Make Them Do Whatever it Takes

It was a great experience, for me and my students

We’re beginning the wrap up of our “Whatever It Takes” week here at Make Them Master It. Today I want to tell you a story about how I made a significant number of my students this last year do “whatever it took” to graduate.

Last year I taught seniors an expository reading and writing course. By second semester, I was getting tired of the careless mistakes many students were making in their writing. They just weren’t paying attention to what I was teaching them. With the new semester beginning, and the big research essay coming up, I took a new approach to my expectations.

When I sat down to put together the scoring guide that would tell them how to earn points on their research and writing skills, I had a new thought.

Scoring guides are great at defining the criteria for success. They tell students how to earn points; they tell student what to do. What if I added an element that told them what NOT to do? And what if I made the stakes really high for going out of bounds? 

And that’s what I did. I called them parameters and explained them as boundary lines. Here’s what I held them to:

The essay must . . .

  • Have a perfectly formatted works cited page (no errors)
  • Precise in-text citations (no errors)
  • All sources listed on works cited page are cited in the essay
  • Must use a minimum of eight sources
  • Fewer than six MLA format errors within the body of the text
  • Be a minimum of five full page lengths
  • Be typed in Times New Roman, 12 pt font.

Just to be clear, they had been taught how to do all of this, had been sent multiple videos through Google Classroom, and sent link after link to the Online Writing Lab at Purdue University. They had their chances.

What was the consequence of a misstep? A zero!

But I wasn’t just going to leave it at that. I gave them next steps to recover their points. Also, during the assessment process, I didn’t just simply note an error and then quit grading their writing, slapping on a zero. I graded the entire essay, and I showed them what they would get in the grade book had they stayed in bounds.

I explained it this way to the students:

What we have here is a hostage situation. Your points are the hostages. In order for me to release the hostages, you have to meet my demands. If you don’t meet my demands, I won’t release the hostages.

In addition, I let them earn additional points as they went through their re-writes, as they improved their drafts.

What happened next was tough to swallow, but it was worth it in the end. I handed out 82 F’s on the progress report. 82 seniors failing a course that they needed to graduate. They were not happy. The really hard part was that parent-teacher conferences were coming up. The look on the face of one mother at conferences is haunting. She was mortified that her son would score so low in my class, and she apologized profusely.

After that, the students got to work. Through all the belly aching and plodding through the steps to recover their grades, all 82 of those students climbed out of the deep debt they found themselves in. I released all the hostages; they got their points. For some of them, I made them do whatever it took. And they really did learn from it.

Part of the re-write process was a reflection on the experience, what they learned, and how they were never ever going to do it again. Many of the reflections were insightful and I could see that they really learned from going through the re-write. And since I was prepared with thorough instructions about how the students could recover their score, I did not get any parent complaints or any backlash from administration. One time I had a phone call to clarify things, and within 60 seconds, I emailed all the instructions to make it up.

It was a great experience, for me and my students. They learned needed skills for success in college. I learned that you can make them accountable and get support, as long as it is clear that it is for the students’ benefit. Also, it needs to be clear how they can recover.

It took me 12 years to get to this point where I really threw down the gauntlet. What about you? Are you ready to make them do whatever it takes? Are you ready to make them accountable?

Photo Credit: Jon Tyson

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