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Monday, June 7, 2010

The Personal Invitation

I have a trick for recruiting students for voluntary activities. For example, an enriching day of mathematics, or to contribute writing for community outreach, or to mentor some freshmen. And it's not to make announcements to whole classes to say, come talk to me if you are interested. That doesn't work.

I know people might object to this, because maybe it seems unfair, like opportunities are being limited. (Even though, as I said, the open invitation never works anyway.) But I think of which students would be good candidates. Who has appropriate talents and who will benefit. Then I ask them to take a lap with me around the building (the corridors make a giant rectangle), and I explain what I want them to do, why I think they're the right person to do it, how it will benefit them. And I ask if they would be interested.

It always works. Nobody has ever said no. They usually say something like "I am totally into that." And, they follow through. They jump headlong into these projects with enthusiasm and grace.

It's powerful, the personal invitation. To know your teacher sees something special in you, despite your maybe not being an academic superstar, despite whatever flaws your fears tell you are evident. It's hard to talk back to that.

But, I've been thinking, wow. I need to invite them to learn some math. Frequently. Not as a group - charismatic lecturing is not my forte. Not necessarily every kid every lesson every day. In a way that appeals to their individual talents. Because once it's given a chance, this stuff is startling, beautiful, descriptive. Once they know they bring something to it, and it can benefit them. I have no idea how to pull it off. But I need to find a way.


  1. I just did a kind of Personal Invitation for the first time a month or two ago. (Convinced a very bright junior to take my Advanced Topics course next year.) It really does work!

    I need to have more one-on-one conversations with students in general. I am not good at the "pep talk", and that's just what a lot of my students need.

  2. My very first thought: "Of course, Bystander Apathy". Then "it's not quite the same, being asked by the teacher to volunteer isn't really an emergency...", then "oh wait who am I to say, what matters is what the kids feel about it not me".

    I would bet a lot more of your successful response percentage is coming from the Individual vs Group factor than from your selection criteria (which students you think would be good candidates, who you think has appropriate talents, who you think will benefit, etc). Or if not a lot more, probably at least sufficient that if you're worried about your brain accidentally biasing who you give these wonderful opportunities, you could pick randomly instead.

    Have you tried just choosing a random person (or next on a list, etc.) to ask personally?

  3. Much like recruiting specific students for certain events, I have found that giving mathematical puzzles and riddles to individual students or small groups outside of class has had some really nice results. It's the same 'chosen one' mentality, so they are usually eager to solve it (especially if I follow up over the next few days). Furthermore, I've found that when other students overhear the problem, they are often sucked in too (the whole wanting whatever someone else has mentality).

  4. Kate, I think you are touching on something really powerful here. Whenever I have personally addressed a student in this manner, I am always pleasantly surprised by their receptivity. They just want to be seen and valued as individuals and it makes such a difference when they are.
    I've even tried a route someone blogged about a few weeks ago, where I actually apologized to a student for not doing a better job of reaching him. I think it totally threw him off guard.
    My partner teacher and I wrote individual letters to each student at the end of this year in which we noted the strengths and characteristics that make each of them unique. We won't get to see the fruits of that, but hopefully their next teacher will.

  5. @Greedy - No, haven't tried choosing randomly. This sort of thing only comes up a few times a year. I wasn't trying to make like I have some gift for matching student to growth opportunity. It was kind of my point, that the singling out is the important part, so how do you make everyone feel like they are singled out sometimes in class in a positive way.

    @Matt - Yeah - there are some kids who are so good at hiding in the crowd. That you never have a conversation with them if you don't really try hard.

    @Z I know what you mean. That's sort of what I'm talking about, maybe? You. This problem is for YOU.

  6. One cheap, clumsy way of extending that invitation has been by writing story problems with kids in class as the main characters. A few weeks ago I put one of my disruptive, reluctant IEP kids into a story about mean, median and mode for the warmup problem. The kid protested that I had no business using his name, and I got out of what looked to become a conflict by joking that of course the main character was a kid at another school who just happened to have the same name. But on the final exam, the only kid in this group who remembered how to find the median and the mode was the guy whose name had been in the problem.

  7. Definitely throw out the, "Eric, I think you're really going to be into this lesson today." He'll ask you why him, so have something to back it up. "Because you're really good at solving by trial-and-error." or "Because I know you always question whether your answer makes sense." The other kids listen more closely too!


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