A New Take on Kids Who Don't Do Their Work

Have you ever had a student come into class on presentation day with an excuse why he absolutely cannot possibly present today?  How about one who came in the day a paper was due and didn’t have it done?  What about a student who didn’t read an assigned book, or even a choice one? 

There might be a lot of reasons that these students are not ready for the speaking, writing or reading performance they’ve been asked to do, but (since I can’t read minds) I like to choose the explanation that gives the kid the benefit of the doubt:  FEAR.  It’s scary to present in front of peers; it’s scary to create a piece of writing, put your name on it, and send it off to a pair of critical eyes.  And it’s scary to try to read a book that feels too hard, too long and totally incomprehensible, knowing you might be called on in a discussion, or worse, expected to answer quiz questions you absolutely won’t know. 
Sometimes as teachers it’s easy to believe that these kids are just making excuses, that they didn’t want to do the assignment, so they didn’t.  Instead they made up an excuse.

This summer the Universe kindly has provided me with three experiences to remind me what it feels like to be as vulnerable as many of our students feel every day in our classrooms.

I’m on my way right now to Orlando to present at my first ever national conference, The International Literacy Association Conference.  I attended two years ago as a star-struck teacher wandering the convention center in St. Louis, whispering to my friend Russ, “Oh my God!  There’s …!”  Everywhere I turned were my literary heroes, people whose books I had read, whose tweets I had liked, whose Facebook wisdom I hung on.  Russ, a social studies teacher, did not share my enthusiasm.

My presentation is tomorrow morning, and the butterflies in my stomach have turned into giant, flying pterodactyls with gnawing sharp teeth and pointed wings beating inside me. I have revised this presentation no less than 15 times.  I have practiced, pacing my office at home, mumbling to myself, over and over.  Tonight, I’ll go over everything one more time, and tomorrow, I’ll focus on breathing, and the show will be on.  I did sign up for this, and I really do want to do it.  I’m just NERVOUS!     

During the last few months that I’ve known about this presentation, I have met nothing but positive comments along the way.  I’ve been asked questions, been congratulated, and been encouraged by my students, my colleagues, my mentors, and my family.  So, while I’m NERVOUS! I also deep down inside believe it’s going to be OK.

Now imagine the situation many of our kids face.  They’re assigned a presentation to do in front of peers who’ve teased them in the past, for teachers, who were exasperated when they didn’t have an idea the first day, when they didn’t do their planning when it was due, when they had no draft ready on time, and when they declined our offers to practice.  They too are nervous to speak, and they also do not believe it’s going to be OK.

I’ve always liked to write and believed from second grade on that I would be an author one day.  But my writing, outside of school assignments, was kept in spiral notebooks decorated with stickers or photo collages, and it was only read by me.  When I finally started a blog and began having readers, it was exciting.  During my first year an idea would pop into my head and I’d write a post – single draft with a bit of editing… BAM! I had published a piece of writing.  Then I began reading other blogs on topics I liked, blogs filled with research and facts and citations.  And I began to question my own writing.  “What the hell was I thinking writing all that stuff and publishing ONLINE!?  Who did I think I was?” 

And then a friend would mention one of my posts and how much it meant to them to read it.  Or someone would re-tweet a blog post I’d shared with a kind comment, and I’d recover and try again. The encouragement allowed me to shut up the critic who lives in my head, at least long enough to write one more post. 

But my high school students?  After years of trying to write something, but not really knowing what or how, or even why they’re doing it, many of them don’t try any more.  With only three “valid” forms of writing being taught in many schools, and very little, if any, room for personal, playful or just plain messy writing, all of it feels too hard and they feel not good enough.  They are too defeated to even try writing this time.

This summer I’m participating in the Book Love Foundation Book Club on Facebook.  One of our books is A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving.  It’s a big book (627 pages) with tiny print and skinny margins.  The pages are thin, and the sentences are tightly packed with lengthy descriptions of characters and places and meandering time periods.  By page 127, I wondered if it would be OK if I just skipped this book.  I mean, I’d read the rest of the books and anyway, who was going to know?  I was busy.  I have 3 kids.  And dogs.  And cats.  And it’s summer! 

And then on our Facebook group, someone posted a question, “Is anyone else Reading A Prayer for Owen Meany and not liking it?”  Many comments followed – encouraging comments, full of empathy, but also reasons to read on.  The conversation filled me with hope.  I downloaded the audio book so I could hear Owen’s voice more clearly and to get me moving along a little faster.  The book got much more interesting, and I soon returned to my tiny-print paperback, and read the last 300 pages in 3 days, a month before it was “due”.

What about our students when they encounter a difficult text that they didn’t choose? Do teachers encourage them with reasons to read on, strategies, such as hints and audio books, or supportive peer groups?  Or do they berate kids for not doing the assigned reading at home, give Gotcha Quizzes to make them read, or tell them that resources like SparkNotes are cheating?  With no support (except that packet of questions they’re supposed to answer), what do our kids do?  They are too lost to even begin reading this book.

What if, instead of choosing to believe that our students don’t want to do the work, we act like professional teachers and offer our kids the support they need and deserve? 

For presentations, what kind of support networks can be established to help everyone be successful?  Can we differentiate the way presentations are given?  Can we allow students more opportunities, like reading a beautiful line they’ve discovered in a poem, a snippet of a book, a sentence from their own notebook, so that English class has lots of authentic talk going on instead of that one big, required SPEECH in the spring?

For writing, what would our classes look like if they had lots of safe chances to write?  What if our students’ notebooks were full of playful mimicking of favorite authors, poems, dreams, and crazy ideas that just floated from their heads that day?  How might students feel if we all provided opportunities to do what Kristin Ziemke calls “micro-writing” where students are tweeting, commenting on others’ work, or other mini writing that could happen all across their day?

And for reading, how much would our students grow if most of the reading they did across the day was in text that was easily accessible?  How eager would they be to open a book when they were the ones who chose to read that particular story about that particular character right now?  And what if there were real supports in place for those times we did ask students to read a challenging piece of text – I don’t mean we read it aloud to them – it mean encouragement and what Kelly Gallagher calls “walking them into the text” – building enough background and supporting them until they are ready to take over the book themselves.  Just like I was with Owen Meany around page 300.

We have a lot of power, teachers.  Every day in our classrooms, the choice is ours:  will we believe the best about each student, supporting their efforts (no matter how small) and helping them succeed?  Or will we believe the worst and blame the student, leaving them alone to not speak, not write and not read?

If you haven’t found yourself feeling completely vulnerable about a presentation, something you had to write, or a book you were supposed to read, try it out.  You’ll be glad you slid your feet back in those kid-sized shoes.  Even if only for a minute.


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