Current Instructional Practices, Essay Example
For this assignment, I chose to focus upon motivation, the promotion of which I believe to be the most important task of a classroom culture. I sought to implement a number of strategies to encourage my students, motivating them by giving them more control over the course of their own education and generally providing them with more and more diverse stimuli. In particular, I applied these strategies in implementing my WebQuest. For all of the strategies, I tried to take special care, implement special measures, to promote engagement by students who were struggling. The results were very encouraging, in that the students all responded very well, evincing a great deal of enthusiasm for the material.
The evidence-based best practice that I chose to implement in my own classroom was the one that I deemed by far the most seminal: the cultivation of a culture of motivation in my classroom. In truth, the selection of motivational strategies was a relatively easy selection for me to make, given how important motivation is to the entire educational venture (Gambrell, Malloy, & Mazzoni, 2011, pp. 17, 22). As Gambrell et al. argued, motivation is the means of fostering student learning that is deep, rather than shallow and superficial: it provides students with the willpower to succeed (p. 22).
But there was another, more specific reason that I chose to focus on motivation: the fact that I work with high school students. The literature is clear on a point that practically any parent or teacher knows from personal experience: motivating adolescents and teens is considerably trickier and more difficult than motivating elementary school students (Dunston & Gambrell, 2009, p. 269). From adolescence on, young people evince more interest in their social lives—and thus, each other—than they do in their schoolwork (p. 269). This is indeed understandable, but for educators and parents alike it is nonetheless disconcerting, and poses the challenge of how to motivate them (p. 269).
And it is crucial to motivate middle and high school students, both in their educational endeavors in general and their literacy education in particular, precisely because it is during this period of their lives that so many of the young people will develop crucial skills, notably literacy skills (Dunston & Gambrell, 2009, p. 270). A key ramification—or perhaps an attendant phenomenon—of this is that it is during this time that students will develop particular attitudes about literacy as well. Indeed, from middle school on, surveys of students’ motivation have found significant declines in intrinsic motivation to engage in “science, math, and reading” (p. 270). And of course, it is during this period that some of these increasingly self-conscious students will experience declining self-confidence, perceiving themselves less able to do schoolwork successfully (p. 270).
As O’Brien and Dillon (2008) explained, struggling readers typically lack enthusiasm and are often “mildly to moderately disinterested in most reading tasks in school” (p. 89). The problem for these students is that they have typically felt themselves to be struggling students, behind the curve, for most of their educational careers: they have found that their best efforts are not correlated with increasing success, or at least not as much as they (and often, their parents) would wish (p. 89). For these students, reading is not an activity to be enjoyed and to receive benefit from: rather, it is an activity to be endured, something that they have to ‘get through’ for the sake of a grade (p. 89). This is indeed a deeply saddening and very impoverished way of looking at education, and it requires very specific, special motivational strategies, as will be further discussed below.
For all of these reasons, then, it is absolutely essential to foster a culture of motivation in the classroom. Nonetheless, a commitment to motivational strategies raises the question of which strategies to select. Gambrell et al. (2011) offered several recommendations: first, teachers can create a “print-rich classroom environment,” one that offers students many opportunities to read (p. 22). As Gambrell (2011) explained, a wide variety of diverse materials is an excellent motivational strategy (p. 173). Examples of this include “books from an array of genres and text types, magazines, the Internet, resource materials, and real-life documents” (p. 173). The motivational effect is rather simple, yet transformative and profound nonetheless: it encourages students to see reading as exciting and interesting, and therefore worthwhile (p. 173). Students who learn to appreciate reading in this way are more likely to make a habit of it (p. 173).
I decided to include this strategy in my approach, providing students with a diversity of written materials and encouraging use of the Internet both during class time, and for research. Indeed, this strategy and the ones that follow were all part and parcel of the design of my WebQuest for my culturally responsive literacy plan, Gilgamesh and Other Heroes. In that WebQuest, I incorporated the use of printed copies of the Epic of Gilgamesh with useful reference websites, not to mention the presentation itself. Indeed, the students were tasked with not only reading the Epic of Gilgamesh, but also researching another hero myth from the websites provided and then comparing the two myths, as well as a ‘hero myth’ from a popular film.
