Motivating Students To Do Quality Work

By Bob Peterson

A student-led conference at Fratney.

There is a sense of excitement in the air. Fifty-two fifth graders sit at desks throughout the gymnasium. A few boys wear suits and ties; girls are in their Sunday best. At each desk student-made books and projects are neatly arranged on colorful cloths brought from home. Large math projects and art works adorn the walls. Freshly cut flowers brighten the sun-lit room.

Fratney School’s fifth-grade student exhibition is about to begin.

“It was the best day of my life,” commented one student the next day. Another reflected, “I liked staying after school and showing my projects to students, parents, and teachers. It made me feel important.”

The student exhibition is the culmination of the students’ academic career at La Escuela Fratney, a kindergarten through fifth grade Milwaukee public school. The success of the exhibition depends on several other activities, including student-work portfolios, student reflection, a project approach to learning, and student-led parent/teacher conferences. The exhibition’s goal is to increase students’ intrinsic motivation to do quality work and to ensure that authentic forms of assessment help drive the curriculum.

My teaching philosophy holds that classroom environments and lessons should be structured so that students become intrinsically motivated to do school work, instead of being motivated solely by extrinsic rewards or punishments. If students are genuinely interested in the work and find it meaningful to their lives, its quality will be much richer than if they are working solely for a grade. That’s one reason I use a structured project-approach in which students have considerable latitude in choosing what they study and research. Nonetheless, I have found that while student involvement in choosing topics spurs an interest in doing the project, it does not automatically translate into completion of the project or the production of high quality work.

Lack of student motivation and low-quality work are nemeses for most teachers, but I became particularly aware of them five years ago when I returned to the classroom after four years as program implementor for Fratney’s two-way bilingual program. Despite my creative activities and participatory lessons, too many of my students seemed to be indifferent to the quality of their work. After a year back in the classroom, my frustrations were such that I knew I had to try something different.

I recalled two visits, some years before, to high schools in New York City associated with the Coalition of Essential Schools. In those schools, students were expected to maintain a work portfolio and participate in an exhibition at the end of their school career. Their portfolios and the exhibition gave greater purpose to their school projects and allowed the students to show off publicly the results of what they had accomplished. It also allowed others to assess how well the students (and the school) were doing.

I decided to try the same approach with my fifth graders, who end their elementary school career with me and move on to middle school. I figured such a public exhibition of work would help motivation. It would also help me maintain high expectations for my students. If teachers know that their students are going to present their work so publicly, they’re less likely to while away the days assigning meaningless worksheets. Their curriculum will be more oriented to projects and the real world. This is a good example of the idea that if the “test” is a good one, it’s fine to have it drive the curriculum. Finally, I knew that an exhibition would fit well with the already established policy, at Fratney, of maintaining language arts portfolios. And so Fratney’s fifth-grade exhibition was born — at least in my mind.

La Escuela Fratney has 360 students, 89% of whom are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunch. The student body is multiracial, with the majority being Latino. Fratney, a two-way bilingual school with approximately 50% Spanish-dominant speakers and 50% English-dominant speakers, teaches students either English or Spanish as their second language. In fourth and fifth grade, students spend two weeks in an English-language classroom learning their basic subjects in English and then two weeks in a Spanish-language classroom working in Spanish. There are two fourth-grade classrooms and two fifth-grade classrooms so there are “partner teachers” for each grade level. I am the English-language, fifth-grade teacher, sharing responsibility with my Spanish-language partner teacher, Jesus Santos, for about 50 students. We prepare joint plans and report cards and conduct joint parent-teacher conferences.

