How do we encourage students to read directions?

Last week, at the end of a unit on poetry, I assigned my students the task of writing their own poems. It was my intention that this assignment would encourage them to demonstrate understanding of the literary techniques we had discussed during the unit: a central metaphor, other figurative language devices, sound and rhyme, plot and message etc.

To encourage them to include these techniques in the poem, the requirements for this assignment were quite involved: there were seven different areas that they needed to satisfy that related to the main literary devices we had studied.

To be fair, most of the students did a great job: this was not an easy task, and they submitted thoughtful and mature poems.  We had used a fair amount class time to brainstorm their poems, and I had focused my individual help on helping them to find a central contrasting metaphor to the poem. (In Seamus Heaney’s poem Digging for example, he uses the literal digging for potatoes by his grandfather to contrast with the metaphorical digging he as a poet does with his pen to find meaning and sustenance in life.)

So, the students submitted the poems, and, I as have said, most of them were quite good. Two of them, however, fell short in the simplest of areas: length. Category 4 of the assignment, Structure, prescribed that the poem should either be 14 lines long (a sonnet), or 16 lines long (four quatrains). One student submitted an 8 line poem, and another, a 10 line poem.

When the students received the completed rubrics for the poem from me, I got an email from the 8-line poet who questioned his grade. “The directions said that we could write an 8 line poem,” he wrote. I referred him back to the original directions, and I soon received a sheepish email where he saw he had made a mistake.

All the students in the class will have the opportunity to re-submit their poems when they have polished them further, and one incentive for doing this is a modest improvement to their grades. (I have also offered to publish them in the school newspaper.) However, I believe that there do need to be standards for the initial submission for the assignment, otherwise, we may be encouraging poor habits if the students feel that anything is acceptable.

So, how do we make sure that students read and listen to directions carefully? For this assignment, I though I had done everything I needed to do:

  • I projected the directions on the screen in class and brought attention to all the main points;
  • I posted the directions on the course webpage;
  • I provided models for them: the majority of the poems we studied were either 14 or 16 lines long, and we discussed sonnets and four quatrain poems;
  • The students made their own explications of similar poems (they built webpages and presented them to the class).

I have a few thoughts on simple changes I can make (putting key words and numbers in bold, for example), but this is an area that I need to think about, research, and learn more. If you have any thoughts or successes, I would be most interested in hearing them!


Why we continue to work ourselves to a nub

The middle school winter concert is just over, it’s your seventeenth, and even though you’ve done winter concerts since your hair was its original color and you knew the names of bands on the radio, putting on a concert just doesn’t get any less exhausting.

But everyone at school realizes just how much work goes into putting on a concert, right? They couldn’t possibly think that the kids just show up at the concert and play the pieces? Everyone is definitely is aware that:

  • You’ve painstakingly taught every note of music and then repeated every passage 2,436 times until most of the students have got most of it right;
  • You’ve lavished the kids with praise, positive affirmations, and motivational talk until your tongue has become swollen
  • you haven’t had every kid together at a rehearsal since early October
  • you’ve had to beg the principal for extra rehearsal time and become a little less popular among your colleagues for taking kids out of their exam prep classes
  • You’ve begged the kids to come to extra rehearsals, and then you’ve crammed rehearsals into assembly times, before school, after school, during lunchtime
  • you’ve run to Kinko’s that day to print the programs and flyers, then run back to school because the Kinko computer doesn’t have the font you use on their computer, then back to Kinkos where there is a now a long line.

After the concert, even though the principal thanks you for doing a good job, you walk away feeling a little short changed.

But then, you think about it. You remember the joy of looking into the students faces as they sung and played. You think about the culmination of all that work: they finally got that tricky passage right. You could see that they were nervous, blushing, and exhilarated on the stage in front of their family and friends. And they made a great sound – they did, because you made no sound during the performance.

And that’s why we do it. Even when our colleagues, parents, and administrators have no idea how much work goes into it, even when we receive no special recognition for all the extra work we put into making the concert the best it could be. We do it for the joy and accomplishment of our students and the hope that they will pass on their skills and experiences to others.