Motivating Struggling Learners in Summer School and in Class Everyday

So many kids struggle, especially in summer school. Popular author, Dr. Barbara Blackburn, gives us some tips to start summer school or any school year in a way to help struggling learners set goals. This must-listen episode will give you ideas for having a great summer as well.

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Today's episode is one of the most popular 10 Minute Teacher episodes of all time. We're sharing some of the best to jumpstart your summer learning. Enjoy learning from Dr. Barbara Blackburn.

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Motivating Struggling Learners in Summer School and in Class Everyday

Link to show:
Reshared on: June 10, 2019
Original Air Date: June 3, 2018
motivating struggling learners

Vicki: Today we’re talking with my friend, Dr. Barbara Blackburn about her book, Motivating Struggling Learners: 10 Ways to Build Student Success.

So, Barbara, how do we start when we have those students who aren’t learning because we’re actually coming up on summer school.

Some teachers are really going to have those kids who have struggled all year long, and they’re going to think, “You know what? How is a couple more weeks going to make a difference?”

How can they reach those kids?

Barbara: You know, it’s hard.

I think the first thing that you have to remember is that in a couple of weeks, there’s got to be a limit as to how much you can do. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re not perfect with it.

What I do think, though, is that we can make progress.

Really, the foundation of motivation is getting to know the students.

It’s not getting to know them so you can say you know who they are – it’s getting to know them so you can tap into their motivation.

The foundation of motivation is
getting to know the students so you can tap into their motivation

We often say, “Oh, this student just isn’t motivated.” Well, everybody’s motivated. They’re just not motivated about what we want them to be motivated by. That’s different.

Students — well, adults, for that matter — students are motivated by two things. They’re motivated by value and by success.

We need to get to know them so that we can meet those needs.

So, with value. How do we help them see the real-life connections? How do we provide activities? Students see more value in activities more than sit and get.

With success, how can we tap into ways that they have already been successful and build on that, and what can we learn about how they have failed and help them circumvent those things?

If nothing else, you have to just set aside a little bit of time on the front end doing things to get to know them better so that you can then enhance their motivation.

Vicki: Our frequent listeners are going to know what I am about to say. You have to relate before you educate. That’s what happens first. I love it. Okay, what’s our next way?

You have to relate before you educate.

Barbara: The next way is then to attack those two issues. It really is.

It’s to say, “What am I going to do as a teacher to remove all of the stumbling blocks to success for those students?”

If the stumbling block is their own feelings of failure, then one of the things I’m going to do, I’m not going to take long.

I’m going to take five minutes for this, is I’m either going to have them write it, or I’m going to let them record it with technology, or I’m going to let them just tell me. I’m going to have them list ALL the ways they’ve been successful.

Have them list ALL the ways they’ve been successful

If they say they haven’t been, then I’m going to say, “Oh, I’m sure you have.”

I’m going to guide them with a couple of questions and get them there. I’m going to list all their successes and put that somewhere and it can be acknowledged or otherwise recorded, but I will have it somewhere where they can revisit it.

I’m going to talk about it, “You’ve been successful when you did THIS. This is very similar, let’s keep doing it.” I’m going to build on their successes they have already done.

The other thing I’m going to do is I want them to catch a vision for success. This really works with everybody third grade and up, Vicki.

It’s when I do workshops teachers’ favorite ideas. I’m going to have them, and I’m going to probably do this the first day, and I’m going to ask them to write a letter to me. They can either write a letter or draw pictures or make a list, whatever they want to do.

I’m going to imagine it’s the last day of summer school. I want them to tell me why summer school for them was good. Why were they successful in summer school? Then we’re going to build a relationship with me, it’s going to figure out what to do to remove those obstacles to success. That’s the second piece I’m really going to focus on.

Vicki: Catching that vision is so hard. Some kids who struggle just don’t have hope, do they?

Barbara: Right, they don’t.

If they’re stuck, I’m going to have a handy-dandy little list of some ideas that they can have.

What I’m going to use the vision letters for is really to talk to them, I might do it in a large group, a small group, I may grab some kids individually depending on what I’m seeing.

Those who have no hope, I’m probably going to pull them, try to grab a couple of minutes with them.

But I’m going to talk to them about “You know what? We can make that happen because we’re going to do this TOGETHER.”

Oftentimes, they have not felt like anyone has really been in their corner. That doesn’t mean they haven’t had good teachers. It just means that they didn’t really feel that connection where they thought somebody was going to be there for them helping them along the way.

My best friend that I talk about that, we do a lot of believing in kids, believe what kids are, but we talk that about sometimes believing in a student enough sometimes you also have to believe FOR a student. You really have to get them to come along for the ride.

Vicki: What happens when you have those teachers who are working with the struggling learners and the teachers don’t feel like they have any hope, because the teachers are exhausted?

