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.

It also explains why getting students to get and stay engaged this year has been a serious challenge across the country. For most students in most years, the identity shifts in the spring are moderate, thus leading to moderate shifts in actions and outcomes. This year though, nearly every student saw an identity shift that was both tectonic and shockingly sudden, often overnight in many locations. In an instant, athletic seasons, school plays, prom, graduation, standardized tests, and a thousand other things that formed core elements of student identities were unceremoniously gone. It is almost like the students were halfway through a book and then someone at random grabbed those books from their hands and threw them out the window of a speeding car, leaving them with piles of questions and what-ifs.

For many students in my classes, this sudden loss of so much of their identity has them feeling, in their own words, “stuck” or “numb” right now. Consequently, while many have a lot of time on their hands, surprisingly few students are using the extra time to exercise or learn new skills; most instead report that they have fallen out of shape, dropped their usual habits, talked to friends less, and generally gotten stuck in some endless fuzzy loop of sleep/video games/Netflix/zoom calls.

I wish I had more answers for how to help these students who feel this way. Like seemingly everyone else, my results have been decidedly mixed. Still, I’ve had some successes, many of them due to a tactic that I often use in normal times when students start to check out in May: Storytelling.

Readers of the blog know that I am a huge fan of the power of stories. I’m not sure a more powerful force exists in the world, and in this context, I haven’t been able to find a more effective tool at getting and keeping student engagement. With so many student stories fractured by this crisis, one of my main goals in the last nine weeks has been to try to help them find new, viable, and positive new narratives to keep them interested and motivated.

For example, I have a freshman student who struggled all year to turn in work on-time or in any real quantity. A large part of his struggle was his confidence with writing. He has a number of strengths, but he generally doesn’t see them, and so he avoids writing whenever possible. All year I have been trying to show him the merits of his work, but in most situations his fear of writing and the low grades he historically got on it led him to avoid real work and revision.

Now that my district has gone credit/no credit this semester, the new narrative I introduced to him is that this is his opportunity to improve his writing without having to worry about the specter of grades, and up to this point, he has been doing more and more inspired work than I ever saw when the work was graded. Each assignment shows a bit more effort and growth, and (remember Figure 4.3 above) the positive outcomes from that extra effort lead him to put a little more effort and thought into each subsequent assignment. Ironically, despite the pandemic, this student is on track to have grown more as a writer in the last six weeks than the six months before that combined.

What I describe here is nothing particularly innovative. Great teachers introduce powerful, life-altering narratives to their students all the time. What makes my approach maybe a bit different is that with so many students with disrupted identities and internal stories, I am more systematically than I ever have before seeking to provide new narratives to every student that I track and revisit regularly.

For those who fear the amount of work this sounds like, my method is–as far as feedback goes–pretty painless and fast. My students are currently spending much of their time working on the writing projects of their choice, and so each week I simply add a few new comments on top of my previous comments in the hope that each new chapter will help to solidify the new narratives we are writing together during this time.

I also think that if I am going to invest in anything right now, giving them a clear narrative for why school still matters and is valuable for them, seems like a good choice. These are uncertain and overwhelming times, and so there is something powerful about a simple, positive new story right now. My hope is that like tiny seedlings planted in the spring, with a bit of tending and water and sunlight, those stories can grow into something beautiful and meaningful by the time the next school year–whatever it will look like–arrives.

Yours in Teaching,

If you liked this…

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