How Small Wins Can Lead To Big Growth In Your Secondary Classroom

How Small Wins Can Lead To Big Growth In Your Secondary Classroom

In recent years many people have discovered the power of small wins in changing habits and creating meaningful progress at the workplace, but small wins can be just as powerful in the secondary classroom. There are a million ways you can embrace the concept of the small win in your classroom; I’m going to lay out five ways you can implement ASAP. Once you start seeing how satisfying the small win is, you’ll find more and more ways to bring these into your high school classroom. 

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What is a Small Win and Why Is It So Powerful?

A small win comes from breaking down a big goal or task into smaller tasks and acknowledging the success in each small task. Lot of tasks seem daunting and overwhelming. Consider the idea of getting in shape or writing a research paper. Ugh. Nobody wants to do those things! So you'll find anything else do to instead. 

But a small win involves accomplishing one tiny thing toward the end goal. For instance, taking a 10 minute walk is a small win. Finding one credible source for your paper is a small win.

On a day when I get my yoga in first thing in the morning, I consider this a “small win.” It makes me happy, and mentally I feel like I’m the type of person who works out and makes healthy choices. Then, I usually end up eating a salad for lunch instead of a piece of pizza. Small wins lead to more wins. 

Small wins create a feeling of success and accomplishment, and they motivate us all (students included) to move forward. 

In her article entitled "The Brain Power Of Small Wins,"  Dr. Tish Lee explains, “Every small win gives your brain a spritz of dopamine, the feel-good neurochemical in your brain” and that “when we string together a continual series of small wins, you can increase the regular amount of dopamine being released into your brain for more constant joy and pleasure in your work.” 

Essentially small wins tell your brain “do this more!” 

pull out quote that says "essentially small wins tell your brain to do this more!"

An article from Harvard, The Power of Small Wins, supports this. In that article it states that “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”

People respond well when they see progress. So how can we point our students toward the progress they are making and allow them to feel the sense of joy that comes with accomplishing a small win. Here are a few ways you can try right away.

5 Ways To Use Small Wins in the ELA Classroom

1.) Have students craft one sentence. 

I've discovered that the most effective grammar and style lessons allow students to break down concepts and craft a few really great sentences. You can focus on a concept like adjectives and then look at some great sentences that start with adjectives. 

Then have students imitate a few mentor sentences, and last they craft at least one sentence of their own in a similar way. 

By really taking the time to craft one sentence well, students are achieving a small win. It may be surprising, but crafting one sentence well feels like a far more meaningful accomplishment than doing an entire worksheet of circling the adjective in a sentence. 

image of a teen writing with the quote above it that says "Crafting one sentence well is more meaningful than doing a grammar worksheet."

You can also allow students to do this in bell ringers at the start of class. I have a set of bell ringers that ask students to do one thing. Quite often this is a concept they are already familiar with, but they have to take it a little further. Sometimes I merely ask them to imitate one mentor sentence or find one powerful sentence in their independent reading books and imitate that sentence. 

This may sound like a simple task, but if framed the right way students can see that again, they have crafted one sentence well. So within the first 10 minutes of class, they have accomplished something meaningful. 

It's also worth telling students directly that if they can craft one sentence they can craft a whole paragraph. And what would stop them from writing a whole essay well? Plus, the power of crafting a single sentence is that students can start to see that they are able to write well. If you can write one sentence well, you are a writer. You just have to keep doing what you just did. 

Want to see how this works? Download my free unit on vivid verbs and embrace lead your students in embracing those small wins today.

2.) Have students reflect on their work from a single class period and highlight one meaningful thing they did that class period.

Far too often, the end of the class period seems to assault us unexpectedly "Ah! There's the bell." But it's worth taking the last few minutes of class to allow students to reflect on one thing they accomplished that class period and acknowledge it, at least to themselves and maybe to the entire class. 

This works well for grammar lessons and periods when students are drafting essays. Here's what you can do: have students highlight one sentence that they wrote well. Then, have them share that sentence with the class. If a student truly does not want to share, that’s fine, but there’s some real power in reading one well-written sentence aloud and noticing your peers nod their heads that that is indeed a good sentence. 

