Picture yourself sitting down to look at some student work, final drafts or projects that should showcase what the students now know and understand about their recent studies. Are you expecting polished work that shows not only all the students have learned, but also demonstrates pride in the work because of the care the students have taken to present their work in an attractive, appealing way? How do you foster that kind of pride and care in your students?

I inwardly groaned as I looked at my computer screen. Here was yet another essay, single-spaced, and with first-person, personal pronouns in lower case, turned in as the published piece. This was supposed to be best efforts, showcasing what this student knew and understood about the major themes within the novel A Christmas Carol and writing a quality literary analysis. I took a deep breath and began reading, hoping the content was the high quality I expected, even if formatting and conventions weren’t.

I’ve noticed that students haven’t been as concerned with the appearance of their work as students were five and ten years ago. This isn’t happening only in student writing. When I ask students to produce visual materials like posters or slide shows, the final product often has errors I didn’t expect. A tri-fold board holds tiny photos with even tinier captions, so that even students closest to the speaker can’t see the visual clearly. A slide show contains spelling errors, and the graphics on the slide are poorly arranged. Every time I receive work like this, I wonder, “Didn’t the student care about this?”

I’m not alone; some of my colleagues have made similar comments. Some initial reflection led me to three conclusions:

1. Students are misinterpreting some of my messages.

2. Students just don’t know what makes a quality presentation. I’m making assumptions about their previous experiences; I need to do something to clarify my expectations. It may be as simple as showing them examples of well-crafted visual displays.

3. Students are relying too heavily on technology to find their errors, and then they don’t always pay attention to what the word processing software recommends.

A little bit of reading on the subject of student pride opened my eyes to reality, and it was pretty convicting:

The issue really isn’t with the students. The issue rests with me, and how I am designing lessons and assignments.

This is not what I want to hear.

As I do more research, two common themes appear:

1. Students must perceive the work they are doing as relevant to them and worthwhile. It must be work that matters; work they care about. This blog post

2. Students need to see that we value their work. We need to showcase what they do by putting it on display. As Andy Tharby writes in this blog, “My question is this: if we do not give all students the opportunity to find value in their written work, is it not a surprise that so much of it is littered with preventable mistakes?”

So, as I reflect on the Christmas Carol theme assignments, I can see a couple of issues:

1. I’m not sure I can say that students didn’t care about the assignment; overall, students did very well in analyzing themes and their development across the novel. The quality of their ideas and the support for them suggests

2. I definitely need to improve how I show students I value their work. Right now, I read their work in our Google classroom, comment upon it, record grades, and we move on. I don’t have students print their work and hang it up, and we don’t display it electronically through a web site.

To see what happens when students view work as relevant and worthwhile, and know I value it, too, I looked at how these same students students handled their 20Time projects. Students design self-selected projects, lasting either a semester or a full school year. For most students, it’s motivating to be given the opportunity to focus on something they’re interested in and have the gift of time during the school day to pursue that interest. Automatically, this addresses the first theme of relevance and value.

As for the second theme, I need to show students that I value their work, blogs, conferences, and our end-of-project presentations. Through blogging, students are encouraged to share their successes and challenges as they work on the projects. Blogs are more than a “diary” of the project. Through the blogs, kids ask for and receive suggestions and encouragement. Through conferences, we show that we are interested and supportive of each other’s projects. Finally, through presentations, we show that the projects are valued by wider audience. Recently, the sixth graders wrapped up their first-semester projects and gave their presentations. Both principals came to see presentations when they could, and classmates ran video cameras to record presentations for later reflection and self-evaluation. Knowing that their 20Time projects were going to be on display, the students demonstrated they cared about how the visuals and spoken presentation came across to the audience.

Thematic analyses and major project presentations can have the qualities that increase student pride, but what about the day-to-day work? What changes do we teachers need to make to the day-to-day, mundane tasks to make them more relevant and valued? Joey Till is right: “It is hard to care about their 845th math worksheet in their academic career or their 397th math test.” 

How can we make the daily, routine work something more relevant to students? How can we show them what we value goes beyond a grade in the grade book? What approaches do you use to encourage students not only to learn, but to take pride in how their demonstrations of that knowledge and skill are displayed? What research or source have you found to be helpful?

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