A Drop and a Drop Out Through the Rock

Can we break through the "toughest" students? (Photo by Marcelo A.H. Penna on Flickr - CC License)

My latest post was about new beginnings and the challenges that commonly come with them… Challenges can be so motivating! But sometimes we work and work at them and see no progress… And that is soooo frustrating! But sometimes I think teachers become frustrated because we set our expectations too high, we are too ambitious.

Don’t get me wrong… I think we should set expectations high and be ambitious (unlike many people I see ambition – within limits of course! – as a very positive thing. It drives us to be and do better.)

But this post is about celebrating little victories. It’s about not being taken down by not making progress with an entire group, but being able to reach one student. About not convincing all the students to do something, but having one of them buy the idea. I’ve had a few little victories this semester (we’ve had about 2 months of class so far, and the deadline for midterm is a week away). And I feel like sharing them, and maybe giving a few teachers who might be frustrated right now, a little hope :-).

My most challenging group this semester is a group of 10 “somewhat” beginners, the average age being 13 (currently reviewing simple past, soon to learn present perfect). Half the class is made up of excellent students who came from lower levels because of their outstanding performance. The other half is made of students who have been having a hard time with English for a long time and are currently re-taking the level. Quite an interesting group I’d say. One student in particular (from the weaker part of the class) called my attention. Bad attitude, refused to speak English, never did the homework, always trying to distract others… I initially tried the traditional techniques… Called her attention, refused to respond when spoken in L1, threatened to call the parents (which I did once), explained how her grades would suffer… all to no avail. Then something came to mind. She is a very outspoken girl, exhales self-confidence. And I know (from personal experience) that many times the ones who seem confident are actually very insecure (and the other way around). So I decided to approach it differently. I tried not to put the spotlight on her, not ask her to give answers out loud. But during the class I’d walk by her and ask questions about trivial things – her weekend, a new song, a new purse she brought to class, etc… and as she spoke Portuguese I’d try to convince her to at least mix Portuguese and English. I’d ask questions to get her to talk. I showed true interest. And I didn’t correct her – well, maybe a bit of recasting… hard not to. Well, today she spent an entire class without speaking Portuguese. And I’d like to think it’s a result from the new way of dealing her. Easing the pressure. Giving her space and showing interest. And she’s been doing homework too! I left the classroom fulfilled today because of that one little victory. Does two months seem like a long time? Maybe it does, and maybe it is. But we have to be persistent…and patient.

On another group my challenge has been to have them buy the idea of the electronic portfolio (which is our school’s tool for evaluation as you can read about here ). They’ve had bad experiences I suppose and started the semester voicing their hatred for the efolio. I reasoned, tried to show the benefits and finally (basically) said: too bad, sorry you don’t like it but it’s how we evaluate, deal with it. There was one student in particular who never missed a chance to voice her (negative) opinion about it. But, given no other option, she started doing it. And I made a personal point of checking all updates from her efolio on the same day. I left comments (our efolios greatly resemble Facebook) on every post she put up. Never correcting accuracy, but always asking questions and commenting on the content. She started responding to the comments and posting more often – maybe to see what I’d comment? All I can say is that a week before the deadline for submitting portfolios, hers is done – it’s got all the required activities and more. She’s been posting a lot about things she enjoys, things she comes across… I think I brought her to the light side of the force ;-) That made my day as well. Sometimes it pays off to forget the language a bit (even if just on the surface) and focus on the person.

