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It's the first writing conference, four weeks into the year, with this blond senior. He stiffly leans back from me as far as the metal desk will allow, exuding cynicism, too cool for meeting with teachers about his writing. I can see he doesn't trust me yet or know why we conference, and he's afraid. He says, "So, what is this meeting about then?" And we begin.

The Power of Teacher Enthusiasm

Conferencing and portfolios work for me. Over the last 13 years of teaching English, I've developed a system of folders for work, held regular quarterly conferences with every student, and instituted cover letters in which students introduce, explain, and critique their writing at the end of the year. I also teach California State University's Expository Reading and Writing Course, a curriculum for high school seniors that encourages teachers to coach writing and students to write for real audiences. After the course, students report growth in their writing -- new confidence, success in their next-year college classes, higher EPT scores, and perhaps most importantly, ownership of their writing. Scholarship from the 1980s to the present supports my own findings and reiterates that portfolios and writing conferences can sometimes be very successful.

But I wish the research would point to these systems as consistent and universal means of student growth. It does not. The research suggests that these practices improve student writing only along with the qualifier of enthusiastic teachers who create meaningful systems for their own classrooms. It worked in my classroom, but I was bothered that the research was so tepid. I kept doing portfolios and conferences in my classroom, noting anecdotal and statistical success for my students.

Then, two years ago, I read Daniel Pink's Drive and Carol Dweck's Mindset, and I realized that a system of portfolios and conferences was not enough to change student engagement on its own. The way I thought and talked with my students about their writing and learning had also changed. The words out of my mouth in the classroom changed the way students thought about their writing even more than portfolios and conferencing.

Intrinsic Motivation

Pink’s Drive argues that employees -- and students -- after their basic needs are met, are motivated by autonomy, purpose, and mastery. Humans want some control over our tasks, we want real tasks that connect to our world, and we want the opportunity to improve. Extrinsic motivation (grades, bonuses, stickers, prizes) actually inhibit students from succeeding on cognitively difficult tasks like, say, writing. I'd been teaching writing all wrong! I'd dangled the carrots of prizes and threatened with the sticks of docked points for misplaced modifiers.

But sometimes, I also got it right. Before, I'd let students choose prompts and readings as much as possible, providing autonomy. After reading Pink, I learned to unbend myself, make deadlines more flexible, and shape the writing process more to fit the student. Now, my students feel more control over their process.

Before, I'd encouraged my students to write for real audiences as summative assessments. Now, I encourage students to write to real people for real purposes throughout the school year -- their own blogs, each other, me, their principal, their Congressional representatives, and the world.

Before, I'd embedded grammar instruction in writing process and had students keep their work to casually notice their progress once a year. Now, I conference four times a year with students about portfolios of their work -- an ongoing conversation about writing goals of their choosing. I explicitly teach metacognition, or how to talk and write about their writing.

Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck’s Mindset also made me question the feedback I was giving. Dweck found that praising students for intelligence actually made kids less likely to take academic risks because, on some level, they feared losing the label of "smart" if they did poorly. And since avoiding academic risks means avoiding learning, praising students' intelligence eventually impaired their success in school (and life happiness as well, since they felt intelligence was out of their own control). Students praised for working through difficult material wanted to show they could do so again, with the cumulative effects of long-term academic success, confidence in trying situations, and happier outlooks. Dweck called these mindsets fixed and growth, and started a movement to instill growth mindset in students. She has also talked about the amazing power of yet. She argues that we do a disservice to students by giving them only positive feedback on their writing. Although we don't want to crush their dreams, they can handle -- and even need -- room for growth and mastery. Hence the power of yet: "Your sentence structure does not yet match the tone you are trying to achieve." Yet allows negative feedback while also transmitting trust that they will get there.

I had a realization several years ago that my goal is not a good essay from Student A, but rather for Student A to know that she's in charge of her progress as a writer and feel confident to keep writing for the rest of her life. To that end, I must teach writing process, self-confidence through intrinsic motivation, metacognition, and the willingness to write badly, much more than I need to teach themes, metaphor, or prepositional phrases.

