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That sighing sound you heard from New Richland and Ellendale last week was the collective response to the end of another school year, from both staff and students. It’s always hectic as the school year winds down, and while students race from school, full of energy at the last bell, staff members tend to sit back and breathe deeply.

I spend plenty of time reflecting at the end of the year and through the summer, recalling ideas that worked and others that need fine-tuning and still others that can be punted. As my regular readers recall, this year we leveled our 7th and 8th grade English classes, identifying high-skills students, those around grade level, and some that needed more work. Certainly, this is a work in progress, but my reflections have fallen most heavily in that area.

I asked my 8th graders in their final blog to reflect as well. I wanted honesty on what has worked and what has not the past two years in my class. And I got honesty. Oh sure, some tried to put positive slants on everything, but plenty of them told me what they didn’t find important or things that didn’t work.

But when it came to leveling, I didn’t see a single negative comment. Every student in my high-skills group raved about how they were pushed a little bit more, and many of them appreciated the chance to try new things that were above an 8th grade level. I saw some real growth out of those students this year, and I’m glad they found this new experience rewarding. That doesn’t mean everything was perfect, and they also let me know some things I could alter a bit.

I also had students in my other two 8th grade sections comment on leveling and how they found it beneficial. I saw kids take leadership and ownership roles this year that might not have otherwise. Without the kids who are always eager to raise their hands to answer questions, other students found the confidence to do so. Many students learned not to worry about how others were doing in class and focused on themselves, to their benefit. Overall, I was very pleased with how Year One of this new endeavor went.

Teachers are never satisfied though. We can’t sit back all summer and just open the files in September and go. I have plenty of notes from this past year about some adjustments that I discovered along the way. There are also a couple of new units of study I’d like to try, and I have to spend some time exploring these areas to determine if and how they’ll work in my 7th grade classroom. Plus, I have to figure out what I’ll be taking out to make room for the new material. That’s part of the reflection process as well.

While my 8th graders reflected on two years in my classroom, I asked my 7th graders about a different topic for their last blog: motivation. What motivates these kids in their lives? What do they get excited about? The answers were all over the board, but that vast array of responses also helped clarify some questions I’ve had over the last few years regarding motivation in school.

Motivation is the biggest problem in education today. I talk to teachers from all over and have found that motivation is an issue all over the state and country. There are more and more kids who don’t want to do their work. Typically, when you look at a negative behavior, you will find about 5% that need massive interventions. When speaking to teachers from other middle schools, I find a commonality in that the number is closer to 15% when it comes to lack of work completion. That’s frightening.

Schools everywhere spend much time and money on different ways to approach curriculum, but that is only one piece to the puzzle of modern students. It doesn’t matter how amazing your lesson plans are or how closely they are aligned to the current standards, you could walk on water and some of these kids would still choose not to do their work. Curriculum is hugely important, but it doesn’t mean much if it’s delivered but not signed for on the other end.

While reading the kids’ blogs, I found that many of them veered from the idea of school work in their musings about motivation. Quite often, they were motivated by sports or the opportunities other hobbies gave them. They were fired up to do something if their friends were interested in it or they saw buzz about it on social media.

The minority that talked about school and motivation settled into two areas. There were some kids who were motivated to do as well as they can in school because they know that a good education will lead to opportunities in the future. That’s pretty far-seeing for 7th graders, but good to see. Others mentioned motivation based on parental pressures. That’s not a bad thing either; parents who keep after their kids to do their best and complete work are very much appreciated by teachers!

What’s the answer to motivate all our students? If I knew that, I could go on a lecture circuit and make a lot of money! (If you know it, I’ll cut you in on the profits.) I’ve tried various reward scenarios over the years, including my current dice-rolling incentives that are earned through a number of different work completion ideas. I see little sparks of motivation through this, but I’m still missing that 10-15%. If I can move that number closer to the 5% mentioned earlier, it’ll be a good start, and I’m determined to keep exploring ways to get my students excited about learning or at least to understand why it’s important to learn how to better read and write, no matter what their life plans are.

Word of the Week: This week’s word is anschauung, which means outlook or attitude, as in, “The students’ positive anschauung about their work was gratifying to the teacher.”  Impress your friends and confuse your enemies!

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