Engaging the Disengaged, Number 5

How can we motivate students through strength-based teaching?Strength-based Teaching

[W]hat would happen if teachers were as vigilant about looking for signs of brilliance as they are in finding the mistakes: What if teachers went on the hunt for strengths before spotting the deficiencies? What if we switched the deficiency model that too often reigns in classrooms to the asset model?

Quate and McDermott, Clock Watchers, p. 111Nothing kills motivation quicker for students than having all of their errors pointed out especially if they have worked hard to accomplish an assignment. After hearing about the wonderful things a student has done, they are often ready to work on a next step or goal.

When Alejandra came to me at the start of sixth grade, her writing looked like this:

Alaska is so betaful but let me tell you how we got there. we are almost to canad. Just 1 more Houre. We just hite the border. We go thouth. And we got acrost the train track…

It took her one month to complete this bed-to-bed story that filled up seven pages of her rough draft booklet. A bed-to-bed story is one that tells all the events in a young child’s day or event from rising in the morning until retiring at night without regard to what might be interesting to an audience. These are often seen in very early writers but rarely in sixth-graders. Her reading level placed her in my intervention class for extra help.

Alejandra fell in love with reading and writing that year; she spent numerous hours reading and writing both in school and at home. Exactly one year later her writing looked like this:

I feel so angery. So alone. I can’t be hear. I have to get away. I can’t believe she’s gon. Maria was in her little cozy room crying as she wrote in her diary as a tear went down her check and plompled on to her paper leaving a clear mougy spot where she wrote. I have to get away. She close her diary and look out the window. The sun was still just above the tree tops as it slowly move an inch down. She grabed her diary, a jacket and a pichure of her mom. It was the only thing that survived the fire. [At this point in her story I interrupted and asked, “What fire?” She shushed me by stating, “Mrs. D, you will have to wait, I am foreshadowing.”] She could feel the memorie coming in like a tltle wave pushing her under. She started to sob more as she saw her mothers face the las time she was alive. She could hear her voice like it was yesterday.

Immediately after reading her draft in our revision group she looked up and said, “I don’t got no chapter titles yet.” Her best friend softly suggested, “Alejandra, if you write like this you may no longer talk this way. It is I don’t have any chapter titles yet, not, I don’t got.”

This 47-page draft took her the same time to write as her seven-page bed-to-bed story exactly one year earlier. Although Alejandra still needs much instruction in spelling, grammar, and syntax, I believe the growth is apparent. Two things added to this growth: reading a vast amount of self-selected novels and having strengths pointed out in her writing during all conferences with me or another student. Early in the year, I had to search hard to find positives in her pieces. Later it became hard to share all of the strengths in a timely manner.

Only after pointing out strengths in a student’s reading or writing should we move on to goals or next steps. We also must be very careful to work on one goal or area of weakness at a time. Overwhelming students with too many issues can be just as de-motivating as not noticing the positives. However, great teachers do move students forward with teaching points or goals; Alejandra took on many during our first year together.

[W]e’re not talking about glossing over errors. Instead, we’re talking about having a healthy balance of praise and constructive criticism.

Quate and McDermott, Clock Watchers, p. 111I challenge you to see how many strengths you can notice in your students reading and writing in the next few weeks. Once again, we don’t have a moment to waste.