select groups yourself. Otherwise, you can give students a chance to form their own groups; or you can use a deck of cards, different candies, or some other identifier to randomly assign groups. With older, well-behaved students, I simply place chairs in small groups and allow students to self-select, although I retain the right to change groups if misbehavior interferes with the activity.

    Be prepared for students who refuse to work with anybody else at all. Either assign those students to their own groups, put them with your most mature and outgoing students, or work with them yourself.

    Any time you assign group work, be sure to include self-evaluation forms and a rubric so that students can evaluate their groups progress and each members contributions. Keep in mind that some kids will gang up on each other, so make sure that you observe them during their class-time work periods to determine whether they are way off track in their evaluations. Including a grade for participation and cooperation, as well as a grade for completing the goals of the exercise, will go a long way toward motivating students to work together.


    Take home a copy of your roll sheet for each class. As you design worksheets and quizzes, include your students names. They will be delighted when they find their names in a grammar worksheet or in a math problem. Be sure to check off the names as you use them, and use every students name at least once to avoid hurting feelings.

    If you have a sense of humor, use it. Add a note at the top of the worksheet that says, This excellent worksheet was brought to you by your teacher, Miss Smith. Or at the end of a difficult test, add a disclaimer: Mr. Brown regrets that he had to give you such a hard test, but he is truly proud of your efforts. At the end of my own tests, I always include this note: This test was brought to you by Miss Johnson --your teacher who loves you.

    You can use those index cards you filled out on the first day of class to make another good morale booster. I keep the cards arranged by students birthdays instead of alphabetical order. Each weekend I go through the cards and select the ones whose birthdays fall in the coming week. On the students birthday, I give him or her a bright sparkly pencil and say, This is a magic birthday pencil, and it only gets good grades. Even totally cool and awesome ruthless gangsters laugh and use the pencils.


    Many of your students have amazing talents that, unfortunately, they never have an opportunity to display during school. I remember one stocky boy in my sophomore class, a boy I thought of as a little slow. Ira earned good grades, but he appeared to put much more effort into his grades than most students did. Ira worked diligently but slowly and methodically, and he didnt mind working alone. He would work with a group if I asked him to, but other kids often teased him for being so serious and stodgy. He never responded to their taunts, however, and they left him alone for the most part. Occasionally another boy would try to taunt Ira into fighting, but Ira would tilt his head down and look quietly at the boy over the tops of his eyeglasses until the boy gave up and walked away, shaking his head.

    One day I decided to let students design their own projects to present to the class. The only limitations were that projects could not involve nudity, obscenities, pornography, racism, fire, reptiles, poisonous insects, or extremely loud noises. Each student had to sign a contract stating whether he or she was working alone or with partners, briefly describe the project, and agree to complete the project by the deadline in order to receive credit. When I read Iras contract, I was a bit doubtful. He wrote that he intended to give a martial arts demonstration.

    Ira volunteered to go last, which didnt surprise me. Other students clamored to present their projects first. We had demonstrations of hair dyeing, cookie-dough mixing, model-airplane flying, dancing, singing, rapping, lip-synching, as well as TV game show satires, movie reviewers, videotaped comedy routines and commercials, and a model low-rider car that bumped and hopped across the floor. Then it was time for Ira. He asked his classmates to push all the chairs against the walls to clear the center of the room. Students shoved the chairs quickly, eager to see Iras demonstration. From the expressions on their faces, I could see that many students expected to get a good laugh at Iras expense.

    Ira took off his street clothes to reveal a white gi with a black cloth belt cinching his waist. He knelt in one corner of the room and placed his forehead on the floor. Then he stood, exhaled slowly, and began an incredible display of strength, control, and concentration. This slow boy could move his hands and feet so fast that they became a blur. Now we knew why he never accepted an invitation to fight. He didnt need to beat anybody up. He knew he was a champion, and he didnt need to prove it to anybody else.

    Those student projects took one week out of the school year, but they paid off enormously in motivation, morale, and attendance. Students who had never had a chance to be the star had their turn. Individual projects became a standard in my curriculum. I highly recommend adding them to yours, regardless of your subject. I would offer these suggestions if you do choose to use projects:

    • Allow shy or introverted students to prepare a report or other nonverbal presentation, so that they wont be forced to speak in front of a group.
    • Dont require projects to be about your classs subject. Encourage creativity.
    • Give every student who completes a project full credit. Instead of giving letter grades, ask three or four students to provide a peer critique (to avoid negative responses and crushed feelings, you might provide forms on which students check off positive aspects).
    • If students agree, invite parents or other teachers to observe. And if you have a video camera, tape the performances. (I wish I had caught Ira on tape, but video cameras then weighed twenty pounds and required a tripod.)


    If you use journals and your students arent writing very much, there is a reason. I could suggest a few possibilities, based on my own students comments about journal writing: you dont read the journals; you grade entries on spelling and grammar, which inhibits expression; you dont allow enough time, so they feel rushed and unable to think; you allow too much time, so they procrastinate and lack focus; or your prompts are not inspiring.

