Have I Failed?

For the last two weeks I have been struggling with my 8th graders when it comes to writing. It all came to a head for me last week when I asked one of my 8th graders to give me the definition of a sentence and they couldn’t.  Then, after they understood what a sentence was, they couldn’t determine what was wrong with the thesis statement they had written.  The clause read “How there are similarities and differences.” They believed it was a sentence.  The sentence situation was only the beginning.

This past weekend I was going over outlines for a compare/contrast paper they are working on now. Needless to say, they were not meeting my expectations. Poor sentence quality, lack of transitions, and students not knowing how to follow simple guidelines on finishing an appropriate outline.  I instructed the students today that anyone lower than a 9 had to make corrections. I wanted this writing project to take 2 weeks tops.  I am on week 3 due to the poor quality of writing. Ultimately, I am frustrated about the fact my students are content on just turning in a paper or any other assignment and thinking it is just good enough.

Naturally, as I reflect, I start to put blame onto myself.  I had these students as 7th graders. Was I blind to the fact they are in need of some major intervention as writers? Did I let them slide too much last year on their writing assignments?  What has happened? I am starting to think I have failed them.  Other data suggests that I haven’t, but I still feel that way.

Now, because I am noticing more and more deficiencies, I am making some changes. I offer help Tuesday’s and Thursday’s during lunch time. In addition, I am making students redo, redo, redo before we move forward. However, I struggle with moving too slowly and deciding when I have to move forward. Furthermore, I can only get on their cases so much before they start tuning me out and I sound like the Charlie Brown Teacher…”Whant whant, whant!”

I wonder too if our society in general is have an impact on them. Do students notice that mediocrity is okay? Look at our government! They are our biggest models of “it is okay to fail and still get paid for it”.

Anyways, I am not here for a political battle, I just want to know if other middle school or high school teachers encounter some of the same problems I have been enduring for the last 2 weeks.


9 thoughts on “Have I Failed?

  1. I am having the SAME problem with my 7th graders. I am doing a writing workshop this week because it has been so terrible. They don’t know what a thesis is. They write like they talk to their friends… it’s crazy! I blame the internet. Instead of reading books that have been through publishers and editors, etc… they are reading off the internet which is HORRIFIC. Good luck to you!

    • Thanks for your comment. I feel better hearing that other teachers are having the same issue. I am a huge tech person and I don’t necessarily blame the internet, but students do need to know how to differentiate between formal and nonformal language and writing. Again, thanks for the comment and the follow!

      • I am not a techy at all and I refuse to allow any kind of electronic in my classroom. I just think books are becoming a lost art and until I can’t anymore because they aren’t available, I will continue to use the old that has always been reliable. Wish you luck in the future!!

  2. Jeremy, I do not think you are failing your students. Each student and each class has different needs. Trying to shoehorn every class into a two-week schedule would be failing. The fact that you are noticing the deficiencies and addressing them is evidence that you are using effective assessment to shape your instruction. Taking the time to establish writing basics is always time well spent, an investment that will pay dividends for years.

    In my middle and high school classrooms I have had similar issues. More and more I have moved toward more detailed and time-consuming instruction on fewer writing tasks than shallower instruction on a greater number of writing tasks. Certainly this leaning doesn’t fill up writing portfolios at the same rate, but it is a quality-over-quantity method that has had some promising results. (Of course this doesn’t eliminate the occasional bouts of angst upon discovering that a student still doesn’t really understand the purpose of a thesis statement.)

    I’d be interested in discussing/hearing about ideas for increasing student ownership of purpose and audience. In the meantime, stay the course and be encouraged in your efforts and their value.


    • Scott,

      Thank you for your comment and your words of encouragement. I am feeling better and I do need to think about doing smaller writing assignments to get my students to understand certain concepts better. Students taking ownership of there work is a task that is well worth the time invested. I feel my students do this for the most part because of the choices they receive on assignments. I am very interested in continuing our conversation. I am not sure if you are a Twitter person but you can follow me on Twitter @jeremybballer. Thanks again!


      • Scott


        Turns out that we already follow each other on Twitter. I don’t know what the best forum is for more conversation, but since it started here, I’ll continue it here for now.

        In your last reply you mention student choice in writing. What kinds of choice do you offer your students on writing work? For some of my older students I might give a purpose (explore and share positive uses of social media) and let students choose audience and genre. This leads to a wide variety of writing projects (proposals to the principal about Twitter in class, stories for grade school students, poems about cyber bullying). This level of choice increases ownership, but with younger, less experienced writers, it seems to offer too much choice for the consistent assessment and skill building they need.

        Any thoughts on choice and skill building in middle school (or high school) writing classes?


      • Scott,

        I completely agree with your statement about how too much choice can impair consistent assessment and skill building. In addition, when students are not used to teachers giving them choice, they “freak” out a bit about what to do. Theses students are typically the ones that need a lot of structure. Most of my students embrace the idea of choice. Typically for me, I give my students topic choices and genre choices within the parameters of what their purpose is for the assignment.

        There are times I will tell my students “You must have…” when you complete the assignment. Now, I understand that some genres will be difficult to include certain requirements by me. That means I have to have individual writing conferences and discuss with students how they are going to meet the given requirements. This helps with differentiated instruction. However, it can be very time consuming.

        I have used Twitter in my classroom in the past and it works okay. I do something now called a paper tweet where the students post them on sticky notes around class for everyone to see that mirrors Twitter and they only have 140 characters to do it as well.

        Thanks for engaging!



      • Jeremy,

        Conferences have always been the most effective tool for improving writing in my classes, but you are absolutely right about how time consuming they can be, particularly since that time is usually class time. I’ve been experimenting with methods of giving conference-like feedback on writing that I can work on outside of school hours. I’ve used voice notes on iAnnotate. I’ve also created quick screencasts of student papers while I respond to them so that I can point, underline, etc. It’s a work in progress, but my attempts are quicker and more detailed than the margin notes I used to write.

        I love the idea of the paper tweets, especially the part about public posting. It seems like a great way to drive home the concept that Twitter is a public space. Thank you! I’m sure I’ll be paper tweeting in class in the near future.

        Thanks for your sincere posts and the conversation. I’ll be following along.


  3. Pingback: Have I Failed? – Center for Teaching Quality

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