The combined effect was a very print-rich lesson: a diversity of sources that encouraged the students to engage fully with the material. The effects were, indeed, salutary: over the course of the exercise, the students became more involved as they became more immersed in the material. I noticed that some of the students seemed to struggle with the material early on, particularly the Epic of Gilgamesh itself: the names were, of course, very foreign to all the students, and I think the ones who struggled often had trouble relating to the world of the story. Accordingly, I made sure to leave plenty of time for questions and comments, not to mention plenty of time for the students to read the book.
What, then, about the struggling readers? I refer here to the students—and I had a few of them, if not several—who had clearly felt themselves to be academic failures since elementary school. I knew I had to reach them: I could see so much in them, far too much potential to remain untapped and unfulfilled. As O’Brien and Dillon (2008) explained, there are a number of important strategies which can be deployed to increase motivation and engagement in these students. First of all, the focus needs to be on accessibility, by which is meant “dimensions of a text that make it available to a reader” (p. 89). This is about far more than merely correlating a student’s reading ability with the readability of a given text: rather, it consists more of “leveling”, taking account of the difficulty of the texts “but also considering how difficulty can be mediated into interest” (p. 89).
Now this, I knew, was absolutely key: I had to help my struggling students identify those portions or features of the texts we were reading that were difficult for them, and encourage and challenge them to turn those difficulties into interests. I told them: ‘I want you to take those difficulties and look at them as something else. I want you to look at them as opportunities.’ I told them that they should take any given difficulty as a challenge to learn something new. This, I told them, was ‘glass half-full thinking’, referring to the popular colloquialism about pessimists versus optimists.
Accordingly, I made sure to walk the students who were having trouble with the book through it. For example, the foreign names, which many of the students found odd and rather bizarre: I’d explain that, for example, Ishtar was the goddess of love as well as of warfare, or that Enkidu symbolized wildness, and his transformation was a symbol of civilization. My point here was, Don’t focus on the name itself, focus on the attributes of the character. I suggested that they form mental images of the characters, or associate them with other characters: characters from popular literature and the silver screen, for example, or even celebrities. This seemed to help them greatly, and they were much more enthusiastic about the book once they understood it better. As an example, one student—who had been having difficulty—observed that Enkidu was ‘really kind of like Tarzan’. This proved very helpful, both to this student and others that were having trouble with the names. One student even suggested likening Gilgamesh to Brad Pitt, an idea that met with no inconsiderable amount of acclaim.
And as part of the assignment also called for the students to select another hero myth from another non-Western culture, I made sure to set aside time to speak with them about these stories as well. Having such a print-rich lesson seemed to do wonders for the students’ confidence, enthusiasm, and engagement with the material: I could tell that some of them were generally not enthused at first, at the beginning of the lesson, but by the end we were all having a very great deal of fun with it. Overall, I found this to be a very effective and useful strategy, one that increased student motivation and engagement with the material. I would definitely recommend it as a strategy likely to have a school-wide impact.
And, too, I give my students plenty of opportunities to read: there is a great deal of reading required for my course, and the students are expected to stay quite busy indeed (Gambrell, 2011, p. 173). In fact, a lack of reading time—insufficient time devoted simply to reading—has been found to be correlated with students’ poor motivation (p. 173). Interestingly, this is one of those areas where practice really does make perfect.
I’ve also tried to implement the print-rich approach in other aspects of my teaching. Sometimes we discuss relevant news articles in class, and I assign a fair number of short writing assignments. The idea is to get the students reading and writing as much as possible, and—the big one—thinking about and engaged with what they are reading and writing. A print-rich classroom definitely gives the students more material to read, but it also gives them more options. And options are very important for motivation, as the next point illustrates.
