Win-win activities and the confidence game

Guest blogger: Anna McHugh

If you read my post on the difference between marking and correcting, you might feel this is an about-face. But as we’re constantly telling students, the art of teaching is knowing which of your tools to deploy, and when. Corrections-style engagement with students’ work is useful when you’re improving grammar, style, and thinking patterns, when want to see specific skills demonstrated, when you’re communicating stiffer expectations of their standards, or when you’re giving a dry-run of an assessment.

But some students have trouble just getting to that point. They may have ‘English block’ or ‘student block’ more generally, where they can’t produce a written response because they lack confidence in their work, or trust in your reception of it.

What you can do is ensure that they achieve the feeling of success. This provides a valuable basis for weaker students’ willingness to try, to feel confident in their ability to produce a written response, to receive a positive response, and to enjoy English for its own sake. For stronger students it provides a chance to extend themselves, to find aspects of the subject they like, and understand that those may be different from what they’re good at.

What sort of things count as win-win activities? The aims dictate the design. If you’re trying to establish confidence, don’t mark them. In fact, you may decide that students don’t have to hand them in, or can hand them in anonymously. (Allowing a low-confidence student to decide when to you start marking their work can help them be less fearful of a negative response—you can simply stamp the piece to say that you’ve seen it.)

You may decide to allow students to respond to the text or topic in their own way, with fairly loose restrictions, such as ‘Create a piece of work showing your response to To Kill a Mockingbird. It may be in any medium and mode, but should cover no more than four A4 pages or the equivalent space.’ Students might create sculpture, a short video, or hand in a graffiti’d copy of the text. The point is that they have taken the plunge and ‘thought English’ for a while. They’ve engaged with your subject—you win. They’ve created a piece of work that has met the specifications—they win.

I bring win-win activities out when the class is flagging, towards the end of Term 2. Or, when students have performed poorly in an assessment and may be losing heart. If you have a low-ability group, win-win activities help to gain momentum before things start to count. For really strong or keen students, such as Extension 2 writers, using some win-win tasks can be a good way to break writer’s block, or to circle around the extended writing project before attacking it again.

Win-win activities don’t have to tackle the current topic. You may have read this post and thought ‘She’s talking about the primary school Busy Book,’ and you’d be absolutely right. It was the best of all inventions, the Busy Book. It was the free time offering that let you run rampant without fear of corrections—anything was acceptable, as long as it was done quietly (in St Charles’ Primary School, Kelvinside, at any rate). It engaged hand, eye, heart, and brain all in the medium of freely-chosen text. I copied a lot of poetry into mine, and wrote some of my own. Other people wrote hit-lists, character studies (Mrs Gillies is harribel appears in mine a few times), or made up languages. I still have all my Busy Books, and continue to keep one now. It was the foundation of my ability to read sympathetically, write sensitively, and think about texts with joy and interest—the things we want for every student.