If you've spent an entire class period teaching sentence types, have students look back at the sentences they wrote that class period and highlight their best complex sentence. Or perhaps they highlight any sentence they wrote that they think stands out, whether it's simple, compound, or complex.

Again, this reinforces the idea that your students are writers. This is changing their identity. No longer are they a person who struggles to write or even worse, a “bad writer;” they are writers. They have proof. They wrote an excellent sentence and their peers and teachers agreed that that was an excellent sentence. 

pull out quote that says that students will start believing they are real writers when they craft powerful sentences

3.) Do a hands-on game 

Gamification is a great way to create a sense of accomplishment and there are many ways to bring games into your classroom. 

One thing I like to turn into a game is grammar because students usually find it a dry part of the ELA class, but it’s actually quite satisfying when it’s a game. 

For instance, in one game I have students separate mentor sentences according to what verbs are in the sentence: linking or action. This gives students a chance to see some well-written mentor sentences, but it also allows them to compare the sentences and see how powerful action verbs can be. 

It’s a simple task--get with a partner and separate the sentences into two piles. But once they have done it correctly, they feel a great sense of accomplishment, and usually they don’t want to stop until they’re sure they’ve got it right. 

separating the verb types game

You can do similar separating and matching games with other grammar and literary concepts. One year I taught AP, so I took a bunch of literary terms and put them on a set of hand-held cards. Then I took some examples from works we had read that year and put those on other cards. Students had to match the terms with the example. Even my seniors loved this activity, and it was easy for me to walk around and check. They had to keep going until they got them all correct. 

4.) Break down the writing process 

In his book “Write For Your Life” Charles Wheelan describes how the writing process involves writing a thesis, making an outline, then writing one “ugly sentence after another ugly sentence” (drafting your paragraphs), and then revising. 

He explains how if you have written a thesis and an outline, the paragraphs actually come quite quickly, even if it is a bunch of ugly sentences strung together. 

Of course we teach the writing process in our classes, but how often do we consider each part of this process a small win? We usually just go on to the next part, with the previous part somewhat unacknowledged. 

Try this instead--draw attention to the fact that writing that thesis is a win! Writing that outline is a win! Transforming an ugly sentence into a well-written sentence is a win. 

5.) Celebrate wins as a class 

Celebrating small wins is incredibly powerful for all people, but I’ve found that celebrating small wins is rarely practiced in the classroom. We celebrate big wins like accomplishing a fundraising goal, but seldom do we draw attention to our small wins.

Here are a few things you might consider celebrating with your students:

  • Everyone has a working thesis!
  • Everyone has an outline completed
  • As a class we were able to distinguish what sentences were simple and what sentences were compound
  • Everyone wrote one strong sentence with a vivid verb
  • Everybody participated in today's class discussion

How can you celebrate? Remember, we are talking about small wins, so this probably doesn’t merit a pizza party. But what about a round of applause. What about a standing ovation (my high school math teacher used to do this and we loved it). How about playing a clip of a song, or even ending class 3 minutes early and watching a funny youtube video (I mean honestly if your whole class has a working thesis, that’s worth watching something funny together). 

    Plus, isn’t there something bonding in celebrating each other and accomplishing something as a class? 

    I’m also not above bringing in some candy here or there and just saying, “look--those outlines took a lot of work, let’s celebrate that nobody gave up with a Hershey kiss.”

    If you have no idea how to start bringing small wins into your writing and grammar instruction, check out my full-year grammar curriculum that uses the strategies of small wins in this way with every single grammar lesson!

    Click on the image below to find out more. 

    picture of handouts for grammar lessons



    Small wins motivate all of us, our students included, to keep going! It's satisfying to see progress, and we must take the time to acknowledge this progress so that our students want to continue to take meaningful steps toward a goal.

    When your students celebrate, you reward the brain for achieving, making it feel even better. Essentially it is a brain two-fer. It makes the achievement doubly powerful and makes your brain want to come back for more. 


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