For their second recommendation, Gambrell et al. (2011) advised giving students opportunities for choice (p. 22). The basic idea here is to allow students opportunities to choose their own reading materials and, by so doing, shape the course of their own education. As Anders and Clift (2012) explained, opportunities for choice are especially important for junior high and senior high school students because of the processes of identity formation in which they are engaged (p. 167). Motivating these young people therefore requires allowing them much more of an element of choice in their education, in order to respect their needs for autonomy and to encourage them to develop their interests and make learning a part of their lives in their own unique ways.
Choices are also important for helping struggling readers. As O’Brien and Dillon (2008) explained, providing students with many different reading materials to choose from, reading materials of different kinds, is an outstanding way to promote interest in struggling students (p. 89). In fact, the goal might best be described as “promoting reengagement in reading for enjoyment and excitement” (p. 89). Part of this is giving students the opportunity to read the kinds of things that they like to read on their own, things that they would read even if they were not required to: “graphic novels, manga, and digital texts” (p. 90). I routinely encourage my students to read such texts for in-class discussions. In fact, O’Brien and Dillon make some truly revolutionary, outstanding recommendations: students should be encouraged to read these texts by using them in addition to or in place of textbooks whenever this can be done, whenever possible (p. 90). They also advise that the classroom use of such textual materials “should not lead to typical outcomes such as writing reports or answering questions” (p. 90).
Interest is essential for competence: students, like the rest of us, must genuinely be sufficiently interested in something in order to become competent in it (Anders & Clift, 2012, p. 166). As Gambrell (2011) explained, choice is a powerful motivator, precisely because it gives students an opportunity to make the whole process their own: it gives them some autonomy and some responsibility (p. 175). Indeed, giving students the opportunity to make a choice, even from a preselected list, has been correlated with much higher levels of motivation and even feelings of greater competence (p. 175). It is not difficult to see why, given that allowing students to make a choice allows them to explore and makes them feel more of an investment in the outcome of the endeavor.
In order to promote student choice, I gave my students two choices. Although they had to read the Epic of Gilgamesh, they were given considerable leeway in choosing another hero myth from another non-Western culture. The links I provided them were to sites that contained Zuni, Rwandan, Aztec, Hawaiian, and Mayan hero myths. They were allowed to choose any two myths to read, which encouraged them to engage with more of the material, and then they could choose any one of the myths they wanted to for the assignment. They were also allowed considerable leeway to choose a hero story from a contemporary popular film, such as Lord of the Rings, Batman, and The Hunger Games. The idea was to compare and contrast all three myths: two from the folklores of two different cultures, one from the silver screen.
I also tried to promote reengagement through this assignment: I gave the students a lot of leeway to find parallels and differences between three different hero myths. They could find that two of the myths were more similar to each other than either was to the third; alternatively, they could find powerful common themes. Still other students found few if any parallels between the stories, and focused instead on the differences. The most important thing that I tried to communicate to them with regard to all of this is that all of these answers were fine: as I assigned them grades, I did so on the basis of whether or not they demonstrated 1) engagement with the materials, defined in terms of making an earnest effort to understand them; 2) observations, and 3) clarity of thought and argumentation.
The results were nothing short of breath-taking: indeed, I am hard-pressed to imagine the possibility of a more gratifying experience in teaching. The overwhelming majority of the students were very enthusiastic about exploring connections between their favorite films and the two myths, Gilgamesh and one of their own choosing. One student, for example, compared Gilgamesh and Enkidu with the Mayan myth of the Hero Twins and the Batman films. In all three myths, she pointed out, the hero(es) had to overcome great obstacles—not only with physical power and special weapons, but also with cunning.
Another student compared Gilgamesh with the Zuni myth of the Hero Twins (quite different from the Mayan Hero Twins!) and Frodo in the Lord of the Rings films. His emphasis was on companionship and story themes: he noted that Gilgamesh had Enkidu, whose death motivated him to search for immortality, while Frodo had Samwise Gamgee, who accompanied him on a quest to destroy the One Ring… which, in addition to making its wearer invisible, has the effect of lengthening the life of the one who carries it. Finally, the Zuni myth of the Hero Twins features twin heroes who are mirror images of each other: together with Grandmother Spider, they overcome and slay a giant who has been swallowing the clouds. He also noted that Gilgamesh and Enkidu slew a giant, Humbaba. Most of the other responses were similarly gratifying. A few of the students didn’t seem to entirely understand, but I could tell that they, too, were motivated and making the effort.