    Inspiring prompts are a must if you expect journal writing to produce results. Prompts such as Write a letter to Abraham Lincoln or Write your own obituary may sound interesting to adults and may appeal to more scholarly students, but they wont work for students who arent excited about school or are frightened by death. If you want students to write a letter to somebody, choose a person they would actually consider talking to in the first place. Most children wouldnt be inclined to talk to a dead president or a historical figure. They would, however, talk to their parents, relatives, teachers, principals, and friends. If you use letter writing as a prompt, assure your students that you will not send their letters off and that students can destroy them as soon as you have recorded their grade for completing the writing assignment.

    Letter writing can be a great catharsis for students who are distracted by emotional stress or too keyed up to focus on school. You can use journal writing to teach students that writing down their feelings, especially when they are angry, helps dissipate pent-up energy and may help them calm down.

    For teachers who havent used journals or havent used them successfully, my high school students created the following list of dos and donts:

    1. Read them. If you arent going to read them, dont ask us to write in them.
    2. Make at least one comment on every page.
    3. Dont mark every spelling and grammar error. You can circle some of them.
    4. Give good prompts. Make them interesting for kids.
    5. Show us samples of good journals that other kids have written.
    6. Read some journal samples out loud, anonymously.
    7. Let us know when we write something especially good or original.
    8. Let us use our journals as rough drafts for essays and literary critiques.
    9. Make journal writing a regular activity, at least once a week.
    10. Let us write swear words sometimes if we are really mad.
    11. Give some choices that we can write about, not just one thing.

    If you have a problem coming up with good prompts, do an online search for journal writing. There are a number of good sites on which teachers share their own prompts for various age levels. In the meantime here are a few of my most popular prompts:

    • Boys have life easier than girls dowhat are your thoughts on this matter?
    • What do you think is the biggest problem in the world today?
    • What is the best invention ever created by human beings?
    • Tell about a time you made a big mistake and what you learned from it.
    • Tell about a time you accomplished something really difficult.
    • Write a letter to your parents; tell them what a good or bad job they are doing.
    • Write a letter to your best or worst teacher from the past.
    • Describe your best or worst teacher. What does he or she look, sound, and smell like?
    • Describe your favorite place in the world and explain why you like it.
    • What are the three most important things in your life and why?
    • If you could change one thing about your life, what would you change and why?

    Unless I am using the journal-writing exercise to help students think of comments on a story we have read in class, I always include this as the final prompt: Tell me whats on your mind (something real -- dont tell me what youre going to have for lunch).

    Note: recently a teacher contacted me by e-mail to say that she had decided to use journal writing as the starter activity for the first ten minutes of every class but that her students balked at the assignment. I advised her to continue with the journals so that her students wouldnt think that they could make her give up any activity they didnt feel like doing. I also suggested that she require journals for two or three weeks and then stop for a few days. A few weeks later, she sent me an e-mail that said, I did it. Now my students are complaining that they never get to write in their journals. They like having that quiet activity to help them calm down and focus.


    Children have an innate sense of justice, but they also tend to view themselves as the center of the universe, which can cause problems because they are unaware of the effects that their actions have on other people. By introducing students to sociology and psychology, you can help them see the bigger picture and realize that they each play a small but important role in a large society. Our goal as teachers is not to impose our own values and ethics but to encourage students to explore, form, and articulate their own.

    I first introduced an ethics exercise to a class in which negative peer pressure was causing a lot of stress and behavior problems. I wanted my students to realize that each person has an individual code of ethics, even if he or she isnt aware of it. I thought that if they could articulate their values and morals, they would be less likely to succumb to negative pressures. For the first experiment, I used something relatively impersonal but universal -- money. I asked students to select their best answers to the questions in Exhibit 6.8 in their journals.

    After students wrote their answers, I took a quick survey and tallied their responses to question one on the board for each category: yes, no, and maybe. Then we had a class discussion about the topic for ten minutes. Next, students formed groups of three to five people and discussed the questions for another ten minutes. After their small-group discussions, students returned to their desks and wrote down their thoughts about the discussions, particularly if they changed their minds. I asked those who had changed their minds to write the reasons. Finally, we took another quick vote to see if people had changed their views. Many more students had joined the no group, those who would return the money. Students enjoyed seeing where they fell along the ethics spectrum, and many of them expressed admiration for the students who originally said that no, they would never keep the money. Those students were steadfast in their refusal to compromise their ethics.

    You can slant ethics exercises to fit your subject. In a social studies class, for example, after conducting the exercise about whether to keep money that doesnt belong to you, the teacher could assign the project of researching crime statistics for ten, twenty, and thirty years ago and have students chart the trends. Math students could figure the percentage of people who would keep or return the money and the percentage of people whose votes changed after the discussions. Computer classes could generate charts or tables to display voting results. Art students could make drawings or posters expressing their feelings about money and greed. English composition students could write essays about their thoughts on ethics in general or stealing in particular.

    With a bit of practice, you will be able to design ethics and sociology activities that are appropriate and effective for your students, but Exhibit 6.9 contains a few exercises to get you started. (In each case I suggest beginning with journal writing so that students can think about their own values instead of being influenced by others.)