Reading the Common Core Language Arts documents and support, one notices the words "choice," "audience," "purpose," "metacognition," and "growth" throughout. Recently, I presented nurturing intrinsic motivation in writing to a classroom of other educators. They had no problem brainstorming ways to improve intrinsic motivation and growth mindset in our classrooms. Students want the same freedom in writing that we do, and teachers know how to provide it when given the opportunity.

The Payoff: Engagement and Ownership

It's the fifth meeting since September with that blond senior. Now his knees are tucked under him so he can arch across the desk and dissect the same sentence a foot away from me. We have gone from a distant "What is this meeting about then?" to an eager "Can I schedule a conference right now? I think I've smoothed the transitions, but I need to play with the syntax in the conclusion. Hear me out." Perhaps more importantly, I didn't schedule it, and I'm not doing most of the talking. He's found his voice and his reason to write.

You say . . .   You could say . . .   Why?
Good job!   I can really see your effort in revision.   Praising effort and process encourages writers to keep trying. (Dweck)
You're a good writer.   Those drafts paid off in sentence variety and imagery.   Encouraging growth instead of fixed mindset makes for happier people in charge of their progress. (Dweck)
You don't know how to use semi-colons.   You haven't mastered semi-colons yet.   The power of yet suggests growth and mastery. (Dweck and Pink)
Please revise.   Improved topic sentences and transitions between paragraphs would improve your paper's structure and readability.   Specific reader-focused feedback might seem nitpicky, but helps writers feel purpose of revision.
Write a persuasive essay.   Persuade your principal/Congressman/parents to do a specific action.   Writers need a real purpose and real audience to write their best work. (Pink)
Read Heart of Darkness. Discuss the importance of the Congo River to this narrative.   Choose a work from the list of college-bound reading. How does geography inform the symbolic meaning of the work?   People prefer autonomy and choice. (Pink)

Comments (37)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Educator-in-Residence at Design Cofounders

Beth: I can be a struggle sometimes, but since they already have specific subjects they're interested in they might enjoy blogging as you mention. I would approach it in a way there they would tell you about their subject of interest to start, and use it as a segway to teach research :) kind of sneaky but it should be fun to explore.

Shelley- TheWriteStuff's picture
Shelley- TheWriteStuff
2nd grade teacher in British Columbia, Canada

Hi Amy,
This was so refreshing to read! I teacher 2nd graders but I have written a lot and coached teachers with this mindset as well. I am not sure that the common idea out there is that students are in charge of their learning when they are aware of the learning outcomes they are more engaged. Praising effort is more beneficial when the student also knows the outcomes they are trying to reach don't you think? I just wrote about assessment and I loved reading this and knowing that we are on the same page from 2nd grade to seniors. Very cool!

Amy Conley's picture
Amy Conley
Senior English instructor in Fortuna, California


Yep, writers are writers, no matter the age. My sixth and second grade children have the same learning needs. And so do adults. The first time I instructed other teachers in professional development, I was so nervous. I was relieved to discover that they were just writers and learners, wanting choices and control and coaching.

I highly suggest Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Mindset by Carol Dweck. As a parent, writer, learner, instructor, these changed my thinking.

ChristineOnofrey's picture

Amy, I teach 12th grade, and I found your insights to be right on target with my experiences. I have spent much of the summer dissecting my own writing to try to distill down what I do, but I keep finding that writing, for me anyway, is a messy process. Then I had an epiphany! Maybe that is it! Show students that creating good writing is a messy process. Like creating cut-out sugar cookies, not all of the dough gets used and neither will everything we write.

I was really curious about what you meant by making your deadlines more flexible. This makes me nervous, but I'd like to try because there were times this summer when I just had to walk away from my writing in order to clear my head. I want my students to know that that happens to every writer, and that continuing to bang one's head upon the keyboard soon leads to a distaste for writing altogether. How did you make it work?

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Manager

Christine, one of the things that I learned early on about myself is that I'm a back-brain writer. (That's my term for it.) What it means is that my subconscious needs time to properly stew on a writing project before it will relinquish anything to the page.

I've learned some techniques that help the process along when I'm under deadline, but those tend to be writing formulas and don't always lead to great writing. (Decent but not great.)

For my best stuff, I need to schedule noodling and doodling time, and then when I'm ready--it all tends to fall on the page ready to go.

Amy Conley's picture
Amy Conley
Senior English instructor in Fortuna, California

Christine and Samer,

Writing is messy! So is learning.