Overall, providing students with more choices proved to be one of the best strategies I have ever tried as an educator. It was extremely effective in promoting and keeping student interest and motivation with regard to the texts. I could really tell that the students took ownership of the assignment, made it their own in a very powerful way. In other assignments, too, I have found that the students have responded very well to being offered choices: the more I have given them options and provided them with the resources to succeed, the more that they have enjoyed the learning experience and made it their own. I would certainly recommend the adoption of this strategy by more teachers: it will certainly have a school-wide impact.
Social interaction was another crucial motivational strategy that I employed. As Gambrell (2011) explained, social interaction, through writing and discussion with other people, is a quite important motivational strategy (p. 175). There are a number of good reasons why social interaction is such a successful motivational strategy. Firstly, the comments that students make can intrigue other students, and encourage them to speak out as well (p. 175). In fact, this is precisely what happened: the students were quite often very quick to speak out once their friends had spoken. Another reason social interaction is important is that by watching their peers, students may realize that the material is not so hard after all, and that they actually do have worthwhile things to say about it: in other words, they gain confidence in their own abilities (p. 175). And in fact, I saw much evidence of this, especially with the shyer students.
The third key reason that social interaction is such a successful motivational strategy is that it “promotes student interest and engagement” in its own right: allowing students to share with each other does, indeed, promote greater levels of interest and engagement with the material, because it is a group activity (Gambrell, 2011, p. 175). We evolved as social creatures, after all: sharing with others and learning in groups is natural, and often a very great deal of fun. One strategy Gambrell recommended is having students take three or four minutes after a reading to do a “quick share” with a partner next to them concerning the material that has just been read (p. 175).
For the WebQuest, I employed discussion at a few different points: we discussed ideas about what a hero is even before we learned about ancient Sumer, and then the Epic of Gilgamesh, etc. Next, after learning about ancient Sumerian culture, we discussed how it compares with our own, particularly with regard to elites and priesthoods (defining features of Sumerian society), as well as the percentage of people engaged in agriculture. Next, the students read the Epic of Gilgamesh, and then we had still another discussion, both as a class and in small groups. An important point here is that the different discussions had different purposes: the first one served to set the tone for the entire assignment, and helped the students to think about heroism and heroics. It was immeasurably interesting, to be sure, and the students came up with quite a few ideas about what constituted a hero: courage, loyalty, self-sacrifice, doing the right thing, saving others, refusing to bend or give in, even in the face of pressure, and so on.
The second discussion was a bit of a departure, albeit a departure with a very important point: by encouraging the students to compare and contrast Sumerian culture with our own, my aim was to help them better understand both ancient Sumer and 21st-century America, as well as to get them thinking about how heroes might differ and/or remain the same between the two societies. Here, a few of the students became quite interested and had some outstanding commentary: one young man suggested that perhaps the priests and kings of ancient Sumer were like the politicians and businessmen of 21st-century America! This precipitated one of the most amazing discussions I have ever had the pleasure of participating in during my time as an educator. However, I had to simultaneously encourage the few students who seemed very enthused, and reward their interest, while also encouraging other students to participate.
In the third discussion, students compared and contrasted Gilgamesh with modern hero stories. A big part of this, therefore, entailed integrating the second discussion with the first discussion, which proved to be very interesting. The students were very quick to point out that many of the things that Gilgamesh does are not at all like the actions of the heroes that most of us would recognize. Indeed, Gilgamesh is a tyrant, and many of the students were dumbstruck or even horrified when I explained to them the part of the story that deals with Gilgamesh’s prerogatives as king whenever a wedding was to be had in his city. Surely here was no hero!
