When my students returned after winter break, I issued a challenge for all of them to take the AP exam on May 8 and explained that I would be challenging myself by preparing to run a 5k next fall. If you knew how spectacularly un-athletic I am, you would realize how truly daunting a task I have set for myself. I showed the kids a photo of myself on the first day I attempted to run around the elementary school track near my house, resplendent in my new running shoes. The second photo showed me prone on the ground a short while later. I am happy to report that I have been walking and running pretty consistently over the last three months and have improved tremendously. I don’t think Usain Bolt has anything to worry about YET. Teachers do all kinds of crazy things to inspire their students and I think it’s important to think about how the things that we do can impact student performance.
1. We are role models. If we want our students to be risk takers who are willing to take a challenging exam, even when there is a chance of not doing well, then we need to show we are willing to do the same. Taking on difficult tasks (that some of my students might find easy) shows that I am more like them than they might think.
2. Setting specific and measurable goals. On May 9, I have promised the students I will run around the track at the high school to celebrate the completion of their AP exam on May 8. They ask me often how my running is going and I am happy to report my very incremental improvement. I have now reset my goal to run around the track TWICE. As they take their AP practice exams, I ask each of them to set a personal goal to improve over their previous performance or to beat the average on the free response questions. They seem to enjoy working toward those definite goals and try to help one another improve. They compete against themselves rather than against one another.
3. All difficult tasks require stamina and determination that can carry over to other difficult tasks. As I was running the other night, I was thinking about the importance of positive self-talk. When I am running, I will tell myself “this is difficult, but you can do it” or near the end of my run “just keep going!” Today, just before students started their practice tests, I passed out post-it notes and asked them to write themselves a message to inspire them to keep going when the test got hard. I was fascinated by what they wrote: “Si, se puede!” “You are smart. Now prove it.” “College credit.” “Make your father proud.” I plan to tape the notes up on an unused chalkboard in my room.
4. Fun matters. Students appreciate it when they see their teachers doing goofy things to inspire them. It makes them want to work harder. I have a good friend in Houston who allows his students to shave a representation of a 5 into his hair (dyed blue, the school color) every year prior to the AP exam. He has had a mohawk with five spikes, an outline of a hand with five fingers spread out, a roman numeral V, etc. As much as I want to work hard this spring and have the students work hard toward their goal of doing well on the AP exam, I want them to have a good time and enjoy the spring of their senior year. If laughing a little bit at my expense lessens the stress of studying, then that’s fine.
5. Success can be measured in many different ways. Running a 5k seems like an almost impossible task to me at this poing, just as earning a 5 on the AP exam seems almost impossible to some of my students. I need to keep working toward that goal though. If I fall short, as some of my students will as well, I will still be far better off for having tried than if I had maintained my couch potato ways. The process of preparing for and taking the AP exam is important in and of itself, regardless of what score is earned. I have told the kids that I will never win a trophy or medal for running. When I get that finishers’ ribbon at the end of the 5k, I am going to be incredibly proud of myself. I want my students to feel that same pride when they walk out of the testing room on May 8.
The AP exam is just over a month away. If you have interesting ways that you inspire your students to study and do well, send me a comment and I will publish it! Keep running toward your goals and enjoy the terrain along the way.