In order to talk about how to quickly motivate reluctant writers, we need to first discuss delayed gratification…
Whoa, whoa, whoa. How did delayed gratification work its way into all of this?
Like this. Students who love writing enjoy all stages of the writing process:
- Exploring a universe of possibilities when brainstorming
- Experimenting on possible leads
- Stumbling upon great ideas
- Crafting carefully sculpted sentences
They get INSTANT gratification!
Students who hate writing, however, only receive gratification
- IF they can make it to the end of the writing piece…AND…
- IF it is done decently
That could take a very long time OR it’s also possible that the student NEVER makes it to the end. So there isn’t just the reality of delayed gratification. There’s also the possibility of ZERO gratification!
How to give QUICKER gratification in writing
There are two important things to understand before going over the steps I follow.
1. Why we tell stories. I explore this topic more in my post Why we tell stories, but I will give the gist of it here. This is how I explain it to my students…
“When you tell your friends stories about things that have happened to you, which stories do you tell? Here is the truth: you tell the stories that will get a reaction. And when you tell the story, how do you tell it? Here’s the truth: you tell it in a way that gets your friends to react the way you want.
“If something bad happened to you, you tell the story in a way that makes your friends sympathize with you. If something amazing happened, you tell it in a way that gets them excited. We tell stories to get a reaction.”
Why is that important for teachers to understand? Because the reaction IS the gratification! And it is a powerful enough form gratification to make going through the long process of telling a story worth it for your students. AND YOU CAN USE THAT POWER TO YOUR ADVANTAGE!
2. Using the power of storytelling to your advantage. The goal is to get to the parts where your reluctant writers can get that gratification as soon and as often as possible. Get them TELLING their stories all throughout the writing process. I try to do it EVERY DAY…including and especially DAY 1.
How I Motivate My Reluctant Writers in 5 MINUTES!
MINUTE 1 – First, run a simple idea-gathering session. Give students 1 minute to create a list of people who are important to them. (more ideas can be found here) Encourage the students to focus on individuals rather than groups.
For example, instead of writing “friends,” they should be writing names of specific friends. The great thing about this idea is that it is non-threatening and totally accessible. All they are doing is creating a list of names.
(Side note: Every once in a while, you may get the “But no one is important to me” student. My response goes something like this. “You might be mistaking the word ‘important’ for the word ‘favorite.’ Who’s someone who you can’t live without? Who pays for your house? Your food? Clothes, PHONE, COMPUTER?!?! I’d say they’re pretty important.)
MINUTE 2 – Next, have students put asterisks next to people on their lists if they can remember good memories about them. These memories could be heart-warming, funny, exciting, scary, frustrating… any story that would get a good reaction when told.
MINUTE 3 – Then, put students in writing groups. I call mine “Writing Clubs.” Try to group your students more by personality than by writing ability (I will explain why in “Minute 4”). For example, try to put the students who hate writing with students who are open-minded and positive.
(For more ideas about setting up writing groups, check out Pernille Ripp’s article titled “Setting Up Writing Circles in Middle School.”)
MINUTE 4 – Then, have students share a story. One minute! The story exists even before it is written. And because it exists, it can be told even before it is written. Have your students think of their writing groups as their “test audience.” Their goal is to choose a story and tell it to the group in a way that gets the reaction you want.
THIS IS WHAT STUDENTS WANT TO DO ANYWAY…TALK! They want to tell their stories to get the reaction, so use it to your advantage. They even do it while you are teaching. You might as well make it a part of your lesson.
MINUTE 5!!! – Finally, teach students what to do with the reactions they get. THIS IS MY FAVORITE PART! This is where minds start changing. I walk the room and hang around the students who hate writing the most. They usually have the best stories.
Once the story gets a reaction from the writing club, I INTERRUPT THE GROUP! I’d say, “Wait a minute. Was that the reaction you wanted?” When they say yes, I ask the group members, “Why did you react that way?”
They’ll reply with something like, “It was funny!”
Then I’d look at the storyteller and say, “Dude! Write that story idea in your journal, just a sentence, and highlight that bad boy! That will make an AMAZING writing piece if it can get THIS kind of reaction!”
It’s amazing to see the dramatic shift in attitude when that happens.
FOLLOW-UP – Spread the change. It’s hard to do minute 5 for each writing group, so I choose the all-for-one method (I just made that name up). While the student is writing and highlighting his new awesome story idea, I interrupt the entire class.
“Hey guys, let me tell you what just happened. I was walking past this group when I noticed everyone in the group laughing. Why do you think they were laughing?”
They’ll respond the same way the group responded, “Because his story was funny.”
Then I’ll ask, “What does that mean about his story if it can get this kind of reaction?”
“It’s a good story!”
“That’s right! So I told him to write that story idea in his journal (just a sentence) and highlight it so he remembers to write that one into a story.”
Here’s the kicker. “Did any other groups experience something similar? Then you guys better write those ideas down and highlight them too!”
And just like that, the students receive the gratification they need to motivate them to write, and they haven’t written a single sentence yet.
So there it is…one super easy, super effective way to get even the most reluctant writer excited about the writing process within 5 minutes. I’ve done this every year, and every year I see hearts change just like that.
When I use this as my first lesson, it sets the tone for the rest of my writing lessons. Students start looking forward to writing, especially to sharing their ideas in their writing clubs, because of the gratification it gives them. Sometimes I allow writing clubs to go a little longer than I had planned, especially when I see my reluctant writers enjoying themselves.
This process of using writing clubs can be used at any and every stage of the writing process. I try to use it every day. Sometimes students will even ask if they will have time to meet with their writing clubs. I try to always answer yes to this question.
Have you tried it out?
Tried something similar?
Comment below. I’d love to hear what you’ve done.