How can they change their own attitude?

Here’s the thing, we have to have passion, we have to have excitement, we have to have belief, we have to have all these things!

But sometimes, the teacher might say, “You know what? I don’t know if I can do this. This student just has so many issues.”

Barbara: Yes, it’s interesting.

Motivating teachers is just like motivating students. You have to give them value and success.

With teachers, when I talk about motivation, it’s “Alright, how can you keep yourself motivated?”

No one else is going to do it for you.

Motivating teachers is just like motivating students.

One, let’s tap into your value. THEY should write a vision letter to themselves about how summer school was successful. What did they do, what happened with the kids, what made it he best summer school experience they’d ever had? Do that, they could revisit that, I suggest that they do the same thing.

If they make a success list, list every student they’ve ever taught who struggled, who you helped turn around, so you can remember that you have done this before?

Keep that vision in place. That also feeds into the success. Remember them being successful.

Tapping into those two things, making a list of what do you know has worked, because summer school was not necessarily the time to say, “Oooooh, I’ve never done this before, maybe I’ll just try this.”

Sometimes it is, but I want to go with some things I know will work as long as it’s not drill and grill. I don’t do that.

I want to try to do some things that I know that interactive reading works even if I don’t feel like I have time for it in summer school, it’s an important thing to do. If I know that playing games with vocabulary leads to a deeper understanding, I need to do that.

What I don’t need to do is fall back on worksheets and them just sitting and being passive learners so that I can get through everything. I don’t necessarily need to, and it’s not that I don’t like the latest greatest new things, but when you the limited amount of time with the kids, I sort of default to “do what you know works.”

Vicki: Absolutely. Very interesting.

Barbara: That keeps you motivated.

Vicki: Barbara, I love this idea of a vision letter to yourself.

Students are thinking, “I need to write a vision letter to myself about MY summer.” I need to write a vision letter to myself about lots of things.

Begin with the end in mind

I think that’s just such a fantastic idea because you’re kind of following Steven Kevie’s principle of “begin with the end in mind,” right?

Barbara: Yeah. I actually do that activity when I’m working with teachers, because usually I’m talking about rigor and motivation.

“Rigor” is one of those dirty words nobody wants to talk about.

I’ll have them write a vision letter, imagine it’s the last day of school, write it to the planned. What happened? What made it your best year ever? What did you do? What did the students do? How did you make it happen and how did it make you feel?

Tap into the emotion that goes with it and then you can go back and revisit it.

One thing I talked with principals about is, “Hey! Sit down with your teachers. Ask them to share their vision letters and your question to them as a leader is ‘How can I help them accomplish that?’”

It’s a great activity to do with everybody, but I tell you, it will help you connect with kids in a way that you just be totally surprised by.

Vicki: As we finish up, can you give us a thirty-second pep talk, if we’re getting ready to walk into class in five minutes with a struggling learner, give us a pep talk to get us ready for that moment when we engage and really bring it.

Barbara: I’ll share with you a quote from a friend of mine.

He is a coordinator of an alternative school.

They deal with the kids who basically aren’t in regular schools anymore. He tells his teachers this every morning: he says, “On your worst day, you’re are someone’s best hope.”


My friend says, “On your worst day, you’re are someone’s best hope.”

I don’t think he’s right. I think, on your worst day, when you got up late, and the kids missed the bus, and you spilled coffee on your shirt, and you got a speeding ticket on the way to school, and the copier was broken, I don’t think on that day you are some student’s best hope.

What I do think is this: I think after all of those things on your worst day, you walk into that classroom, and for one of those students sitting there, you are their ONLY hope. If that doesn’t keep you going, I don’t know what will.

I disagree. “On your worst day, you’re are their only hope.”

Vicki: Wow. Well, let’s get out there and let’s help the struggling learners.

Honestly, teachers, there are some kids that can sit alone in a room with a book and they can teach themselves whether we’re there or not.

Maybe we can help them learn a lot more we can help them be excited, but they could teach themselves.

Then there are those kids that, without us, they truly do have no hope. Thank you, Barbara.

Barbara: Oh, thank you, Vicki. Always a pleasure.

Contact us about the show:

Transcribed by Kymberli Mulford

Bio as submitted

Barbara R. Blackburn, an international speaker, was named one of the top 30 Global Gurus in Education in 2016 and 2017. She is the author of 18 books, including 4 for administrators. She regularly collaborates with schools and districts to provide support in the areas of leadership, instructional rigor, and evidence-based instructional strategies. She can be reached at


Twitter: @barbblackburn

Disclosure of Material Connection: This is a “sponsored podcast episode.” The company who sponsored it compensated me via cash payment, gift, or something else of value to include a reference to their product. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I believe will be good for my readers and are from companies I can recommend. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” This company has no impact on the editorial content of the show.

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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