Using Storytelling to Keep Students Engaged in the Last Month of School

T.S. Eliot states in The Wasteland that “April is the cruelest month.” He is close, but he misses the mark by a month, at least in my opinion. In normal years, I find May to be the cruelest month by a fair margin, at least when it comes to my teaching life. The problem is that after a long Michigan winter, the extra summer sunlight of the north makes everything lush and leafy, seemingly overnight. This might not seem like a bad thing, but the appearance of summer is a serious problem when it comes to my students, as en masse and like clockwork they begin to checkout in uncharacteristic ways once the trees suddenly burst with leaves, despite the fact that over a month of school remains.

This May is obviously very different than previous ones, but the one similarity with other years is that the second it stopped snowing (which was only a week and a half ago), I once again saw my student engagement drop rather precipitously. Of all years, it makes a lot of sense that students would struggle to engage right now though. Many just want the year to be over, but I believe there is also a larger issue at play. To understand what it is, here is an image of a basic model of motivation from my book Flash Feedback that combines the work from James Clear and Dave Stuart Jr..

The idea behind this model is pretty straightforward: Our actions (or inaction for many students right now) largely come from our identities, and our identities largely come from the outcomes we’ve experienced from previous actions.

This Identity/Action/Outcome Loop helps to explain why in normal years student actions and outcomes begin to differ in May and why seniors sometimes get pretty acute cases of “senioritis” when the summer appears on the horizon. In these situations the identities from the past year–the basketball team member seeking a regional championship or the AP student looking to pass the AP test–begin to wane, and as they do, the actions and outcomes that come with those identities naturally begin to wane too.

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Best Practices for Teaching When One Has Little Time and Even Less Bandwidth

Teaching in normal times is not a profession that lends itself to balance. A study by the Gates Foundation and Scholastic found that teachers on across the country work over 53 hours a week on average, and it seems that every year the number of tasks, students, and papers grows larger and larger.

And even though right now the vast majority of us are not teaching in our schools, the size of the job remains massive for many. There are meetings to attend, classes to teach, feedback to give, and students and parents to reach out to. Further, there are new tasks: we must translate our brick-and-mortar classes into new digital spaces, learn entirely new platforms, keep up with ever-changing requirements and developments, and help 140, 150, 160, or maybe even more students navigate a moment of acute worldwide trauma.

At the same time, many significant barriers to productivity have risen around us. I, for example, am the primary caregiver for two children under four during the week, meaning my teaching has been relegated to early mornings, late evenings, and weekends. And I am one of the lucky ones who isn’t dealing with losing a job or, even worse, a loved one due to the pandemic.

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