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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Nurturing Intrinsic Motivation and Growth Mindset in Writing

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)
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Comments (21)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.
Facilitator 2014

Beth,

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.

Gaetan

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

Beth,

Todd and Gaetan had great points. I would also say that it's really hard to teach love of learning and personal growth as a single voice in a school community. I'm lucky to have a talented and committed department with me, and before me in their learning as I only teach seniors. I also have a principal dedicated to long-term student learning and a supportive community. Working on school culture would be a long-term route to your goal of increased growth mindset.

I've also had some success with blogging for students with low composition skills. Writing to be published on the Internet makes them care more about conventions, and writing in many forms about topics that fascinate them, delving deep into their passions, motivates them to want to write. I borrowed this assignment online and modified to be a sustained blog on one subject https://docs.google.com/document/d/1KXzsWEFf_jflO2ux0IUcd61Mg0MgSbZJHZGp... . Students wrote short news briefs regularly for the main class blog place, acting as a school newspaper, but also wrote their own blogs and presented their writing regularly. Autonomy, mastery, and purpose are woven into the assignment.

Let us know how it goes. Good luck! Amy

Beth Makowski's picture

Thanks Amy, for your response! We have slowly been changing our school culture. Our district combined three small alternative schools into one. Our reputation was such that we took all the "rejects" from the other high schools, if a student was pregnant, they went to our school, no one did homework (this is still true), and we were the last house on the block. We are trying to foster a culture where it is a privilege to attend our school, which it is, they just don't know it. We have small classes, and a dedicated staff who truly cares for the students. It's just takes time to foster the culture we really want and need at our school. I like your suggestion about writing to be published on the Internet. They have to understand that it is not like Facebook, where they can use all sorts of abbreviations and teenage vernacular, as their audience will be much larger than their Facebook friends. I also like the newsletter idea. I started a newsletter at our school, with the hopes that kids would become engaged writing about their favorite topics. Having them do a blog is much more interesting and current. Thanks for the link for the assignment!

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!

The Dixie Diarist's picture
The Dixie Diarist
Teacher, Writer, and Artist

A BAD CASE OF THE FRIDAYS

I taught a workshop at a teacher's conference to a room full of teachers about how I got a bunch of unmotivated and uninterested and nearly illiterate kids to write stories and essays. To write something every week by Friday. I told them I borrowed this one from the working world, especially the newspaper news room.

Every Monday the kids got a fun subject to write about, a low word count, the opportunity to be edited by me, and then I would read their work, out loud, in my goofy announcer voices, to everybody else every Friday. My God, did it work.

The first couple of Fridays were horrifying to the students, but then they finally got whacked each week by a sense of pride ... and Fridays became the most looked-forward-to day of the week. Not because it was the last day of the week. It became the proudest day of the week because they learned that hard work and a dedicated routine always has a payoff, especially when they knew the teacher was just as excited about good writing ... their good writing ... as they were.

When you see emotionally fragile kids pat each other on the back--literally pat each other on the back--because they loved each other's stories, it's hard not to get teary-eyed right in front of them. Every Friday.

****

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

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......

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Keith Heggart's picture
Keith Heggart
High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia

Hi Amy and everyone,
What a fantastic article - and an even better discussion! Amy, I really liked your discussion about Pink and Dweck's work. I, too, had that lightbulb moment when I realised that I had been teaching things wrong - and I was mortified to realise that I might have actually been limiting their growth.

One of the biggest pieces of advice I give to students (if I can add it to your already excellent advice) is that there are times to 'throw out your inner editor' (with apologies to NaNoWriMo).

Thank you for your contribution and ideas.

Brownbag Academics's picture
Brownbag Academics
author of Brownbag Academics blog

Thanks so much for this. I agree with all of what you have said. I've recently transformed my writing classroom into one that is focused on student-generated prompts and interactive commenting. Check out Nancy Sommer's "Responding to Student Writing." It's great!

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

Keith,
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

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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

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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

(1)
Amy Conley's picture
Amy Conley
Senior English instructor in Fortuna, California

Keith,
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

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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......

(1)
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.

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The Dixie Diarist's picture
The Dixie Diarist
Teacher, Writer, and Artist

WRITING UP A STORM

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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