THIS IS WHY YOUR MIDDLE SCHOOL STUDENTS HATE TO WRITE
“The effort is minimal, the product is weak, and the process is dreadful. No one is enjoying this.”
You try giving them choices. You try simplifying as much as you can. You try giving them prompts that you think would interest them. You grasp onto any small win you can find, but no matter what you do, the effort is minimal, the product is weak, and the process is dreadful. No one is enjoying this.
Thinking – The brain is a master at conserving energy. It doesn’t like to waste any effort on anything that does not “feel” important. We know this intuitively. That’s why we offer rewards, use threats, or feel like we have to make a writing assignment into a big grade in order for students to take it seriously. We want them to “feel” the weight. The issue is, the brain doesn’t like to think (I know that sounds weird). Thinking is difficult and requires focused effort. And… writing requires thinking. We would much rather put our minds on autopilot and do something simpler – something with more payoff for less effort… something that gives us immediate feedback after each little input (something writing doesn’t give). You know…things like video games or social media. Things like talking with friends or finding something (anything) that will give us that dopamine hit with minimal energy expenditure. It’s a brain thing. It’s predictable. But what do we do about it?
The Brain cares about what it feels is important. It is motivated to survive. And let’s face it, pre-historically speaking, writing was not necessary for survival. So, it’s not an adaptation that the brain gravitates toward. It is motivated to avoid pain and pursue what feels good. We can get ourselves to do things we don’t want to do, but it has to feel like it is important enough. We know what it’s like. We got through that horrible project. We made it through that tortuous class. We grind through our tough work days. We do things we don’t want to do when the motivation is strong enough. So, how do we get the adolescent brain to find writing important? That’s tricky. Here are two secret tips that work.
“I still remember that moment because it hit on a deep level. I wrote more, paid attention more, and participated in discussion more than ever before.”
I was the kid who hated writing… except for the few times I enjoyed it. lf you gave me something I cared about – not just a hobby or interest, but something more meaningful – I would be all over it. I remember the time my 5th grade teacher played a song in class had us read the lyrics as we listened. Then he simply asked us to write what we thought in preparation to discuss. I still remember that moment because it hit on a deep level. I wrote more, paid attention more, and participated in discussion more than ever before. Why?… Because, it was meaningful. It was real. It wasn’t conjured up just to get me to write. It was discussing real life in an artful way, and the expression wanted to pour out… and paper and pencil was the preferred method. I wanted to express my thoughts and ideas. This was different. And something new was born inside me that day.
Many miles later down the road, after being on the other side of the teacher desk, Reallyville was born. Reaching kids is what I do, and watching other teachers struggle to connect with their students (even with the same exact lessons) drove me to want to help. So I started my mission of creating compelling videos and prompts to bring up real life topics, teach meaningful values, and inspire students to express themselves. Usually we try to make things meaningful in a way that is sort of artificial. We dangle a reward in front of them in hopes that it will motivate. We attach consequences to the task. We try to warn them about how hard things will be when their future teachers “won’t put up with this.” We try to make things as fun as possible in hopes that we’ll be able to sneak in the subject matter we want them to learn. (Let’s face it, if we could say “read this chapter and answer these questions,” and our students all enjoyed it, worked hard, and learned, that’s exactly what we’d do). But we know it’s not that simple. In fact this might be one of the hardest, most draining parts of our job. It’s hard to put on a new show every day to get the kids motivated. And what worked yesterday doesn’t guarantee it will work tomorrow.
But, what if we didn’t have to always make things feel meaningful to them? What if we could leverage what is already deeply meaningful? What if writing became a desired medium for authentic expression that they want to get out? I mean, it’s not that they don’t like to use written language. Most will text friends for hours if we let them.
So here’s the trick. We have to get students to WANT to express themselves. Typical writing prompts don’t do this. They don’t feel authentic. They know exactly what you’re doing… it doesn’t seem like you really care what they have to say. You just want them to write, so you found some made-up reason to get them to do it. Do you want to get students to WANT to write? Then leverage what is already meaningful to them. Prompts about alien planets or what fictitious “What-would-you-do’s” may connect with those that already enjoy writing, but that’s not who we’re talking about here. It must be AUTHENTIC. Students do care. They care about stuff that matters. And they are capable of deeper thought than we often give them credit for. If you want some simple tools that can help make that easier for you, check out our videos here. Simply put… writing topics need to be real life. They need to hit the core. Then writing becomes a means… not an end.
Here’s a Sample Video
Whatever we measure matters. “Is this for a grade?” That question drives me crazy. Well… it used to. But then I asked myself, why do they ask that question? Well, let me rephrase it. What they’re really saying is, “Is this being measured?” Or in other words… “Does this really matter?”
We do the same thing. Speed limits matter. The scoreboard matters. Our bank account matters. Our students’ standardized test scores “matter.“ (Well that is the main thing that most schools in America focus on.) Yeah… whatever we measure matters. I’m not saying it’s a good thing. But the truth is, if we measure something, we naturally think about what control we have to manipulate that measurement. It’s a form of feedback, and our brains love feedback. The more immediate the feedback, the better.
So, how do we use this to motivate students without adding more to our overflowing plates? That takes some thinking. Here’s my advice…
1) Pick the thing you want your students to improve on and find a way to measure it as accurately as possible. It MUST be something that is directly actionable (Don’t focus on general things like “grades.” Focus on tasks, decisions, and skills that the students directly control). You want effort to improve, use a daily effort score. You want them to participate more? Create a daily participation score. Think of specific things to look for, design ways to measure it, and start tracking it in an easy way.
2) Don’t be the ruler 📏 (or the ruler 👑). If it relies on you keeping up with it, it will fall apart, and it won’t work as well even if you are able to hold it together. Let the students do the measuring by self and/or peer reporting and tracking. For instance, when I wanted to see more participation in my online classes, I simply created a point system for students to track their participation. Two points for showing up early. Two points for turning their camera on at the beginning of class (6 points if they left it on the entire time), and one point for every helpful comment in the chat. I told them up front, you’re not going to earn any prizes. We’re just measuring. I’m interested to see what we’ll learn. Students tally their scores and at the end of class, I send them a Google sheet with all of their names on it (yep, the scores are public), and they would enter it themselves. When things got buggy, I would have them list their score in the chat and have one or two other students plug them in. I didn’t do the upkeep. They did. Could they cheat? Of course they could, but very few did. When they did it was obvious. You know who is participating and who isn’t. So I would follow up with those students and have an individual conversation that helped build that relationship. So even the few episodes of cheating turned into wins. Was the data perfect? Of course not. Did the participation improve? Let’s just say when colleagues entered my class they were blown away. And all we did was measure.