The last one is a student from the same group as the girl I’ve just mentioned. As the rest of his classmates, this learner cringed at the idea of the portfolio. And he hated when I assigned a new project. In the handbook we use we have a “poster time”, where students should try to put themselves in the shoes of the opposite gender (the unit’s topic is Men X Women), and make a poster with disadvantages of being of the opposite sex (always easier to think of the advantages, isn’t it? I like to think differently). This poster was traditionally done with big white papers and markers. I transferred it to the virtual world and introduced them to Glogster. And told them to do the poster using it. This student not only did a great job – he loved the tool – but also started doing a lot of writing posts for his efolio using Glogster (he asked me if it was ok). He likes adding a song that he thinks fits the mood/topic of the writing, using decorative images, etc… We’re talking about students who were not only resistant to technology but especially, that hated writing (why is it so hard to get students motivated to write?!?!). They moan when I assign a writing – be it as homework or classwork. But this particular student was motivated to do his writing assignments in a different way. Double victory for me: got him to write more and use technology as well.

What I take from all of this? Make my way to my objectives one student at a time (which reminds me of the Starfish tale). Be happy with what you get. Sometimes focusing on the person instead of the learner is more effective. Students will write if motivated. Trust your instincts. Don’t give up.

P.S.1 – I realize I’ve been posting less regularly, but in my defense I’m taking the distance delta with IH London and it’s taking a big toll on my “free” time. i apologize and ask for sympathy from my fellow teachers. ;-) I miss blogging, but I have a goal!

P.S.2 – I have more ideas that I’ve been using to motivate students, web tools I’ve been using. If you’re interested I’ll be sharing some of them this Friday, as I fill in for Shelly Terrell on the American Tesol Institute Free Friday Webinar. Come over! 9PM GMT / 5PM Brazil time

18 comments on “A Drop and a Drop Out Through the Rock

  1. Dear Cecilia, thank you for this beautiful and inspiring post. For the small victories you mention. I have similar problems with several students in one particular class, and noticed that calling their attention or sending them to the principle’s office won’t change anything. I have changed my strategy, I hope it will improve soon. Unfortunatly,most of these students come from problematic families, divorced parents or sth similar. Parents either won’t or don’t know how to deal with them, but I know these students can be more than great, I just hope they try to belive it themselves and stop being so rebellious.

    You gave me few more ideas.
    All the best

    • Dear Marijana,

      The more I learn about teaching English around the world the more I see the teachers, students and problems are the same. That’s my biggest encouragement for sharing my experiences here… I’ve got my fingers crossed that your change in approach helps. And if it doesn’t try another one. One approach will work with one student and not with others. We just have to hang in there and rejoice at the ones we reach,

      Sunny regards,


  2. Chiew says:

    You’re the best, Ceci!
    Too often we forget that there’s a person behind the student, and it’s all too easy to say that we haven’t got the time to dedicate to each and every student. I’ll try to make it on Friday! Oh, I suppose your wrist is getting better?

    • Oh, thank you Chiew! It means a lot coming from you :-)

      Yes, many times we become overwhelmed with the time x number of students ratio and think we can’t do anything. But we also have to remember not ALL the students need such individualized, special attention. We can give a little more to those who are more troubled. Baby steps, right?

      Will love to see you there on Friday :-) Having friends in the crowd always give me confidence :-) And yes, the hand is getting better, thank you. Thanks to a wonderful physical therapist, exercise, stretching, a brace, lots of ice and some herbal gel I massage it with. At least now you know who to ask for advice if you ever need it!

  3. Thank you for this post, Ceci! You’ve really brought something home to us all here. Most teachers (myself included, definitely!) feel that we have to get everyone onboard when we introduce a new scheme, such as my trials with email in English, Tuenti (social network) which I deemed as failures due to lack of participation. But you are right – if just one or two even read the things I post and occasionally comment, that is a fairly good start! It is after all, homework in my case (and not compulsory) and every little counts – maybe when I post a video the students go on to watch more, related videos on youtube, who knows?

    You are right to feel good about these individual victories, allow yourself some chocolate to celebrate ;)

    • Dear Michelle,

      As I talk to you I have a BIG bar of white Toblerone by my side ;-) Tough days deserve some chocolate, right? ;-) I think the biggest mistake we, as teachers, can make is that we take things way too personally. And even if you are successful and reach 75% of the students, instead of focusing on our success we focus on the 25% we didn’t reach….

