I do not believe that motivation can be established from the outside; it is an inside job. I cannot force students to want to work hard, that must come from within them. I can make a student comply, but that compliance ends when I leave the room. Compliance is okay, but students working hard for their own reasons is better.
In books about teaching, I’ve mostly read about making students ready for college and for life. Yes, that is important. Having made the not-so-brilliant decision to quit college in my first attempt, I have first-hand knowledge of the after-effects of lacking a college degree. I do not wish that on my students; I talk with my Little Sister about it frequently, especially as she sees me rushing to catch up in my 30’s.
Yet, I do not think promoting being prepared for a test, college, or life after school will motivate students. Those concepts are too abstract and distant to gather the necessary level of desire to push students past their comfort zones.
I believe that if we want to motivate students now, we must learn what they desire now. What are their goals? What do they want to accomplish now?
I want to begin my school year by asking each class this question: “What do YOU want?”
Do they want better friendships? Do they want to learn how to persuade their parents to let them go out with friends? Do they want to learn how to talk to boys/girls?
I will write down their answers, and then inform them: “You have given ME homework. Because I am going to refer to this list throughout the year to find material to help YOU get better at these.”
Then I will post these goals, by class, and refer to them as we cover assignments. English is about language, which conveys knowledge; knowledge is power. Therefore, learning English should be about teaching students their own mental power so that they can have the impact they desire in their lives.
Literature, for example, tells a lot about life. It gives examples that the students can learn from. Do they want a better love life? Let’s read Romeo and Juliet, then, and discuss about what does (or does not!) make them a good example of a romantic relationship. Do they want to learn about friendship? Most books have friends, and we can discuss how they would feel if a friend treated them in particular ways.
Do they want to learn about something specific – say, how to be a good basketball player? I can find books about basketball, whether it’s a biography about how a player became famous or about strategies of the game. Common Core focuses on non-fiction research, so why can’t I use that to benefit students in subjects where they want to learn more?
Do they want to learn how to persuade people? That is a form of writing which combines both research (figuring out the obstacles as well as the reasons why they should agree) and choosing the right words and tone to use.
The underlying message here is: Set goals, think about what you want life, then figure out how to get the information to get there. Reading gives the students access to a world of knowledge that can help them. While their goals will probably have little to do with college, if I can teach them how to set and achieve goals, they will already have the skills necessary to thrive once they are ready to think on their future.
In the short term, it will hopefully motivate them to learn now.