If You Motivate Students, They Will Write

By JOSEPH TINTLE

I recently read a magazine article in which a teacher was wondering why today’s kids don’t want to write. She blamed the usual suspects: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, cell phones, and software games. I won’t argue that these tech toys are distractions when it comes to academic work and living life to the fullest, but after reading her essay it was clear: she had no idea how to teach writing and motivate her students.

One of her assignments was a 10-paragraph essay asking parents for an allowance. Truthfully, I don’t think I could have completed that piece. It is boring and just how many ways can you ask your folks for money?

She cited a second assignment that her students could care less about: to write a letter of complaint to the principal because the school was serving too many carbohydrates and sweets at lunch. What kid is going to get behind that one? Carbs and sugar have constituted the teenage diet for generations.

This teacher was dumbfounded that her students did not want to write extensively about these topics. So instead of going home and thinking about her predicament, she badmouthed the kids and claimed none of them wanted to use their brains and back to blaming technology she went.

Now, I’m a fan of technology in the classroom — to a point. I believe we should have control over technology, not the other way around like some educators think. Our district invested in StarBoards a while back and they are wonderful educational tools. They can make a very good teacher a great teacher because one can bring up an article, a photo, a film, a piece of music with one keystroke and flash it before students’ eyes. Want to know what a certain historical figure looks like? Just push the Google icon, type in the name, and there you have him or her. What was Mount Vesuvius and its place in history? Well, let’s go back to the city of Pompeii in 79 A.D. and read a passage written by Pliny. Then, if you wish, call up photos of the city of Pompeii today and see the bodies that were frozen in time because Vesuvius’ lava ash had preserved them for almost 2,000 years.

If you get students interested in a topic this way and then engage them in lively discussion, they will have something to write about and be more than willing to complete an assignment.

A recent persuasive essay I gave my juniors had to do with the book The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang. It is the story about how Japanese soldiers invaded the city of Nanking, China, in December 1937. Not only were more than 300,000 residents killed, each victim was tortured by Japanese soldiers in unimaginable ways. For instance, teenage boys were ordered to strip naked after which enemy soldiers handcuffed them and lowered them head first into four-foot holes thereby exposing the lower half of their bodies. Soldiers then released ravenous German shepherds who attacked the boys’ exposed private parts.

Other forms of abuse were Japanese soldiers forcing sons to rape mothers and fathers to rape daughters. Japanese soldiers also took delight in spearing infants with their bayonets and seeing how far they could toss them. They kept score by piling up the heads of decapitated victims.

I found a section of the book that mentioned these atrocities yet did not go into them in explicit detail, but the students got the idea. I also showed them film footage of the Japanese marching into Nanking and we listened as Japanese soldiers joked and laughed years later about their actions.

By now the students were ready for their writing assignment.

It was a persuasive letter. In it, they had to pretend they were Chinese teenagers living in Nanking in 1937 and they were to write a letter to U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt  requesting that he send American troops to Nanking to put a stop to the atrocities.

No moaning and groaning with this assignment because the students were saturated with information and felt confident they could do the job. They got right to work.

So instead of blaming students for lack of brainpower and an over reliance on social media, take a look at your lesson plan and see if you have designed something that will truly motivate students to want to complete the assignment.

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