Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Importance of Selling Your Students on Your Big Goals

The last couple of years I've had the opportunity to help out new high school math Teach for America Corps Members get ready for their first day of school in the Rio Grande Valley. TFA asks their teachers to make qualitative (problem solving skills, college readiness, etc) as well as quantitative (test scores, grades, etc) yearly goals well before school starts, which is a good idea for everyone to do.  Last year, a new teacher who had put a lot of work into her ambitious course goals asked me, “How do I invest my students in these goals?

First, I assured her that preparation goes a long way towards setting the stage for student investment. Genuine enthusiasm for your subject and the big goals you set, the professional and confident way you carry yourself in the classroom, and the welcoming environment you create for your students send a clear message to your students without saying a word:

"I am here to help you learn. I care about your success. I will do what it takes to help you succeed. These goals carry importance for you far outside my classroom."

A lot of this preparation will show itself on the first few days of school, when most students will make up their minds about whether they're going to buy in your goals. I told her that the environment you create sends a message, but that you have to be as explicit as possible in stating what your goals are and why they are important. The “why” part is maybe more important than the goal itself—if you don't know the answer to the “why” question, it probably shouldn't be one of your goals. I guarantee you that your students will ask you “why” as well, whether it be in the form of, “Why do we need to learn this,” or “when are we ever going to use [lesson objective] in the real world?

Let's say one goal is for students to be able to know how to solve problems on their own, something this teacher and I had discussed. Solving challenging problems is not a course-specfic skill by any means, so you can tell your students that the skills you learn in math class are going to help them in every class they take. You should also connect this kind of skill to being prepared for college, and for being an independent adult in the real world. The message, as I said before, will be clear: This is going to help you for the rest of your life.

Of course, just conveying these messages on the first day of school will not be enough to fully invest any given student. You have to revisit your goals throughout the year. It will frame your design of a Do Now that accesses prior knowledge; it will be something you clearly state when kids get that “what is the point of this” look during a lesson. You'll design lessons and projects with these goals either implied or in plain sight.

There's also a reason why your goals should be not just about scores but skills: your multifaceted goals will allow you to tailor your message to particular students. The kid who has never passed a state test will like the idea that you will get them to pass and won't give up on them. The kid who's already decided they're going to college will be excited by the idea that you're teaching them real skills they need, not just teaching them a test they're already going to pass. And a whole lot of kids will buy in to the idea that you really care about them.

Good luck and keep planning--it will pay off over the long term!