And yet, we kept with it, and the tenor of the discussion began to shift. The students started to notice more and more things that Gilgamesh had in common with modern heroes: his ‘origin story’ (part god, part man); his quest, the challenges that he faced in his journey, and his own psychological struggle. I didn’t want to simply tell my students ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh is a story about one man’s attempt to gain immortality and cheat death—it’s basically about the human condition.’ Instead, I wanted them to discover this for themselves, albeit with a little help whenever needed. It was very gratifying indeed to see them realize this, by approaching it in their own ways: some focused more on the symbolism, on the idea of immortality, while others focused more on the events. By the end of the discussion, I could tell that all the students had an understanding of the significance of immortality in the story. Perhaps their understandings differed, both amongst themselves and in comparison with my own, but in truth I reckon this for the better.
Beyond the WebQuest, I have also tried to incorporate discussions into the classroom for many other assignments. I encourage everybody to speak, and go out of my way to elicit feedback and ideas from students whom I see holding back. This has definitely made things much more lively and interesting in the classroom, as practically anything interesting can become a fascinating topic of discourse in its own right. My students have certainly responded very well to this strategy and made it their own, as of course is the idea.
Another strategy for motivation that I have implemented also comes from Gambrell (2011): the idea of providing students with challenging but also rewarding texts (p. 176). The Epic of Gilgamesh is case in point, and I have used it along with other high-quality texts to challenge my students to really grow in order to reach their potential. The basic idea here is that high-quality, challenging texts will encourage students to stretch themselves and grow in new ways: they will be motivated to learn the texts, because they are a challenge that promises a reward (Gambrell et al., 2011, p. 24).
The results of this strategy have indeed been wonderful, but both I and the students have had to work for them. It has not been easy for me to motivate a few of the less-motivated students, in particular, to stretch themselves and reach their potential. The Gilgamesh assignment seems to have been the breakthrough, but it was a breakthrough that came through no small amount of effort. Overall, though, the strategy has been effective and very useful, and I would encourage my fellow educators with the advice that the fruits of such an endeavor are well worth the efforts expended.
And, too, books like the Epic of Gilgamesh do have a tendency to encourage students to make more meaning from the texts. An important idea that informed my practice here comes from literary response theory, which argues that the reader creates meaning through the interaction with the text (Flood, Lapp, Squire, & Jensen, 2003, p. 634). I have definitely seen this making of meaning in the classroom, especially with texts of higher quality. The more that students have felt productively challenged by classroom materials, or by each other, the more they have grown as a result.
The main way I’ve tried to encourage students to make meaning is through dialog: I try to draw them out, and then encourage them to draw each other out. This has often worked very, very well: the students will give their respective opinions, and inevitably one students’ opinion will precipitate a response, either in agreement or disagreement, from another. In this way the students construct narratives about what the texts mean to them. As needed, I comment to offer a perspective they might not have considered, possibly another potential tangent for the conversation to take. Quite often, I ask questions and encourage them to think of things they might not have thought of yet.
Making meaning is quite important, but an especially important aspect of it is finding ways to relate the texts to the students’ own lives (Gambrell, 2011, p. 173). I keep returning to the Gilgamesh assignment and will do so again, but only because I am so very proud of my students. For that assignment, we talked about the meaning of immortality in the story. Why was Gilgamesh seeking it? This opened an outstanding conversation about life, death, and students’ own beliefs (or lack thereof) in an afterlife. The conversation was remarkably respectful, and I was very proud of the way in which all my students conducted themselves. The central point is that helping students to relate a text to their own lives gives them the ability to appreciate it on a whole new level: how it relates to them. This is very important, inasmuch as it helps students to see great, even universal themes in literature: morality, oppression, liberation, mortality, life, death, and the place of human beings in the cosmos.
Gambrell (2011) recommends having students maintain a “’reading diary’”, a strategy I wholeheartedly concur with (p. 173). The basic idea is to have the students reflect upon the material read and then simply write their reflections in their journal or notebook (p. 173). Students are also encouraged to use this space to connect the material to their lives, finding meaning in it (p. 173). I don’t ask my students to share this unless they want to, but I do encourage them to use it to inform how they complete the other assignments in class.
