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Teaching Profession Opinion

Want to Motivate Students? Make Their Work Visible

By Justin Minkel — December 17, 2019 5 min read
Minkel FirstPerson Art studentwork Getty

The first thing I notice when I walk into an elementary school classroom is how much student work is posted on the walls. Are there plenty of imaginative stories, detailed drawings, and vibrant paintings made by the hands of children? Or is the majority of wall space dedicated to anchor charts and inspirational posters made by adults?

Integrating student work into your teaching has a couple of profound practical benefits.

Children will better understand the work we’re asking them to do if they see examples of that work created by their classmates. Displaying students’ work and integrating it into lessons is also a powerful way to build motivation. That’s critical, especially if you’re a teacher who tries to minimize your use of external punishments and rewards.

Researchers like Dan Ariely and Daniel Pink have revealed how deeply our work and our motivation are intertwined. When we have the opportunity to create work that matters to us, we don’t need as many external motivators like material rewards, threats of punishment, or even praise.

Minkel FirstPerson Art embed credit

When students realize we’re paying careful attention to their work, they begin to pay more attention to it, too. They get started faster, work harder, and bring more heart, thought, and creativity to whatever they’re working on. That’s true whether it’s a quick “stop-and-jot,” a multi-page story they work on for days, or a research project that takes weeks to complete.

Here are three ways to put your students’ work at the heart of your teaching.

1. Incorporate student work into mini-lessons.

One of the simplest, strongest hooks you can use is a piece of student work.

During our writing block, I balance examples from published authors with samples of the students’ own writing. Whether the focus is dialogue, descriptive writing, or adding features like headings, text boxes, and diagrams to a nonfiction piece, you can find strong student writing to put up alongside anchor texts written by adults.

When the kids know their own work might open the next day’s mini-lesson, they try harder to get it done and to do it right.

One crucial tip: The work you display doesn’t have to be perfect. It might show powerful thinking and creativity but still contain mistakes. When you share it with the class, take a few seconds to correct a misspelling or add punctuation at the end, while still emphasizing the attributes that made you choose that particular piece.

You want to make sure you’re not just using examples from the same handful of advanced students with neat handwriting and impeccable spelling. I have a John Steinbeck quote on my cabinet as a reminder to myself: “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” Children need that same reminder.

2. Build share time into most lessons.

Our writing block works best when I leave time at the end for a few students to share their work. Between one-on-one writing conferences, I walk around the room and choose a few kids who have tried out the focus of that day’s mini-lesson in their writing.

Sharing a child’s writing is a huge boost to that child, but it’s also useful for the other kids to see what the skill I taught them looks like in practice—not just in anchor texts published by adults, but in their classmates’ imperfect yet promising writing.

During our math block, I always open or close the problem-solving portion with a few examples of student work. After a child has explained her drawing and equation, the other students ask her questions. I often put up two examples of student work side by side and have the class look for similarities and differences in the way each child solved the problem.

As with writing or any other subject, the student math work you share can show partial understanding of a concept rather than total mastery.

3. Share the work beyond the walls of your classroom.

Photos by author

My students recently published their first literary magazine of the year. It’s not as fancy as it sounds. I work with each student to revise and proofread a piece of writing, I type it up for them and have them complete an illustration, and then I photocopy a stapled book on colored paper for each child in the class to take home.

We do a read-aloud of the magazine, applauding each writer and sharing one thing we liked about each piece. After that, the kids go off to their desks to read it themselves and color the illustrations with crayons. They share the magazine with their moms, dads, grandparents, and siblings that night. I also share a copy with the principals and the kids’ teachers from the previous year.

You can plan “open mic”-style readings, too, inviting students’ families to come in during or after the school day to hear kids read their work.

There’s a shift that happens once that first class magazine comes out. From that moment on, the kids are writing as authors, not just students. They know that each story they write could end up as a finished piece in the next magazine.

Minkel FirstPerson Art embed4 credit

It’s hard to convince our students to do the labor-intensive work of revision and proofreading when there is no real audience. If a story they write never leaves their writing folder, why should they care if they spelled the words correctly or put periods in the right places? But if their friends, family, and classmates are going to read what they wrote, they want to make sure it’s their best work.

Whose classroom is it?

We have to convey to the children in our care that their ideas, opinions, and imagination matter. If the only texts, charts, and videos they interact with are those created by adults, they’ll experience a world where their own developing work has no place.

Adult-made materials are overused, in part, because education companies can mass-produce them for the packages they sell to districts. It’s up to teachers to bring what those companies will never be able to provide—the words and work of individual students—into our classroom each year.

It’s not enough to tell kids their work matters. We have to show them that truth. We do that by weaving their work into the fabric of their learning.

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