      You’re on the right track… don’t let setbacks put you down… keep trying, thinking and coming up with new ideas… passionate teachers never give up! :-)

      And remember to feel good about every little progress and/or victory you have. Let them wenergize you. Focus on them.

  4. A teacher changes the world … one student at a time. Congratulations on your little victories and I’m sure many more are coming your way =)

  5. For you it is almost midterm, for me the term has just begun. I’ve just met all the new students and discovered which ones are the “tough rocks” – the really challenging ones.
    Your post is such a wonderful reminder to look at the 11th and 12 graders and get my perspective back! here’s one that in 10th grade never did homework and has handed in two assignments this term already! here’s another that has been applying himself in class in a manner I hadn’t seen last week because he now believes he actually needs English.
    I must always look at the larger picture, how slowly, bit by bit, one by one, those 10th grade “rocks” begin to show us what is hiding inside – I’ve got them for at least 3 years!
    Thanks for the inspiring post!

    • Loved your examples Naomi :-) They’re perfect to illustrate what I am talking about, and the fact that you are able to singl them out and see the way they have come along is EVERYTHING!

      Your students are super lucky to have you. Keep looking through those glasses!

  6. Hey Cecília!
    The funniest thing is that I and my teachers do face the same problems at our school, and yes, why not focusing on the person rather than the leaner of English itself? I used to be a very strict teacher and got really stressed out… oh my God, things went on the wrong way! I do not know what happened, (maybe teaching experience and intuition on the job?), but I started doing things differently, such as spending a little bit more time with students, talking about their everyday happenings. We also had a Guitar Hero Session without the purpose of learning, just staying together to socialize and have fun. We talked about music, about tastes and so on… Those little things changed my classes! We do have fun together, just because I show real interest in them… It has made my teaching much easier! I pick their examples in classes that they provided me with. That made the whole diference and I agree with you: what if you get one student to “buy” your idea? What if he/she changes for better? Isn’t that a victory? Definitely! I am very happy I am intuitively doing things to make leaners better people and that there are other teachers facing the same challenges and striving for solutions! We are problem-solvers and believe me, there are great solutions with persistance, creativity and innovation. Do not give up on the resistant learners! Take that challenge to test yourself. Your story inspired me and made me reflect upon what I’ve been doing in class and my role as a teacher: I CAN make small and at the same time great changes (quantity Vs. quality?). Paradoxal idea, isn’t it? Thanks for sharing your experience with us! ;)

    • hi Luiz,

      The moe I blog and interact the more I learn that teachers’ realities are the same (give or take) all around the world…. I am sure teaching experience and intuition (which also has to do with your experience) has played an important role for you. Loved the guitar hero session (have to admit am a complete geek for guitar hero, have the guitars and everything…)

      Showing REAL interst makes the difference Luiz… you’ve seen it and so have I. Keep it up!!! Paradozal or not, I think it’s what will work.

  7. Tara Benwell says:

    Excellent post! I really enjoyed hearing about how you’re overcoming these little challenges, Ceci. Your method reminded me of the “You Matter” video that is going around. My daughter had her own little victory this week. She holds her pencil in an untraditional way, and it was not okay with her SK teacher. She tried hard in SK, but never got it right. In Grade 1 her teacher said her way of holding the pencil was fine, and said that her writing was excellent and believed that was what counted. Now, in Grade 2 a new teacher was again not okay with the untraditional pencil holding. So, my daughter wrote a letter to explain her frustration. She wants to be able to hold the pencil in a way that is comfortable for her. Her teacher was impressed and agreed that she could do it her way. Celebrate the little victories in life!

  8. […] about the “small” (in quotations marks ‘cos I really think they were pretty big) victories in her class.  Keiran Donaghy posted a lesson plan based on two beautiful short films both of which celebrate […]

  9. […] blog post, A Drop and a Drop Out Through the Rock, the author talks about a couple different students who have different challenges or rather, lack […]

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