“Ms. C, I finished my paragraph. Is this good enough?”
When I first started teaching at my small, rural school, this phrase was practically set on repeat. Student after student would approach me with their work, asking if it was “good enough”. I would look at the page and see that the student was calling two sentences a full paragraph. I would encourage them to write more. They would return to their seat, write, and come back up to my desk. “Okay, is it good enough now?”. I would glance down at the paper and see that they had added one additional sentence to their paper. Cue blood-curdling scream and commence tearing out my own hair.
I couldn’t understand why these students didn’t intrinsically WANT to try harder, why there wasn’t this inner drive to produce work that they could actually be proud of. Even the phrase itself, “good enough”, set my teeth on edge. Good enough for what? Whenever I heard a student utter that phrase, I wanted to retort, “If you have to ask, then you already know that it isn’t” (Okay, I may have said something like this to a student once). It’s maddening, mostly because we assume that they know what their work is lacking, and we think the only reason the work isn’t being done can be boiled down to pure, unfiltered laziness. Whoops.
When Enough Was Enough
I suffered through a year or two of listening to the “good enough” refrain, until one day in class I was approached by a top-achieving student. This student turned in the day’s written assignment and when I looked down at it, I was shocked. There was barely any writing on the paper. I called the student back to my desk and asked if they did not understand the assignment. Here was the reply:
“No, Ms. C., I understood the assignment. I’ve seen what some of my classmates have been turning in, and it is NEVER as much as I do. So, I guess I just don’t see the point of doing more if it doesn’t matter.”
I. Was. Stunned. This student’s words sucker-punched me right through the gut and left me feeling kind of dizzy. It was me. I was the reason that kids were aiming for “good enough”. Now, that’s kind of harsh considering there are other factors such as home environment and the student’s choice of friends that play into their drive to succeed. Yet, I knew at that moment what the power of a teacher’s expectations had on student performance. I was rewarding laziness by allowing sub-par answers, and students that worked hard to truly answer the questions were noticing. That was the day I decided that “good enough” was dead.
How I Transformed “Is This Good Enough?” to “Is This The Most Relevant/Analyzed/Thoughtful Answer?”
How do young children learn how to act? They watch adults and model after their behavior. This can be a positive thing, depending on the adult that the child is watching. The same rule can be applied to how children learn how to write – they read writing and imitate it.
So, the very first thing I did was create models of exemplary paragraphs. I showed these to students. We went through these paragraphs to identify topic sentences, located relevant evidence, and discussed whether the explanation was thorough enough. We studied these paragraphs. Every time I assigned a new type of writing assignment, we repeated this process of modeling work and going through the model to point out all of its best features. Students had a CLEAR idea of what was considered acceptable.
I no longer accepted basic vocabulary in their answers.
Once my students got used to modeling exemplary work together, I decided to set my expectation bar even higher. I stopped accepting written work with vocabulary such as “very”, “many”, “good”, “bad”, “things” and “stuff”. We created synonym charts for these words and I saw kids having fun as they started “leveling up” their vocabulary – a term that I started using. A vast majority of my students love video games, and so the idea of gaining a new “level” was enough to get them giggling and trying to find a better word than their original choice.
I Stayed Consistent
Bottom line? I would not let a paper even be considered for grading if it was not written correctly or I found any basic terms in it. The students learned quickly to complete the work right the first time, or they would be revising the work over and over until it was right. I cannot tell you how many times I heard a child whisper to a classmate, “Ms. C. won’t take that like that” and I just smile because they’ve started to not only recognize weaknesses in their own writing, but also in the writing of their peers. That, my dear friends, is powerful.
Does this get tiresome as teacher? Yup. Do you consider accepting their work after six failed tries and one frustrated child? Yup. Don’t fall to temptation. The reward is SO worth it once they learn the techniques and apply them.
Through modeling, I empower my young learners. Instead of just slapping failing grades onto dismal assignments, I let them explore writing as a guide for their own. As more and more time goes on, I watch them break away from the samples and start taking risks in their own writing. I notice that the students who had been motivated even before this paradigm shift are striving to accomplish even more now that they see that putting in the effort is being celebrated.
I no longer have students coming up to me to ask, “Is this good enough?”. Instead, they ask, “Did I place the comma in the right spot here for my evidence?”, “Is this the strongest piece of evidence for my topic?” or “Does this sound like a good transition to the next paragraph?”.
Guys, I teach middle schoolers. Let that sink in for a moment.
Maybe students aren’t just lazy, unmotivated and apathetic. Maybe they haven’t seen enough of what GREAT looks like. Maybe they’re just waiting for someone to say, “No, that’s not good enough. Yet.”