In the most recent publication of the American Educator, Daniel T. Willingham’s article “For the Love of Reading” explores several methods for engaging students not only in moments of reading, but in a life-long love of it. I was struck particularly by a section of the article called “I’m Bored. Fix it.” in which Willingham offers:
“The consequence of long-term experience with digital technologies is not an inability to sustain attention. It’s impatience with boredom. It’s an expectation that I should always have something interesting to watch, read, and listen to, and that creating an interesting experience should require little effort….we just have a very low threshold for boredom.”
As an English/language arts teacher, I see my students struggle to sustain focus while reading. Each day, we chart the amount of time we read on a line graph, one color per class. The hope is that if students are aware of good reading habits and have the incentive of seeing the line graph trend upward (perhaps faster than the other classes), they will build stamina and a love of reading will follow. The graph does not motivate students for the entire school year, but at the beginning of the year especially, it incentivizes focus and sustained reading. After the habits are solidified, the graph becomes less important.
I began to ponder how to support my students as they built that same stamina as writers – how could I structure an activity varied enough to hold interest and generate content, but consistent enough that students can recognize progress over time?
My conversations with mentor teachers about that question landed me in the pages of Rain, Steam, and Speed (Gerald Fleming and Meredith Pike-Baky), which offered many ideas about how to build writing stamina in a middle school classroom. I read them, as teachers do, with my own students in mind, and took off running.
The premise was to give students a consistent atmosphere for writing, a clear expectation for what the writing should look like and how it would be graded, and engaging prompts to hold student attention and inspire thoughtful responses. The set-up also includes incremental increases in the time limit as students get more accustomed to the task.
To generate interest, I started off, as suggested, by having students personalize their journals. They spent a class period collaging, sketching, and markering their identities onto manila folders. The next day, I gave them a long spiel about the procedures for writing—the “how it works” talk—and then we gave it a go.
The consistent atmosphere for writing mirrors the consistent atmosphere that I build in my classroom for reading. The routine that Rain, Steam, and Speed suggests is that when students arrive, the prompt is written on the board. The same student passes out the journals each day. Before writing, one student reads the prompt aloud. The teacher, after thanking the student for his/her bravery, rephrases the prompt and checks for understanding. Then the music starts, and students write. I followed that routine, though I found it was easiest to project the prompt rather than write it long-hand because students had an easier time deciphering it.
As the year went on, I watched my students compete with and best themselves. Several students who started the year with only a few sentences per entry ended the year writing several pages on a single topic. This effect, which Fleming and Pike-Baky call “Writing Fluency,” normalizes the development of ideas while writing. A student does not have to be sure that an idea is “right” before adding it to an essay, nor does the student need to check in with a teacher about grammar and spelling before putting a sentence on the page.
As a result of this practice, students develop a confidence in their own work, and especially an ease to getting started that I had not seen before. This is not to say, however, that we did not hit road bumps. It took a lot of convincing for some of my students to pick up their pencils, and some of my prompts fell flat. But one of the most frustrating parts of this experiment for me was that the positive results that, though students were becoming more fluent writers in my E/la classroom, they were not applying that fluency in their other content classes.
As any teaching team begins to see students as writers in all contents, it seems that conditions, expectations, and engagement can be handled similarly across content classes to trigger that same confidence and stamina. Normalizing writing as a method of thinking and giving students practice helped them through boredom and exhibit their thought processes through writing. For example, I can see students writing in the same conditions that I used in my classroom on the many possible outcomes of an experiment before trying it out in a science class or explaining the best way to approach a thought problem in math. Once students find value in thinking through writing, they can use it as a tool to deepen their understanding of content and concepts.
Near the end of that school year, I overheard one of my students talking with an eighth grader (one year older) about high school. The conversation got a little competitive, and after the eighth grader elaborated on all the high schools where she had been accepted and the grades she had gotten that year, my student looked at her and asked, “But how long can you write for?”