The First Year

The first year, the student exhibition was almost an afterthought and suffered from lack of planning. The expectations were vague, and the results were disappointing. It happened this way: After spring break I told the children that on the last day of school before the completion (graduation) ceremony, kids would display the projects and work they had completed throughout the year. A few students worked very hard on their displays. One girl, Jade Williams, brought a beautiful tablecloth and flowers to accompany her work, which included a couple of books of poetry that she had published in my classroom. The day before the ceremony we transformed our classroom into a display area and each fifth grader put out a name card and work to display. Unfortunately, the day’s completion ceremonies and emotional good-byes overshadowed the exhibition; by the last day of school, fifth grade, for my students, was history.

But a number of staff members showed interest in the students’ work. Their encouragement, and the proud smiles of Jade and her mother, convinced me to try again.

Changes in the Exhibition

Some important changes the following year paid off. I explained the exhibition at the start of the school year, showing photos of Jade and her mother standing beside her display. I moved the exhibition into the third-floor gymnasium and scheduled it a week before the end-of-the-year completion ceremony. The third- and fourth-grade students visited the exhibition not only so that they would know what to expect in fifth grade, but also to provide a non-threatening audience and a practice opportunity for the fifth graders. Also, I invited other staff, members of Fratney’s site-based council, and other community members, ranging from university people to school board members to local business people.

The afternoon before the exhibition, the fifth graders moved their desks into the gymnasium and set up their displays. The following morning they completed preparation; that afternoon the third and fourth graders visited. They were quite impressed, especially proud of any sibling who was exhibiting work. For an hour after school, parents and staff came.

The results, though better, were still uneven. Some students excelled; others had little to show. Moreover, a former partner teacher and I differed regarding what constituted worthwhile display work. At the last minute she had students bind their math worksheets from throughout the year. This was symptomatic of a larger problem: some students focused on the quantity of work instead of the quality. Moreover, despite attempts to encourage students to reflect on their growth as learners, there were few written reflections and what there was, was shallow. This was due to a combination of factors, including my not allocating adequate time for this complex task, failing to model quality reflections, and not developing the vocabulary necessary for more nuanced thinking and critiquing.

But, just as Jade had in the previous year, some students shone. They proudly exhibited several projects which showed thoughtful planning, writing, and revision. Students displayed detailed research projects on famous people who fought for social justice, such as Langston Hughes, Sitting Bull, Malcolm X, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, John Brown, and Cesar Chavez. Many had poster-size math projects with the results of surveys of classmates on topics such as TV viewing habits, ethnic background, and favorite Green Bay Packer player — using bar and circle graphs, percentages, and fractions. Others proudly displayed simple alphabet books and stories they had made in kindergarten and first grade.

Further Refinements

In the past two years the exhibition has improved considerably. My current partner teacher, Jesus Santos, and I collaborate closely on the entire project and share similar expectations. At the beginning of the year we inform our students of end-of-year exhibition requirements. To ensure better quality reflections, we and the students develop rubrics and evaluation guides for all major projects — so that students reflect on their work regularly throughout the year. Such reflections are important because they help students step back and think about what they have done, what they’ve learned, and how they might improve on similar projects in the future: Students can start to see themselves as learners, and in charge of and responsible for their own learning, a sharp contrast to their traditional role of completers of tasks and recipients of grades.

The reflections, however, vary greatly from the almost meaningless “I did nice work on this project” to more thoughtful statements. One boy reflected on his poetry anthology by writing, “This book of poetry taught me plenty. Not only punctuation, but making pictures with words. I learned how to make people feel the poem, taste the poem, and see it in its many different forms.” Another wrote, “I learned that poems have no limits.” A third commented, “I learned that doing poems is a very good thing to do instead of doing just nothing.”

This past year, in order to develop more substantive dialogue at the actual exhibition, each student created a bilingual script and practiced it with a partner. By doing this, students thought out in advance what they would say about their work and themselves as learners. It also focused them on the exhibition and their own learning.

A professor from a local college who visited told me, “The students are very motivated to show their work and proud of it. It’s clear that the projects are engaging for the students, and most of them are quite articulate in explaining what they learned from them.”

