Nine Tips for Helping Students Reach Their Potential

Robbie groaned audibly when I explained the poem explication project to the class.

“I don’t get poetry,” he said.  “It’s too hard.”

Robbie is in my ‘regular’ tenth grade English section which is comprised of students who have not placed into the honors class.  Some of the students think they are not “good at” English, and this sometimes means they don’t try as hard as they might.  Robbie himself, though he is a personable and conscientious young man, has some difficulties with spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

So, today in class, when Robbie gave a presentation on his poem, I was shocked: it was a great presentation!
What happened?  How did he go from being a disheartened student to a proud student?  While much of the credit must go to Robbie, this kind of transformation can be facilitated by teachers in the intentional planning of such projects.  Below, then, are nine tips for helping students reach their potential:

  • Explain the why of the assignment – How is this project helpful to the students?  How does it fit into the overall objectives of the course?  In this example, some students had preconceived notions about poetry, so I used class time to discuss why poets compose poems and the benefits of reading poetry.
  • Provide templates – Students shouldn’t get hung up on menial issues at the expense of developing higher-order analytical skills.  Where appropriate, do some of the grunt work for them: often is it easier to provide a simple template than for each of them to make their own.  (Do they need to invent the wheel when you are asking them to discover fire!?)
  • Model –  This project required the students to make a webpage where they would explicate their poem and then present the webpage to the class.  In this case, I did exactly this: I chose one of my favorite poems (Digging, by Seamus Heaney), made a webpage explicating the poem, and then presented the page to the class. (Click on this link to see the model explication:
  • Provide a student benchmark – This was one of the more difficult assignments, and I wanted to provide a benchmark in addition to my model.  So, I engineered it so one of the strongest students presented first.  He gave a great presentation, and his classmates had a standard by which to measure their presentations.
  • Differentiate – Though it is important that all students are held to the same standard, there’s no reason why they have to complete identical projects.  In this case, some poems were more accessible than others, and I was conscious of this as I gave the students individual help, and this was also taken into consideration in their final evaluations.
  • Provide an element of choice –  Students are more invested in a project when they feel some sense of ownership.  In some cases, they can choose the topic/subject of their presentation with only minimal teacher guidance.  On other occasions, it is appropriate for them to choose from a limited number of choices selected by the teacher.  For this project, I wanted the students to work on poems that were both accessible, but also rich in figurative language, imagery, and other poetic techniques: we held a lottery, and the students chose their poems from a list I provided.
  • Provide extrinsic motivation for the project –  Students are motivated when they have a ‘real-world’ audience, when they are making something tangible (a webpage), and when they are collaborating with others.  At a minimum, presentations provide motivation for students to work at least hard enough to avoid embarrassment!
  • Provide plenty of class time for individual help and make yourself available for further help –  Students need the opportunity to ask questions without feeling embarrassed.  They need the opportunity to discuss the problems they are having and receive guidance about how to address challenges.  In particular, where they are working on different content, they need the opportunity to discuss their individual work.
  • Communicate the criteria for evaluation as clearly as possible –   Make explanations as clear as possible: what exactly are you looking for?  Use a rubric!


Of course, not all students will rise to the occasion and perform as Robbie did, but by providing these resources and opportunities for our students, they have plenty of support in reaching their potential.

© David Doherty, 11/28/12