I think deadlines and pacing is something that we need to have serious discussions about as writing instructors. Yes, deadlines and responsibility are important concepts to teach. Yes, real writing process involves revision and steep time (what I call Samer's back-brain writing). I know some college professors in composition classes who have no final due dates but the final portfolio. I have deadlines for rough drafts, but allow final drafts until the end of the grading period because I want to encourage revision.

How do others balance teaching deadlines and teaching writing process?

Heather Lambert's picture
Heather Lambert
Reading Specialist, Blogger, and Professional Developer

Amy, you post was inspiring, as i am very interested in intrinsic motivation. i loved the way you described the teacher's shift on order for a student to shift. Thanks so much for broadening my knowledge.

Youki Terada's picture
Youki Terada
Senior Associate, Research Curation

Couple of great examples via @BetsyNMorris on Twitter, who used these phrases to give feedback on essays:

"You haven't yet mastered the organizational structure"
"you haven't yet developed the sentence variety needed"

Amy Conley's picture
Amy Conley
Senior English instructor in Fortuna, California

Isn't it funny that they think we are going to write perfectly? It's an eye-opener for them when they see us brainstorm, compose, and revise just like they do.

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Educator-in-Residence at Design Cofounders

Thank you so much for your kind words! I think we both inspired each other. I recently discovered that modeling writing helps students see the actual process, and even more so encourages them when we're the ones sharing. We discuss many issues in class, to extend our discussions I often ask them if they would write a short opinion response related to our discussion. I do the same and we share together. Although I prefer to do the exact same activity in class, so writing a reflection piece right away after discussion and share it. But modeling live is more effective I find. I open up google docs and we start writing a paragraph as a class. They really appreciate seeing the amount of thought and edit it goes into writing.

Amy Conley's picture
Amy Conley
Senior English instructor in Fortuna, California


Thank you so much for your thoughts. I appreciated your response. The point that you make that writing is opening yourself and requires a relationship is so true, and so important. I agree that teaching them that they have power over their writing content and process is about the most critical things we teach.

Recently, I worked with an adult who thought he couldn't write. Of course, he could. But the rudimentary instruction he had in writing process in the 1970s-1980s didn't work with his learning style or personality. As he learns new strategies and feels control over the process, his writing and confidence has bloomed. More importantly, he knows he's a writer and that we're all on the same journey.
Rosul, that idea also connects with your idea of modeling your writing and process with students. I'd love to hear more of your ideas, Amy

Amy Conley's picture
Amy Conley
Senior English instructor in Fortuna, California

Brownbag Academics, I think Sommers' does a great job in her works of explaining how to respond to student writing. For me, Pink, Dweck, and Csikszentmihalyi, illustrate the why.
How are you organizing the student-generated prompts and interactive commenting? I love to see other people's systems. Thank you so much for sharing, Amy

Amy Conley's picture
Amy Conley
Senior English instructor in Fortuna, California

Thank you! I as well stress to my students that writing and editing use different parts of the brain. Significant research points to the physical act of writing firing up the creation and composition parts of the brain. Typing reinforces the logical and sequential processing needed for editing. Similar idea to yours, I tell my students, "Don't be afraid to write badly. If Vonnegut couldn't write masterpieces in the first draft, why do you think you will? Just write something. Nothing is really hard to edit."

Enjoy your year and your students! Amy

Beth Makowski's picture

Thank you Todd and Gaetan! There is hope. Sometimes I get so caught up in the frustration, it's hard to look for new and innovative ways to get these kids motivated!

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.


Most humans on Earth don't like writing--despise it, even. Growing up I hated writing because of the mechanics. That's why my writing career began with poetry (no Rules)-- Just crafting language without worrying about where to put the period. But that's me. Didn't help me in school at all. And my teachers didn't have the freedom to use poetry as the hook to teach me mechanics.

However, the truth is that some kids just refuse to write. And sometimes you gave a bunch of non-writers in your class. What do you do?

Think, what is your goal? What's going to be the most beneficial to these Non-writers in life? The ability to write a basic email, letter, or essay with basic mechanics? Probably.