Fratney’s student exhibition takes place in a very supportive school environment. Classroom teachers maintain portfolios with student work and reflections, and non-classroom teachers and the principal provide crucial logistical support. One of our parents, who owns a Mexican restaurant, supplies food at the exhibition and volunteer teachers serve it. The exhibition in turn has affected the entire school. Both teachers and students in the lower grades, for example, have a better sense of why it’s important to keep quality portfolios.

Project Approach

The exhibition’s success also rests on the teaching method in our fifth grade, which I call a “structured-project approach.” Throughout the year, fifth-grade students are expected to complete major projects. These projects include a student autobiography, a report on an endangered animal (in Spanish), a bilingual poetry anthology, a report on a famous person who fought for social justice, and a report on the student’s journey through elementary school. In each case, the student chooses specific topics and how each will be presented, following clear guidelines established by the teacher.

The guidelines vary from project to project, but always include a core set of requirements and options for additional work. For example, the autobiography has 17 core items, which include everything from a cover, title page, and table of contents to short essays on the student’s heritage, neighborhood, and pre-school experience. Also required is a self-portrait (done with the help of the art teacher), a name poem, a timeline, and a description of numbers in the student’s lives. In groups, students brainstorm other things to write about, coming up with another 30 or 40 items. I type both lists up as checklists and staple them into manila folders which become the student’s working folder for the project. We talk about what constitutes quality work, examine examples from previous years, and create both student and teacher evaluation forms that are included in the book when it is finally spiral-bound.

The last project of the year is the most original. Students go through their entire elementary school portfolio, choose at least one piece of work from each year, and reflect on it. They also create a “postcard” for each year, on one side drawing a picture of a memorable event and on the other writing about it as they would have at the time. The students reflect on their growth; we teachers chuckle at the bizarre incidents that stick in their minds: Four dead tadpoles floating in the aquarium, the shape of the pumpkin chosen at the pumpkin farm, the lone compliment or joke from a substitute teacher. In fact, this project is an additional incentive for other staff members to visit the exhibition, to find out how their former students remember their classrooms.

The written booklets are tied to other, non-writing projects in my student-centered classroom. For example, as part of the fifth-grade U.S. history social studies curriculum, my students do role play re-enactments of key conflicts. We hold a trial of Columbus, recreate the U.S. Constitutional Convention including social groups that were excluded at the time, and conduct a trial of a runaway slave. Students also participate in literature circles, reading a variety of children’s novels, and critiquing children’s books and TV shows for bias and stereotypes. These group activities provide a broader context for the students when they tackle their individual projects. So, for example, when doing their poetry anthology their “dialogue” poems might not only include a traditional cat and mouse duo, but also Columbus and a Ta’no, or a slave master and an abolitionist. Similarly, when the students choose their person for the project on a historical figure who fought for social justice, they have a broader range of people to choose from. The individual written projects in turn spawn other classroom projects. For example, after the famous person project, students present a videotaped monologue pretending to be their person — an activity that helps prepare them for the district-wide oral language proficiency assessment. In addition, students often share selected parts of their written project in our bi-weekly oral sharing time with the fourth grade.

The students also reflect on each project in its entirety. Roberto Villafuentes wrote about his final project of the year, “I learned that to be in each grade is not easy and also that my life is long. I learned that it is better to study than to be on the street like some people.” Eduardo Diaz reflected, “Most of my handwriting is neat and my drawings are decent. I’m pretty original and creative. I learned that I’m a fast learner.”

This project approach helps motivate students because it allows them significant input into what they study and write. It also assumes that learning should be active, with much of the students’ time spent in learning through creating something meaningful, whether it’s a booklet or class debate.

The project approach also meets the needs of varying skill levels. In my class, children read and write at levels from first through eighth grade. The project approach allows me to challenge the most skilled students, and yet, see to it that the lesser-skilled meet with some success. This of course is what all schooling should do and is essential for educators who create alternatives to tracking of students by alleged ability.