I have to say that since we have begun talking about meaning—what I always like to call ‘deep meaning’, or ‘deep meaning for us all’—my students have become much more appreciative of the materials we have engaged with. Indeed, it is remarkable to see how much they contribute to the teaching process, and I feel that I am learning from them as much as, if not more than, they are learning from me. Of course, the deep meaning that one student comes up with may not be the same as the deep meaning that another comes up with, and this too is a part of the idea of ‘deep meaning for us all’—deep meaning for us all because we can all contribute, and in the end, whatever we all think, everyone participates. This has helped my students to appreciate how the lives and works of others, sometimes centuries or millennia removed from them, relate to their own lives. The results have been very satisfactory, and I certainly recommend this strategy to other teachers.
The implementation of these strategies has, beyond any doubt, transformed my classroom. I have certainly had some problems with motivating the students, although in all fairness I do believe that most of them are rather well-mannered young people. Nonetheless, these strategies have transformed the classroom: the majority of the students have gone from displaying a great deal of polite disinterest, or mild interest at best, to displaying quite a bit of interest, even a great deal of enthusiasm. The intensity of my students’ enthusiasm has shot up and become infectious. We are having a lot of fun with learning, and it is a very wonderful experience.
In truth, I am not surprised that these strategies have worked so well: they all emphasize allowing students more options, more choice with respect to their own education. A print-rich classroom, a classroom where students have choices and are not required to simply follow one single predetermined course of instruction: this is what I am giving them. The whole process, the entirety of the endeavor has given them more control, has respected their autonomy, and in so doing has also made them responsible for the outcome. It is not difficult to see why they have responded so positively. The emphasis on discussion and interaction has certainly helped them to appreciate the contributions of their peers, and to engage with them. The focus on meaning has added incredible levels of depth to our classroom discussions, helping us to relate what we are reading and learning about to our lives. The result has been a very creative process, a kind of virtuous circle whereby the students have built upon each others’ contributions in a kind of positively reinforcing, autocatalytic loop.
By promoting motivation in my students, I have endeavored to change how they look at reading and writing: how they encounter them, how they engage with them, how they make them parts of their lives. I want my students to find reading and writing not merely a necessity but a genuine pleasure: an important part of life, and a skill to be enjoyed and to be proud of. The most important thing I have tried to do is encourage my students to make reading worthwhile. I cannot make reading worthwhile for them, only try to show them the way and provide them with the encouragement and support that they need to get there. They have done so well beyond my greatest expectations. Seeing them make that journey has been truly rewarding, and it is why I entered the teaching field in the first place.
Anders, P. L., & Clift, R. T. (2012). Adolescent language, literacy, and learning: Implications for a schoolwide literacy program. In R. M. Bean & A. S. Dagen (Eds.), Best practices of literacy leaders: Keys to school improvement (pp. 162-183). New York: The Guilford Press.
Dunston, P. J., & Gambrell, L. B. (2009). Motivating adolescent learners to read. In K. D. Wood & W. E. Blanton (Eds.), Literacy instruction for adolescents: Research-based practice (pp. 269-286). New York: The Guilford Press.
Flood, J., Lapp, D., Squire, J. R., & Jensen, J. (Eds.). (2003). Handbook of research on teaching the English language arts (2nd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Gambrell, L. B. (2011). Seven rules of engagement: What’s most important to know about motivation to read. Reading Teacher, 65(3), pp. 172-178. DOI: 10.1002/TRTR.01024
Gambrell, Malloy, & Mazzoni (2011). Evidence-based best practices in comprehensive literacy instruction. In L. M. Morrow & L. B. Gambrell (Eds.), Best practices in literacy instruction (4th ed.) (pp. 11-36). New York: The Guilford Press.
O’Brien, D. G., & Dillon, D. R. (2008). The role of motivation in engaged reading of adolescents. In K. A. Hinchman & H. K. Sheridan-Thomas (Eds.), Best practices in adolescent literacy instruction (pp. 78-98). New York: The Guilford Press.
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