What I Learned from Teaching a 30-Day Challenge

Last school year, my co-teacher and I agreed to try a 30-Day Challenge with our class of eighth graders.

Why We Did It
As a former NaNoWriMo participant, I can definitely appreciate the power of what can be accomplished in just a month. I wanted that fervor, that hope, and that transformative energy to come into our classroom.

We also had a particularly unique class of kids who were very talented but had an even more diverse set of needs and wants than previous years, so we saw this as an opportunity to differentiate their ELA goals.

Finally, as a school we had been putting a renewed emphasis on goal-setting and tracking their completion, so we saw this as a more authentic way to bring that into ELA (without obsessing over data either).

How It Worked
Thus, we crossed NaNoWriMo with Genius Hour - an idea that for 30 days, students would chip away a self-made ELA goals and come out stronger by the end.

Here was the setup:



For less than $10 at Joann Fabrics, I bought incentive charts, stickers, and a cute banner:
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Knowing that not every student would be able to accomplish their daily task for ALL thirty days, we decided that they'd get a sticker for each time they could prove progress, and we charted it for everyone to see. We set the goal for 20 stickers.

We also split each class period into two competing "teams", each led by either my co-teacher or myself, to create a little friendly competition for those stickers.

Some of their daily goals included:

  • Watch a TED talk (and take notes on their public speaking skills)
  • Read a different short story
  • Practice improv
  • Write  # words/minutes per day
  • Read # minutes/pages per day
  • Read a new book each week in a different genre
  • Read and present/imitate different speeches and monologues from history
  • Debate a new topic daily
  • Creative writing with a new prompt each day
  • Read the Harry Potter series in 30 days
  • Learn a new word every day
  • Research every day (culminating in a presentation)
  • Read a new article every day
  • Alternate: write/edit every day
Finally, we strove that once per week, we teachers would meet with our small group "teams" to give each other support - whether that was work time, group discussion, problem solving, etc. 

Students were graded on things like their calendars (daily goal setting and marking whether or not it got done), collaboration (small group time), and their final reflections (answering questions about how it went and what they learned from it). 

How It Went
We did the 30DC in November, partially to imitate NaNoWriMo, and that choice of month kind of backfired on us (more on that later). The results and student buy-in were mixed but generally positive; I was really pleased to see that this project reached different KINDS of kids, and that students who weren't always positive about ELA became so. The students who were already strong were given legitimate challenge, and students who needed some instant-gratification confidence boosts got it. 

What I Learned
Here is my list of things I would do differently (or at least consider) before next time:
  • Pick a less-interrupted month: having Thanksgiving break backfired (some students traveled and lost days to work on their goals), and we had some unexpected interruptions (including a snow day) that caused us to lose small group meeting time. It kind of reduced the momentum we had going.
  • Work time at school: We lost some intended work time (see above), but I think you ideally need a minimum of 2 days per week to do this project well - one day of small group, and one day of work time. 
  • Preparing for small group: Though students mostly used our small group time well and had good discussions, I think I would have them come prepared with a question to ask the group.
  • Easy, visible accountability: Some goals were harder to verify and/or quantify than others. Having shared Google Docs helped immensely, but I would clarify next time that all goals and daily progress must be something visible and "provable". 
    • For example: instead of a student making and using paper flash cards (which no one can prove were used), require the student to use Quizlet (and show me what was done). 
  • Motivational Surges: NaNoWriMo has "Pep Talks", short motivational blurbs written by already-published authors, that help writers continue when they're feeling stuck. I may display some of the best ones next time to help students keep going!
  • Compiling the results: One year, I compiled students' fiction into a faux literary magazine. As a culminating celebration (see below), it might be cool to show off what students have done by compiling or displaying their work. 
  • Final rewards/celebrations: The learning needs to be the reward, not a pizza party, but you might want to have some sort of final celebration, especially if you do the same team challenge component that we did. Out final celebration day got cut due to bad weather, which I should have fought to keep. 
  • More background knowledge: Though I think we managed to sell the concept pretty well at first, I think next time I would supplement it with more external sources of why this project is cool and important, such as Matt Cutts' TED Talk about trying something new for 30 days (below). 
  • Homework load: If possible, pick a month with lighter homework or ask other teachers to go in on it and keep the overall work load manageable. (I wonder if this would be a good project to have in the background during testing? Just a thought.)
  • Feedback expectations: Did a student just write an entire novel? Great! But don't kill yourself by promising every student daily feedback, or promising to personally edit the entire opus for him/her. Establish early on what frequency, types, and quantity of feedback you're willing to give on their work. 
If you want to give it a try, the materials we used are available in my Teachers Pay Teachers store! Click here to see what pages are included, previews of docs, and what other teachers have rated it so far. The docs are editable in case you need to adjust it to your own school needs!

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