Motivating Student Writers

After reading a reminder about great teachers behind great students, I started thinking about the great teachers who inspired my learning.

At one point in my own early education, I was so bored and disenchanted with education (despite some cheerful and well-meaning teachers) that I actively avoided school; if I stayed home “sick,” I could challenge my creativity with books and my own storytelling in ways that I wasn’t experiencing in the classroom.

Life changed when a great teacher changed the rules bounding my education. If I met the intended learning outcomes (not that I knew to call them that at the time), I didn’t have to wait for my classmates to reach the same goal (or grade their assignments as they finished); instead, I was allowed to start working towards achieving the next learning outcome or to independently explore a negotiated topic and later present on it. Learning moved from stop and go to an ongoing journey.

Later teachers helped me retain my newfound appreciation for learning by: challenging me to research and write a play on women’s suffrage in my home state (Wyoming), facilitating self-paced learning in math (allowing me to move quickly through concepts I understood and to take more time with topics that challenged me), encouraging me to combine science and writing interests in Science Olympiad events, and talking with me about reaching my long-term goals, among other things.

As I reflect now on my best learning experiences from my current perspective of a teacher, I recognize that the teachers who engaged me in life-long learning habits:

  • Implemented individualized learning plans for students
  • Learned and built on students’ interests
  • Set goals with regular check-ins in place of scripted schedules
  • Invited creativity and created opportunities for it
  • Integrated writing throughout every activity, from planning phases through final products
  • Celebrated successes

So as I plan my fall courses (yes, I’m getting an early start…), I’m trying to keep these strategies in mind. While it’s not realistic to ditch the one-size-fits-all project for every assignment in every class, I will look for ways students can customize projects, whether that means selecting their own topics or addressing audiences of their choosing. Hand-in-hand with varied audiences, my fall assignments will require students to pick the genres that are the best fit for their audiences and purposes.

Ashley Holmes (@the_ashleyjh) got me hooked on multi-modal projects for first-year writing courses a couple of years ago, and in my fall Writing Technologies course, I’ll be crossing a multi-modal project with an e-portfolio as students develop a series of documents for an organization of their choice. They’ll have to project a consistent message across documents, but they can tailor their genre selections to their audience(s) and purpose(s) for each document. I hope that the opportunity to write for organizations that are important to them and to respond creatively to those organizations’ real needs will help students engage with the course materials as they build on their interests.

Regardless of how much students can customize projects to their interests, my assignments will continue to integrate writing throughout every activity. From in-class brainstorming to audience analysis memos to research memos for projects-in-progress to end-of-project reflections, students will regularly communicate their progress towards meeting their writing goals, while practicing writing process activities.

Finally, I know customized student projects might sound daunting… Do you have to adjust the grading criteria for each student? No! Part of the challenge for my students and me is to negotiate projects that work towards common learning outcomes; therefore the assessment will be focused on how well students have demonstrated they’ve met the shared, desired learning outcomes. (For full disclosure, I sometimes let students negotiate adjustments to one rubric criteria to better reflect the goals of their individual projects, but all the criteria still have to reflect the intended learning outcomes for the assignment.)

With these strategies in mind as I design my fall courses, I hope to celebrate lots of student success throughout the semester. What did your great teachers do to engage you as a learner?