Chapter 8 – Demand the Best

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We were looking over end of year test scores and noticed that Tom had made no progress in reading. “Well, what do you expect?” his teacher commented, “His mother dances.” She wasn’t referring to ballet.

I would have Tom later. He was angry, defiant, combative, and stole from me. I also learned the rest of his story. His mother was relying on neighbors to watch and protect her kids from a former boyfriend who liked to break in to their house and trash it. Tom felt he had to protect his mom and little brother so he tried not to sleep. Eventually, his father took his brother, but not him. So what did I expect?


What chance did this child have? The last thing he needs is a teacher who expects nothing of him, who lets his rotten attitude interfere with his learning, who backs off because it’s all too hard. He was one trying student, but my expectations stayed high. This battle was too important. I expected the best from him because his mother was a dancer. It’s his only way out.

Or how about Trina who was removed from her home, put into a group home, then foster care, then a group home, then foster care, and frankly, I got a little confused after that. She used to stop at the door of her little sister’s classroom just so she could get a glimpse of her. So what did I expect?


What chance did this child have? I hugged her, I cried with her, I talked her down from her swelling anger, I arranged for her to do homework at school, but I never cut her any slack academically. I expected the best from her because she was bouncing all over the system. It’s her only way out.

What chance do any of my homeless or hungry students who attend three schools a year have? I don’t know. I can’t control their parents’ choices. I will clothe them, feed them, counsel them, throw a birthday party, send home a grocery store card, and even make sure they brush their teeth, but I will not expect less. It’s their only way out.

This is the context within which you have to teach. Not all students will come to you in great distress. Thankfully, many come with bright eyes, a love for learning, and parents who support them. Be glad, but demand excellence. All day, every day.

What does excellence look like? I promise parents that I will meet the children where they are and push them hard. It is my basic teaching philosophy. Excellence in that sense means I want each child’s best effort every time. It also means that I promise to assess each child so I know where they are. Implied in that promise is that I will not only dig in to help lagging children catch up, I will also push every other child to move ahead of grade level, and gifted children will face some real work. I will differentiate in a huge way and keep assessing to assure progress.

Some children are not used to this and have a few bad learning habits, the worst of which is throwing down any old answer. I grade everything because to me everything is an assessment. I need find out what they learned and checking their ongoing work is the best way to do it. I can tell when I inherit a child from a non-grading teacher because they write junk. I have even had children who tried to use actual scribbles. Are there really teachers who don’t notice? Anyway, it is time for the dreaded Do Over.

Do Overs, or Fix It’s, or ReDo’s, depending upon the year, were my mother Barbara DeWilde’s invention. They fit right in with the top five predictors of learning in your classroom (see chapter 15, Discipline). Analyzing and correcting mistakes is an important opportunity to learn.  Students who analyze their errors stop repeating them, get to have that “Aha!” moment, and are ready to move ahead. For my students, Do Overs are homework and when there are many pages, they replace all homework except reading logs. One mother got into a vigorous, but polite, argument with me about them. “How is my daughter supposed to know how to fix it if she didn’t know how to do it the first time?” I had faith. My experience is that most children, when told they made a mistake, can figure out how to solve it. And she did. For the couple of places where she was still confused, we have homework time before school and sometimes study hall during recess.

My students are encouraged to fix everything until it is correct, including tests. The only exceptions are district assessments, oral tests, and work from the end of the quarter. If they get an F, they have to fix it. (To keep from going bananas, I put a limit on my middle school students. They could only fix a D or F, and the best grade they could get was a C.) They can try as many times as they need. I have had determined English language learners send back a test five times. Some math work gets similar treatment with notes and “See me” flying back and forth as I provide more and more help. Entire groups have even decided to redo research projects and presentations. Given the opportunity, children will impress you.

This system has some serious advantages. First, there is no excuse for failure. Failure only means a lack of effort, not a lack of aptitude or knowledge. It changes the entire tone of parent conferences. Failure is no longer the teacher’s fault. I am willing to teach and re-teach, grade and re-grade, until their child learns. I can feel the focus shift from me to the student. The discussion becomes entirely about where the work has gone. Parents have located stacks of Do Over’s and Fix-It’s under the couch, in the attic and behind the TV. For any child who dumped his in the trash, I am completely willing to help him make fresh, new copies that he can do from scratch. Students blanch, but parents leave the conference with a plan.

Another reason I love this system is that students learn to recover from failure. This is a critical skill that most of us learn too late. Like most gifted students, I sailed through school finding everything easy until I hit honors calculus in college. Even doing all of the homework and studying didn’t save me from an F on the first midterm exam. Panic. I didn’t dare drop the class, but had no idea what to do. I finally got a tutor and brought my grade up to a C+. The next quarter, I felt much better in non-honors calculus. After I became a teacher, I found out that this is a pattern among gifted students. Never having learned to recover from failure, they hit their F in college, don’t know what to do, and drop out. I would far rather a child learn this lesson in 2nd grade math or 6th grade writing than give up on college.

Now that you are imagining a mountain of papers to grade, there are several ways to cut that workload down while keeping your students engaged. See chapter 16 for an extensive discussion on the details of grading. Differentiation has its own chapter as well, chapter 18.