Student-Led Parent/Teacher Conferences

One problem with the end-of-year exhibition is the timing — we only do it once and it’s at the end of the year. While we try all year to entice students to do their best, the exhibition occurs too late for it to be an incentive for some kids. By the time they realize that they have not completed some of their projects, no amount of rushing around will enable them to complete their work. Yet we teachers know that we can’t pull off multiple exhibitions throughout the year. So we have decided to use the parent-teacher conferences, which in Milwaukee are traditionally held in October and March, to help students focus on their end-of-year exhibition and become more reflective about themselves as learners.

Several Fratney teachers attended a Wisconsin State Assessment Institute and read the book “Changing the View: Student-Led Parent Conferences” by Terri Austin (NY: Heinemann, 1994). As a result, third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade teachers decided to restructure our traditional conferences to involve students, a change that fit in well with our philosophy of student reflection and of students taking responsibility for their learning.

We made a distinction between a three-way conference and a student-led conference. At the former, the student participates by taking some responsibility for leading the discussion, but the teacher is always present. In the student-led conference, the student leads the entire conference, with several occurring simultaneously in the same room. The teachers move from conference to conference, participating occasionally. We also decided which aspects of the curricula would be focused on at each grade level.

In fifth grade, we provide each student with the skeleton guide for what they would say at their conference, requiring that students talk to their parents about their current projects (which are due just prior to the conference) and how they are doing with reading, math, homework, and self-discipline. Finally, they have to decide on three goals for the next marking period and share them with their parents.

The response of the parents has been very favorable. In a survey conducted by our school’s parent organizer, all 26 sets of parents surveyed were satisfied with the new format and thought it should be continued. Common themes in their comments were that the conferences “develop responsibility and make them [the students] want to do better each day,” that it’s informative for parents to see “students present their own achievements,” and that it was good that the students “could make observations about themselves.”

The one drawback that was mentioned is that the format seemed to cut into the time available for parents and teachers to talk.


After four years of student exhibitions, we’ve seen their potential. Students are more motivated in doing their work and more reflective in analyzing it. Parents are definitely pleased to see what their kids have accomplished. One comment we often hear is, “I wish I would have gone to a fifth grade where I did projects like this.” Because of what the students exhibit, I, as a teacher, am more aware of what I am teaching and how well I am reaching all students.

But, despite our successes, we continue to struggle with problems. Students are still apt to be too task oriented, especially near the due date of an assignment, and tend to rush, shortchanging the quality and reflective aspect of their work. We are trying to more consciously teach our fifth graders how to keep major projects organized and how to make a timeline to ensure that they complete their projects on time.

Second, we realize that, for whatever reason, some parents don’t come to conferences or to exhibitions. Because of that, some children feel less motivated to plan to show their work. We have tried to solve this by having other adults in the school hold a conference with the student as surrogate parents.

Third, we need to figure out how to “exhibit” oral-language based projects. Our students perform a lot — biweekly sharing sessions, social studies role plays, and in-class dramatizations, some of which we video record. Nonetheless, we haven’t figured out an effective way to include this work in our exhibition.

Fourth, as teachers who believe in conveying the importance of social justice and activism to our students, we still need to figure out how to incorporate these values into the exhibition and the conferences. Letter writing, group projects, and dramatizations that might reflect social justice issues are not well represented in the exhibition.

Finally, we struggle daily with the problem of time. With the increasing demands placed on classrooms by district, state, and national entities to test and assess and to cover ever-greater amounts of curriculum, time is at a premium. And time is just what is required to prepare these student-centered exhibitions, conferences, and projects. We have decided that, despite the time crunch, the time we invest in these student-centered reflective activities is justified. As one of my students said in evaluating the year in my classroom, “I had fun in this class and I learned a lot. I never thought I would be able to do so much.”

Bob Peterson ( teaches fifth grade at La Escuela Fratney in Milwaukee and is an editor of Rethinking Schools.