It was Thursday afternoon, and 24 of my 26 third graders were on pace to meet tomorrow’s writing deadline and have the drafts of their “All About” books on their desks the following morning. Two of my kids, however, didn’t appear to be heeding the friendly daily reminders I had been giving over the past week about not waiting until the last night to get all their chapters done. They both had quite a bit of work ahead of them if they were going to meet the deadline as well.
The Long-term Focus
When school ended, I wanted to touch base with these children’s parents to make sure they know about the deadline. I found one boy’s mom outside the door and invited her inside. She was fully aware of the deadline and was prepared to supervise her son’s efforts that night, but he was resisting. With a directness not often shown by an eight-year-old, he expressed his belief that this amount of work was too much for a third grader and that I was expecting too much of him if I honestly thought he could finish by tomorrow. Via e-mail, I contacted the other boy’s mother later that afternoon and received the same basic message.
In both interactions my response was the same. Regardless of how the boys reached the point where a whole bunch of chapters had yet to be completed the day before an important deadline, all we could do was focus on tonight. Yes, the work itself was important, but more important was a larger lesson about keeping a positive attitude during difficult times, persevering when challenged, and finding a way to get things done. Even though both kids were focusing on the short-term task at hand, I was thinking about the long-term and trying to build a set of work habits and attitudes that they would carry with them for life.
I told both families that what I was most interested in that night was the effort. Regardless of how things reached this point, let’s focus on tonight’s effort. I asked both children to plug away and accomplish as much as they could with the time they had available to them. To both families, I made the point that I was interested in seeing how the boys would respond to this challenge that they created for themselves. Would they look for excuses and reasons why the project couldn’t be completed, or would they find a way to get it done?
I went to sleep that night not knowing what to expect the following morning. During our morning circle time, I decided I wanted to say something to the whole group about our writing deadline, and this was before I had a chance to check in with the boys. I am a big believer in the power of storytelling to teach important life lessons, and this seemed like a great opportunity to do it.
I told the kids that I knew this week was a difficult one for many of them, and yes, the expectation I held for them was a high one. I then went on to explain why establishing and maintaining high expectations is an important part of what I do as their teacher. I don’t do it to be mean; I do it so they can put themselves in a position to take advantage of life’s opportunities.
Specifically, I asked them to imagine that they were sixteen years old and desperately wanted to attend a new high-tech science camp that was set to open. (I purposely chose the area of science because the two boys love science, and I wanted the example to resonate with them.) I went on to share that 500 kids were interested in attending, but the camp could only accept 50. To determine who these 50 people would be, the camp asked everyone to complete a lengthy, detailed application within a week. I made the point that if kids spent that week complaining about the rigor of the application and saying that such an endeavor was too much to expect from a 16-year-old, they had a right to voice that opinion. In the meantime, other kids would be dedicating themselves to that application, and 50 of these kids would be accepted.
In short, I explained that in order to take advantage of life’s opportunities, we need to be willing to work. We need to demonstrate the ability to persevere and maintain a positive, determined attitude when things get difficult.
Once my students began our first independent work activity that morning, I called up each boy individually to my chair and asked if they understood the point of my story. It turns out that not only did they understand my message, but also they both completed their drafts the night before under the supervision of their parents, who had reinforced my message about effort and attitude, and the kids came through with flying colors. Both had completed their drafts and accomplished far more than they thought they could. I told both kids that they should feel very proud of their effort and consider this a big victory and an important growing experience.
If and when similar difficulties arise the next time we have a major project deadline, I can remind the boys of this occasion.
About the Author
Steve Reifman is a National Board Certified elementary school teacher, author, and speaker in Santa Monica, CA. He has written several books for educators and parents, including Changing Kids’ Lives One Quote at a Time andEight Essentials for Empowered Teaching and Learning, K-8. Steve is also the creator of the Chase Manning Mystery Series for kids 8-12. Each book in the series features a single-day, real-time thriller that occurs on an elementary school campus. For weekly Teaching Tips, blog posts, and other valuable resources and strategies on teaching the whole child, visit stevereifman.com. You can also follow Steve on Twitter.