What motivates us? What’s in your bag of tricks?

Working with young writers is always interesting.  As a teacher I am looking for that just right lesson, the perfect mentor text, the story or experience that motivates my students to put words on paper.

My fourth graders are struggling learners.   “Doing school” is not yet in their bodies or minds.  They can focus and learn I have seen them do it but each day the community functions differently.  I am never sure which lesson I have planned will work.  So last Thursday I over prepared.  I had a personal lead-in story about my writing and a mentor text to share.  The core idea was writers write from personal experience.

It is after lunch, the weather is switching from snow to rain and back again as these 4th graders sit down in the circle.   They are a mirror of the changing weather pattern – moody, cold, gray and distractible.  They won’t listen as I begin to share my personal story so I let it go knowing these guys buy in to a picture book almost always.  No go!   They are rolling on the floor, poking each other and all kinds of odd items are coming out of pockets to be played with.

I lose my cool and join them in their gray mood.  “That is it!”  I say ” Here are your writing journals.  Go to your desk- your desk only.  Date your page and start writing.  We will write for 15 minutes, don’t stop, don’t talk, I don’t care about spelling but be sure we can read it.  One, two, three start writing.   No don’t talk – pencil on paper now.”

I set the timer on my phone.  I am frustrated and now mad at myself for poor teaching.  The lights are off and we are all sitting in this gloom but as I watch and walk around the room the noise had died away.  Indeed, we only hear light pencil movements.  All and I mean All the students are writing, thinking and continuing to write.

I quietly remind them if they get stuck to skip a few lines and begin writing about something new but keep their pencil moving.

They Do!   For the next 15 minutes the students are intensely writing.  When the timer goes off many are disappointed they are involved in the beginnings of stories or thoughts they want to continue to work on.  We do stop ( I don’t want to push my luck) and settle back in at the circle and reflect on what happened, what it felt like to write.

Later I read through their notebooks.  There are no real gems in their writing, not yet.  We have a long ways to go as writers but for a few moments they heard, felt and knew they could do this thing we call writing.

What motivated them?  This time it was a timed writing, next week it might be the mentor text.   Who really knows what motivates them form day to day?

I am not sure what always motivates me, but I do know we just need to keep putting words on paper.  Writing is hard work and even harder work for most of our students. Our job is to keep finding what motivates them day to day.

Keep that bag of tricks handy – you never know what will work.

What “tricks” do you use to keep them motivated?

About Joanne Toft

I am a retired Minneapolis Public School teacher. I walk, garden, care for my Grandson and write. Life is good!
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9 Responses to What motivates us? What’s in your bag of tricks?

  1. Have you tried using a timer to motivate them to write a little longer each day? That might help.

    For kids who can’t go as long, you could try an hourglass that has just 5 minutes’ worth of sand in it to keep them focused. Then they can take a mind break by looking out the window and then have them start writing again as they turn the hour glass over. (I think Oriental Trading was where I found these inexpensively several years ago.)

    You’re doing the best you can do. You’re reflecting on your teaching, which is only bound to make things better day by day.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts! I like the idea of an hour glass. I have used an electric one off the web but it might be great to have a real one in the classroom. I have just started timing and counting words with this group. It is not my preferred way of working with them but it seems to catch their interest. We are going to try it again this week – I will let you know what happens.

  3. I see that it wasn’t the most pleasant of moments but it is good that you didn’t sway into nothing, that you did dip into your bag of tricks and got them going again. I used a brightly colored timer too, with middle schoolers, & they actually liked it. Sometimes open-ended is not the right cup of tea I guess. I found that students want direction sometimes, & this time for you I guess it worked. (The weather was a distraction wasn’t it? I find it often is.) Thanks for sharing. I liked hearing about someone who completely changed directions & made it work.

  4. onesunflower says:

    Sometimes I read other people’s blogs to inspire me to keep writing – like tonight when surprise surprise, I find early posting to help me get going!

  5. blkdrama says:

    I like that you are watching them and staying flexible, in the moment. Surprise is so important and yes, I agree regular writing in different ways. So cool and important.

  6. Two years and finishing strong... says:

    Ahhh….feel your pain, especially after today, the day before the Halloween show…. and then the candy. Will I get through it all? Sometimes I just flat out say to them, “You are just being very rude!!! Do I treat you the same way that you treat me?” No response, usually, I guess they are simply shocked that I can just flip on that impatient switch for a moment. Books motivate me the most and I feel that they are just the best thing to use, to mentor when we ask them to write. Many times I will ask the tough kiddos to try to draw first. I appreciate and enjoy how honest you are. You voice rings so true and I definitely can relate. xo nanc

  7. newtreemom says:


    Here is an idea I have used with fourth graders. I have tried it twice. It was so good last year, I have already done it this year with a new class.

    • Thanks! I like the idea. I may try it tomorrow. The date after Halloween and day before a Friday off. I have a feeling kids will not be focused so this might be fun. Thanks for sharing.

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