This is what I do with the most difficult writers (Sometimes it works, sometimes not)

1. Forget about the required writing assignments. This is the hardest for teachers to do if they have a prescribed program. I understand that. You have to make that call. Most of the time kids who refuse to write need a personal TOPIC or Genre. That might mean that when the whole class is writing personal narrative, the non-writer is writing Sci-Fi.

2. Kids are usually wearing blinders when it comes to topic choice. In their eyes, writing is hard, fancy, and not for them, until.... you show them all the ways people can be writers. In Barry Lane's book, But How DO You Teach Writing, he devotes a whole page to many genres of writing -- some are ordinary, some are not. Songs, advertisements, emails, obituaries, text message, etc...

3. If you hook 'em, use what you can to teach mechanics, grammar, and craft in very small isolated batches to keep the writer from overloading and shutting down on you.

Once I had a student research and write about Ozzy Osbourne all year. I'm a musician, so I loved it just as much as the writer did. He didn't write much of anything else, but he learned.... mechanics of writing, revision strategies, how to safely search the Internet, and use Microsoft word and Powerpoint.

Hope this Helps.


AnokaEnglish's picture

Excellent post! I especially like the chart of example feedback at the end. To support student engagement, I try to give students as much choice within the broad assignment parameters as I can (topic selection, personalization, etc.) . As far as feedback, I have found that if I have a frequent assignment type, I use a cardstock rubric and mark the student's feedback for each successive assignment on the same rubric. Then the students can see their growth on the rubric, and they write goals on the back for what they'd like to improve for the next similar assignment.

Beth Makowski's picture

Gaetan, you have given me permission to be creative and autonomous!
I love it!!! I have never been one to follow the rules......

Todd Sentell's picture
Todd Sentell
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"


This week's writing assignment was to write up a story, pretending you're a cashier at a grocery store, where you interact with three customers of the personality of your choice--nuts, smelly, cranky, annoying, whacked out, whatever. I wasn't shocked at what got turned in. The cashiers at my grocery store seem dangerous, too.

Clutch, who has selective mutism as well as that mustache that's still growing on school time, turned in the most remarkable story of my students. Notice I said Clutch has selective mutism and not suffers from selective mutism because I'll tell you he's not suffering from it one bit. I think he's fine not saying a thing in class unless he has to.

Anyhow, Clutch wrote a story called "Storm Over Nevada" where he was a cashier at a grocery store in a town in Nevada about to get hit with a huge storm that was predicted to wipe the town off of the globe. People were really buying a lot of beer tonight, Clutch noted in his story.

The Clutch-like cashier in the story was named Durk Sanders. Let that sink in...Clutch is calling himself Durk Sanders. This is a name a script writer would give a guy who dispatches the North Korean army with just a Bowie knife.

When I read the story out loud to the rest of the class and got to the character name of Durk Sanders, given to himself by the mild-mannered Clutch, the fellows thought very highly of Clutch's literary coolness. Come to find out, Durk was a high school student, just like Clutch.

Durk's first customer was an old lady who rolled up with a cart full of cat food. Durk's second customer was a body builder who rolled up a cart full of protein powder and a pack of Marlboro Lites. Durk's third customer was a girl who went to his high school who Durk really didn't know. Durk, however, had always thought she was plain smoking hot, but was too timid to ever say anything to her.

Being a cashier at the grocery store, Durk mused, forced him to talk to people. Durk started talking to the girl. Her name was Linda Clark. Durk never said what she was buying, just that she asked him what he was doing after work...and since an apocalyptic storm was coming this way why not they get to know each other better in the waning hours of human existence.

As I read Clutch's story and got to this electrifying point in the tale, Kells, Peetie, and Red were hooting and hollering in honor of Clutch.

Clutch was smiling, but not with his teeth. He smiles a lot, but never enough to show his teeth, which are covered with braces. His glasses are as thick at bricks. His face is covered with red, angry pimples. Clutch also has a speech impediment.

Here's the last sentence of Clutch's story...When my shift was over I walked to the parking lot to find Linda waiting for me. It was storming finally, but the real storm was about to begin.

Kells, Peetie, Red, and their teacher hooted and hollered some more. We all looked at Clutch...Durk...and asked our secretly cool friend the obvious question: What the hell's gotten into you?


Todd's teaching memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave," at corkscrew turns hilarious, heartwarming, and even heartbreaking, will be published this fall by Stairway Press.


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