    The kidney-donor dilemma is very intriguing to students, and their reactions range from scientific to highly emotional. Some will argue that family is family and that a brother should be willing to die for a brother. Others argue that nobody has a right to operate on you without your consent. After the votes and discussions, I reveal the answer: the doctor refused to operate. The doctor reminded Mr. and Mrs. Jones that any operation runs the risk of death and that both sons might die. He said they should love both their sons and give them equal attention. Also, he said that the entire family needed to go to counseling and address the issue of Jerrys unhappiness. He believed that the parents had caused Jerry psychological and emotional distress by treating him like a second-class citizen. After counseling, if Jerry changed his mind, then the doctor would agree to operate. But he would not operate on a child against his or her will. (Be prepared for an additional heated discussion after you reveal the doctors decision.)


    Exams are supposed to measure learning, not serve as barriers to advancement, hoops to jump through, methods of gathering statistical proof, or attempts to qualify for federal or state funding. Therefore, I believe we teachers should use tests primarily as measurements of our effectiveness as instructors. Exams are checkpoints for me to see whether my students are ready to move on or whether we need to back up and cover some ground again, but students daily work provides a much better record of their achievement and progress than any test can.

    Tests that are designed to be graded quickly and easily by a person or a machine are rarely good indicators of true learning, skills, or ability. Such tests measure students ability to memorize and regurgitate. I believe tests should focus on higher-level thinking skills, even with young children. To test childrens knowledge and skills accurately, we need to ask children to write out answers to questions, provide examples to support their ideas, predict future outcomes and draw conclusions based on information provided, read aloud to us privately (and individually), and summarize what they have read. Good tests dont have to include hundreds of questions, and the best tests do not include matching or multiple choice (unless they are for young children who havent yet progressed to higher-level thinking).

    Teachers cant control the testing machine that threatens to clog our school systems until they stop functioning, but we can do our small part to support intelligent testing by learning how to design worksheets, quizzes, and exams that truly measure student skills, knowledge, and progress.

    We can make sure we dont include ambiguous or trick questions, which serve no purpose other than to confuse or embarrass students.

    We can allow students to complete practice exams and reserve those scores so that students who honestly suffer from test anxiety can keep the practice scores if they freeze during the real exams.

    We can respond to cheaters by waiting to assign consequences until we have asked ourselves: Why did this student feel he or she needed to cheat to pass this exam? Did I teach the material poorly? Was this student absent frequently during the unit? Is there a lot of parental pressure on this child? Does this child have a learning disability or low-level reading skills? Is this student just lazy? Our response to the cheater should depend on the answers to those questions.

    We can strive for quality instead of quantity on our quizzes and exams. Instead of offering one hundred multiple-choice questions, we can assign short essay questions and open-book exams similar to the ones that college professors use.

    We can avoid using machine-scored forms that limit us to matching and multiple-choice answers.

    We can provide immediate feedback whenever possible so that students dont leave our classrooms with misinformation in their minds. We can require students to complete their tests in pencil and then have them put the pencils aside and grade their own tests in green pen. Unless those are final exams, we can give credit for corrected answers.

    And we can take our own tests before we give them to students. We can see how long it takes to complete our exams and check for ambiguous questions. We can make sure that we have provided enough space to write answers, because we know that if we provide a small space, we are going to get a short answer.

    We can encourage excellence by teaching our students to answer short essay questions articulately and completely. We can provide samples of unacceptable (F), poor (D), acceptable (C), good (B), and excellent (A) answers so that students know exactly what we expect from them. I post samples on the walls of my classroom, something like the one in Exhibit 6.10.


    Children love computers and quite often are more adept at using them than we adults are. If you have computers in your classroom or your school library, encourage students to use them for something other than surfing the Internet and playing video games, where the sole purpose is to win points. Teach your students how to find online sources for study aids, spelling strategies, educational exercises, and games designed to teach and test everything from geography to spelling to science. Here are just a few of my favorite Web sites, with a brief description of each one. Daves ESL Caf is a great site for English as a second language (ESL) learners, but the grammar quizzes are just as useful for native English speakers. Most of the material is too advanced for elementary students, unless they are grammar whizzes, but the site has quizzes on a number of subjects, including geography and American idioms, as well as links to a wide variety of other online sites. One of the most helpful Web sites Ive found, this is hosted by publisher Scott Foresman. It contains word lists; frequently misspelled words; strategies for spellers (kids would need help from teachers to use most of the tips); cross-curricular lessons in social sciences, health, math, and reading; and a series of excellent spelling quizzes. Although the site lists lessons for first through eighth grades, I have found those for third grade and higher very helpful for adult ESL learners. Check this one out. This fun, kid-centered site has some excellent educational games such as Grammar Gorillas and Spell Check, and a great selection of math games. This super site provides high-level grammar, punctuation, and composition instruction, along with online quizzes -- appropriate for advanced middle school, high school, and college students. In addition, it contains links to software and books on writing.