9th-grader Keisha (not her real name) entered my Algebra class older than most of her classmates, having been held back a year in elementary school. And based on her test scores, she would have been repeating eighth grade if it hadn't been for the district's social promotion policy. So there she was in my classroom, giving no effort and getting 0 upon 0 on one assignment/exam after another.
Not attempting an assignment and getting a 0 on it is a common face-saving strategy for kids like Keisha, since they can always say, "I could have done that but didn't feel like it." Trying their hardest and getting a 25 or 30 would be worse, since failure would then reflect lack of ability rather than apathy.
But I wasn't buying it, and at 10-week report card conferences I reminded Keisha's grandmother (mom was incarcerated, and dad came and went--mostly went) that I stayed after school to tutor students. Keisha showed up for tutoring the next day. At first, of course, she didn't want to be there. But at least in this safer setting--with just a few other "dumb" (her word) kids there--she set aside her "I could do this but don't feel like it" facade, and said tutoring was pointless because "I'm no good at math."
After a day or two of sulking, Keisha decided the time would go faster if she actually did some work. And what soon became apparent to me and, more important, to her was that she had much stronger math ability than her prior experience had led her to believe. Within weeks, she was earning a "C" in class, and her grandmother excused her from tutoring. But Keisha decided to keep coming anyway, so instead of remediation, I gave her extension problems and sneak previews of upcoming lessons. And soon the "dumb" kid was the go-to kid for students who needed help.
Keisha was upbeat until I gave a test that she should have aced but instead bombed--a result, I was sure, of test anxiety rather than lack of ability. But newfound confidence is easily shaken for kids who've doubted themselves for years, so you can imagine Keisha's response as she stormed out of class: "I told you I'm no good at math." Still, I tracked her down later that day, and convinced her to retake the test after school. And when I told her she got a 96, Keisha looked at me and said, "Are you for real, Coach G?!" I've never seen a prouder or happier kid.
What Keisha's turnaround illustrates is the need for students to feel hopeful in order for them to learn to their potential. Instilling hope in students at school must therefore be an essential goal for us as educators. And the way to achieve it is not, as I wrote in Success Comes From the Heart, by preaching optimism, but through policies and practices that give students cause for optimism. Here are some examples:
- Reverse students' "0 is better than 25" thinking. We've got to change students' views so that scoring 25% on an assignment or test is seen as a better alternative than not attempting it. I'm not suggesting 25% should be cause for celebration, but why not cause for inspiration? My shift from multiple choice to open-ended questions was helpful in this regard because each right answer was an indication of true understanding. I could then say to a student who scored 25%, "great, you've nailed one-fourth of this stuff; now let's go after the other three-fourths."
- Reinforce the success process. In conjunction with #1, allow students to retake tests, as I did with Keisha (subject to students meeting certain conditions, since it's wrong to give second chances to kids who blew their first chances due to self-defeating behavior such as not taking notes in class).
- Assign greater weight to later assessments than earlier ones. Provided your assessments are cumulative--which I usually recommend--students will have opportunities to show on future assessments that they've mastered skills they lacked on previous assessments. Those later assessments should thus count more toward their overall grades than earlier ones, since it's what students know in the end that matters most. And by doing this, here too you'll be reinforcing the success process and providing hope for those students who score 25% early on. (This too, of course, should be subject to students meeting certain conditions.)
- Diversify assignments. Kids are most likely to confront their weaknesses with hope when we regularly recognize and reinforce their strengths. One way I did this was by including in math assignments unconventional items such as word plays and brainteasers that played to math-averse students' strengths.
Image provided by GECC, LLC with permission
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