Speaking of grading, part of demanding the best is requiring that all work get done. From elementary students, I do accept late work until one week before the end of the quarter. They also miss most assemblies and field trips unless they are current. This results in some mad dashes to get caught up, but children need to learn and doing the work helps meet that goal. For middle school students, I only accept work a week late, not for my sake, but for theirs. Students will trash one class to catch up in another, and failing math in order to catch up in language arts is not a good choice.

Some upper grade teachers hold a hard line on late work often mistakenly believing that late is never acceptable in the real world. Don’t buy it. I worked in government, business, and industry for eighteen years before becoming a teacher. Hard, fast deadlines were rare. Most were constantly being negotiated. I watched deadline after deadline slip until some products shipped well over a year late. I used to tell my middle school students that if I hadn’t looked in that period’s work envelopes yet, it wasn’t late. I even kept a status on the whiteboard of whose envelopes I was pulling next so they could get their work turned in. The students appreciated the flexibility, and I didn’t have to waste time date-stamping papers.

Speaking of date stamps, get one, not for homework, but for writing. This simple strategy pushes your students to excel even when you aren’t with them. My students write in composition books so they can’t throw their work away. When I start the writing portion of writer’s workshop, I whiz around the room with my date stamp. By stamping the page they are writing on, I can get them working quickly, confirm that they are working on something appropriate, and see if they are making progress (three stamps on one page needs a conference). I do something similar in their response logs for reader’s workshop. My students work to complete a page every day so the stamp goes on a new page the next day. When I recall that some of them started the year unable to write a sentence, I burst with pride.

This date-stamping practice even turned a parent conference around. Lars’ mother was not happy with his grades. When she came in, 5th grade Lars was a completely different child from the bright, but lackadaisical, worker he had been so far. When we moved into independent work in class, he often took the opportunity to play, and I hadn’t found a solution yet. With tears in eyes, he told his mother, “I try! I really do! I just don’t get it sometimes!” While he had even me half-convinced that this was true about his incomplete math work, I knew that couldn’t be right. I pulled out his composition book. And there, stamp after stamp, was the truth. He had a few words written here and there, and a couple of paragraphs, but his mom wasn’t having it, “How could you write nothing on Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday?” She turned some more pages. “Nothing here! And here! This is not ‘trying.’ We’re going to have a talk.” It changed the entire tone of the conference. Instead of blaming the teacher, we could get to work on the real problem.

While learning time is precious, and we want our students to work hard, finding exciting ways to do that work is our teachers’ gift. One first-year teacher, Ramneek Hundal, not only created a club that taught Indian dance, she also invited the school to an international cultural assembly she put together that featured dancers from many nations. She danced in it, too! I never aspired so high. I was trying to remember to breathe. Having said that, keep an open mind for the simple, simple things you can do that get the students excited. If you feel uninspired, Dave Burgess’ Teach Like a Pirate is full of fantastic suggestions for energizing your classroom.

At a middle school conference years ago, I overheard someone saying that a student should have a reason to come to school every day. And if it can’t be my class, I hope it’s yours. There have been many days when I silently thanked the P.E., art, cooking, and computer teachers, among others. Still, I want it to be my class’s turn, and we can’t always build Stonehenge.

Start by looking in your reading. Children generally love the many ways we teach reading from SSR to literature circle, but class novels can wear them down. Find ways to make those books feel real. One of my favorites was The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. Every child took a lieutenant’s exam drawn from the detailed diagram of a wooden sailing ship and the highest scorers became officers in each class’ merchant marine. Every group took on the name of a watch, the watches rotated responsibilities, and their officers ran the room. For The Cay, when the characters were shipwrecked, my students had to sit on their desks as lifeboats. They spent three days trying to find the perfect number and arrangement of desks before we landed on the island. Then they had to sit on the floor for the rest of the novel. There are no chairs on a deserted island.

These quick adaptations are also possible in social studies and science. People and animals migrate. Move a proportional number of students across the room. People and populations die. Sit students on the floor. Make those large numbers come alive. I love Teacher Created Materials for turning this type of teaching into an art form, but if you can’t get their materials, adapt. Kings, and the top of the food chain, get to sit on top of desks. When they are overthrown, or the food chain becomes unbalanced, down they go. When people assimilate or plants invade; mix those students together. It will not only help them understand the concept, it will help them learn the vocabulary. The same for deforestation and habitat loss. Make students fit together in ever smaller spaces. Once you start thinking along these lines, it’s hard to stop.

Science experiments can be adapted a little or a lot. When my 3rd graders were trying to figure out what type of soil held the most water, they wanted to test playground soil, too. We found out it held the most water of all. Then we had to figure out why. After delving into the history of our school, we found out that half of our playground had been an ash dump for the school’s coal-based heating system for over fifty years. Experiments can also be adapted a lot. When my 4th/5th graders were studying energy, I gave them all sorts of materials and challenged them to come up with their own ways to make sound, electrical, mechanical, and chemical energy. (We did wear goggles, and I did limit the baking soda and vinegar quantities.) They created experiments I never dreamed of.

The point is that you don’t have to turn your room into Fenway Park or the U.S.S. Enterprise to motivate your students. It’s great if you can do it. Often, a simpler idea can still spark your students’ imaginations and draw their best work out of them.


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