Using the Fresh Start Effect to Improve Student Motivation, Habits, and Beliefs

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I was lucky enough to recently read an advance copy of Troy Hicks and Andy Schoenborn’s upcoming book, Creating Confident Writers, and while I will undoubtedly be posting about it again once it comes out (it is wonderfully smart and practical), they reference a concept that I’d somehow never heard before that felt both timely and important to explore in this first post of a new decade: the Fresh Start Effect.

The Fresh Start Effect is the idea that while most of the moments in our lives are spent engaged in a “seemingly unending stream of trivial and ordinary occurrences that happen to us every day,” there are occasional points in time that standout from those trivial and ordinary moments. These landmark moments (as they are referred to in the literature) can be artificial constructs (for example, new years, new semesters, or in our case right now, new decades) or natural milestones (birthdays, losing a loved one, etc.), but what makes them noteworthy for this blog’s purposes is that during those moments we are more open than usual to changes in motivation, identity, and behavior.

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The Remarkable Power of Surprise as a Teaching Tool

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One of the most important landmark literature reviews in recent memory, Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners, poses the following, all too common, situation:

Consider the example of a ninth-grader who enters high school unsure of his academic ability and worried about finding friends. When he struggles with the problems on his first math assignment and has a hard time finding a lab partner in science class, he interprets these situations as evidence of his intellectual and social shortcomings. These experiences contribute to growing preoccupations with a lack of belonging and ability which then begin to undermine the student’s academic performance, leading to further academic difficulties and lack of confidence. Though the student entered high school feeling unsure of himself, his interactions within the high school context and his participation in its routines reinforce his initial self-doubts and lead to increasingly negative mindsets. These mindsets can become self-perpetuating as the student interprets his school experiences in a way that further undermines his self-efficacy and self-confidence. He withdraws effort from his schoolwork, which results in further poor performance, [creating] a recursive, negative loop between academic mindsets, academic behavior, and academic performance.

-Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners

This situation or ones like it are far too common in our schools, and while the answer to them–breaking the cycle–is pretty clear, how to do that for any given case is an incredibly difficult question. The tricky part is that persuading someone to change a deeply-held belief is one of the hardest things for a human to do. If you don’t believe me on this, I encourage you to come to Thanksgiving with me next year and say something political.

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The Best EdTech Tool For Improving Writing Instruction

Ellis’s Essay (written by a person, not a computer)

In 1966, Ellis Page, often referred to as the father of computerized grading, published an essay (see right) in Phi Delta Kaplan where he argued that “We will soon be grading essays by computer, and this development will have an astonishing impact on the educational world.”

The computers he was talking about? Mainframes that took up entire rooms, and according to him the “soon” was right around the corner.

It has been over 50 years since Page published his essay on “The Imminence of…Grading Essays by Computer” and yet his dream of a computer program that can take over grading or feedback duties remains out of reach. While some EdTechtrepreneurs try to state otherwise, no AI program currently exists that can reliably grade or providing feedback to writing at a high level.

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The Power of Implementing a Feedback Cycle

This post is an adapted excerpt from Flash Feedback, my upcoming book from Corwin Literacy.

Me for far too many years.

For years I struggled with the fact that I would spend untold hours scrawling notes and suggestions through each set of student papers only to have the next set of papers feel almost as if my feedback to the previous paper had never been given. Like some endless and highly frustrating Groundhog Day, my students tended to make the same mistakes as I gave them the same responses over and over and over.

I now have a culprit for what was going wrong: I was falling victim to the Forgetting Curve, which is the subject of one of the more popular posts of this blog and can be summed up like this:

We forget nearly everything we encounter only once, with well over 90% evaporating from our minds in a few days.

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Why I’ve Gone Grade-Less

I have always hated grading papers.

It is right up there with watching state-mandated online training modules and filling out our labyrinthian teacher evaluation as one of my least favorite parts of the job.

Before moving on, I want to make it clear though that I don’t mean reading or responding to student work when I say “grading.” As I discussed earlier this year, grading and responding to student work are often used as synonyms, but they are actually highly different tasks. Feedback is the act of giving students information that they can use to grow and move forward; grades, on the other hand, are static markers meant to communicate to the student and others where a student’s skills are right now. And as a teacher, I have always felt much more comfortable with helping students chart a path forward than I have with rating them.

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What Makes Writing Authentic?

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Last spring, during my month spent blogging about teaching the essay, a teacher asked me a question that I had no ready answer for:

It is one thing to have students write narratives that they share with others or practice argumentation through writing letters to real people, but how can teachers make essays about books in their classes authentic?

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Feedback 2.0: Using Digital Resources to Give Better Feedback, Faster

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I am a luddite in so many ways. I don’t own an e-reader, I prefer vinyl to my Alexa, and I look forward to the times where I can hike or travel far enough away for my phone to get no reception.

This tendency sometimes follows me into my classroom as well, as I find that while we are often quick to proclaim technology a universal savior, there are plenty of places where it can be an unnecessary complicator that detracts from the core work of the classroom—namely reading, writing, and thinking. 

The one area where I am utterly convinced that technology is an unequivocal upgrade, though, is in responding to student work.  

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Three Lessons to Build the Confidence of Young Writers

One of my first writing assignments of the year is I ask students to tell me their stories as writers. I want the whole thing: the ups, downs, frustrations, inspirations, breakthroughs, and breakdowns.

And while I know what is coming, every year I can’t help but be a bit blown back by what I receive. While some students come in glowing with confidence and ready to gush about their rich writing lives, most students, year after year, have a clear message for me:

“I am not a writer.”

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September is For Stories

Last week I was in need of some inspiration to start the school year, and so I picked up Linda Christensen’s Teaching for Joy and Justice, one of my go-tos for centering myself and finding inspiration. Teaching for Joy and Justice was the first book that helped me peer beyond the old orthodoxies of the language arts classroom–the grammar worksheets, the endless succession of five-paragraph essays, and the practice of attacking student papers with pens of any color–and towards the world of possibilities that this blog explores.

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Five Ways to Spend Less Time With Papers This Year (Without Sacrificing Your Impact)

Last week I tweeted out a simple question in preparation for this post: How many students do you have on your student load for ’19-’20?

I tweeted this because while teachers struggling under massive student and paper loads is a pretty well-documented problem (the very first English Journal from 1912 opens with a discussion of this; see below), I wasn’t sure how big student/paper loads across the country were. I know how things tend to work in my little part of the world (130-160 students spread across five sections is a full-time load for most Southeast Michigan districts), but I had no idea what the national scene looks like.

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