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Motivation (Part I)

Last week I was in a history class.  It was the teacher’s prep, but there were students working to put final touches on their presentations which were due later in the day.  Out of the blue, this conversation ensued:

“I’ve got to start all over!” a student shouted.

The teacher smiled and said, “What do you mean?”

“Look at theirs!  It’s so much better than ours! That’s it, I’m going to start over.”

“It’s due later today, it’s fine.  You did a good job too.”

The student rolled her eyes.  “I can make it better.”

The teacher smiled again and said, “You don’t have time.”

And here’s the kicker . . . the student said:

Sure I do.  I’ll work on this during English instead of my rough draft.  I’ll lose the hundred points since my rough draft won’t be in on time, but that doesn’t matter.  At least this will be good, though.

The teacher shook his head again and said, “Don’t do that.  You’ll be fine.”  Although I didn’t look at their writing projects (each group wrote a newspaper to share information with the rest of the class), I’m sure the teacher was right.  Their work looked solid. 

That’s when this question began haunting me:

What makes the writing project in U.S. History so much more important to this student than the writing project in English?

Here are some of the thoughts that have been bouncing around my brain about this:

  • The audience played a crucial role.  In history, the audience was the entire class; in English the audience was the teacher.  I think this made a difference.
  • Attaching a large number of points to a writing project is not enough to motivate a student to get it done . . . especially when there is another project with a more pressing audience.
  • I’ve not valued a classroom of peers as an authentic audience like I should.
  • I’m sure this student is a “good student.”  At first, I used this to brush off her statement about losing the points in English. I figured she was simply overzealous.  However, this didn’t give me solace.  If the “good students” are willing to brush off an English writing project, what about everyone else? 
  • I wonder how the teacher placed so much value on an audience of a classroom full of peers.  I’m curious about the kind of teaching that led up to the final projects.  I’ll need to ask him.

What are your thoughts about this?  Leave a comment and let me know.  I’ll be back tonight (probably late) for Part II of this post.  Until then, happy teaching.

Ruth Ayres View All

Unhurried. Finding the magic in the middle of living. Capturing a life of ridiculous grace + raw stories.

9 thoughts on “Motivation (Part I) Leave a comment

  1. Thank you Deb! You gave order and insight to the thoughts jumbling in my mind. 🙂 You made all the things I feel come together in a concise way. I appreciate your comment.


  2. Intrinsic motivation to do a “good” job is hard to instill, and we all have our own ideas about what constitutes “good.” I’ve found that when the audience is others, the work is neater, more carefully matches the assignment, and is presented effectively. When students see themselves as the audience, the product is richer. By “themselves” I mean that their focus is on the joy of the writing itself rather than how it’s going to be received. They’ve taken more risks, maybe even veered off into new territory not considered by the teacher or within the bounds of the assignment.

    I know from reading your blog that you personally have worked hard with your students to get them away from writing for the teacher, and you know the pitfalls of students writing with publication (presentation) in mind. To make this “peer pressure” idea work while still encouraging creativity and reaching for their highest potential as writers, students need to feel safe. If they’ve already had the experience of having their own voices and choices honored, then an audience can enrich that experience. If a teacher has been the students’ only audience up to this point, they’ll just feel more pressure to make it “right” for the intended audience, and they’ll place limits on themselves that will make their writing more sterile.

    If using the peers for an audience is treated like a critique group, as in the art teacher example (especially with his question “What do you think?”), students are honored. They’re sharing together in a friendly and safe format. The teacher isn’t judging as he stands with them. He’s an observer, a coach, a facilitator.

    I’ve told teachers in my continuing education classes about a time that my superintendent came in to observe a class I taught in the arts-based school I started. The kids (grades 3-10) were in a circle, critiquing in a manner similar to my own writing critique group. It was a process we had used for weeks. They read pieces aloud, questioned, made suggestions, shared what they saw working in each others’ manuscripts, and I barely had to say a word.

    The writing the superintendent heard that day was outstanding because — in addition to being one of those great groups that comes along from time to time — they took the time to rewrite. They had an audience of each other, goals they set and worked on by and for themselves, and, because we created this safe place together, willingness to write lots of “junk” to find the gems. When the superintendent was done with my observation, he said, “Wow. That was more like a conference than a class.”

    Presenting to peers is an excellent motivator. Just make your classrooms as safe as possible, giving the students as much ownership as possible, so the motivation is placed where you want it.

    Thanks again for all your support for your colleagues. Your fan…


  3. I wonder what the topic of the English paper was vs. the topic of the history project. Did one connect with the student’s life more than another?


  4. I agree with Aimee. The English grade is probably already high enough that the student could take a hit of 100 points, probably go ahead and do the rough draft for homwork so as to be caught up tomorrow, and get a better mark on the history project. One of the great things I have learned from Author’s Chair is that audience really does matter! When they are writing to entertain or impress their peers, they are more like to do their best to show off. I teach younger kids (grade 3 and 4) and I know they don’t connect their work to their grades on the report card. They do, however, work toward that more immediate feedback of making their peers laugh, or offer a positive compliment.


  5. I teach both History and Writing/Reading Workshop to 7th and 8th graders. In my opinion, I do not think students across the board are willing to take a zero in English in order to spend additional time on a History project. This student valued that particular project (or teacher, or the response of peers) to be more valuable than a rough draft in English. Maybe there are other factors involved? A time crunch, for example? If the student knew taking a zero in English would be balanced out with her final paper grade,maybe it was worthwhile. Maybe the student had a poor grade in History and knew this project would raise the grade. There are so many potential factors involved that I don’t think it would be fair to assume that the History project was necessarily more important to every student. As far as audience goes, whenever my students have had to present (a paper, project, speech) in front of the class, they always work harder so as not to embarrass themselves.


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