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Helping Students Visualize Success

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I’ve only had limited success in my own personal attempts at using visualization and guided imagery in my own life, so have been reluctant to encourage others to try it.

Until last year.

I had an exceptionally challenging mainstream ninth-grade English class last year (see Have You Ever Taught A Class That Got “Out Of Control”?) and nothing I tried was successful in helping one student develop self-control. He repeatedly told me he knew he needed to make changes and that he wanted to — and I’m convinced he was sincere — but he just couldn’t do it.

As a last resort, I suggested that he go outside to read his book during our silent reading time (which began each class) and, before he began to read, close his eyes for a couple of minutes and see himself acting as the student he wanted to be — cooperative, focused, not always reacting to provocations. He was willing to give it a try, and it had an immediate positive effect and produced much better results than anything else we had tried. We continued with this daily practice for the rest of the school year and, even though he wasn’t the “perfect” student, he handled himself much, much better.

After having that experience last year, I was certainly open to a recent idea from Jim Peterson, a talented Vice-Principal at our school.

He wanted to know if I would be interested in trying out some visualization techniques with my ninth-grade class this year — not around behavior issues (I don’t have those problems with this year’s class), but with helping them use it to become better readers and writers.

So, between my positive experience with my challenging student last year and my super-duper positive experience following Jim’s advice in the past (Have You Ever Taught A Class That Got “Out Of Control”?), of course I agreed to give it a try.

I became even more enthusiastic after Jim had me do a quick and simple visualization technique to demonstrate what he was talking about. He had me stand straight with one of my arms sticking outward in front of me. Then he had keep my arm outstretched and straight, and move it to the back as far as I could without straining. Next, he asked me to note the location my hand was pointing to at its limit.

After that, he had me close my eyes and mentally visualize (without doing the physical movement) doing the same thing several times — stretching as far as I could — starting off doing it slowly and then repeating it several times faster. Each time I would move my arm back to the front and then back again. After doing that for perhaps a couple of minutes, he told me to open my eyes and physically repeat the movement. Much to my surprise, I was able to easily move my arm much farther back than I had the first time.

This was a great example of his idea for making it work in the classroom — if students could visualize becoming better readers and writers, perhaps it would help them actually become ones.

Jim came to my classroom (he’s also working with another teacher who’s trying it out) and did a short interactive presentation on the conscious and subconscious mind, and combined it with visualization exercises like the one he did with me. Students seemed pretty enthusiastic — they are priding themselves on being “guinea pigs” for lessons that get replicated by other teachers (see “I Know My Brain Is Growing…” and “I Like This Lesson Because It Make Me Have a Longer Temper” (Part One)).

Twice a day prior to beginning a writing or reading activity I’ve begun to ask students to take twenty seconds to either close their eyes or keep their eyes open and visualize themselves being excellent readers or writers in the upcoming activity. After a few days, it appears that most are taking it seriously.

I’ll be asking students to incorporate some specific reading goals in the weekly goal-setting students do (see The Best Part Of The President’s Speech & How I’ll Use It). We’ll be doing some simple assessments twice a month to see what kind of progress students are making.

There’s more to the preparation that we did for that class, but I can share those details in a later post.

I did want to say that I was so impressed with my ninth-grade students’ reaction that I tried something similar with my Intermediate English class. I was surprised to find that they were not as enthusiastic as my ninth-graders, but were willing to give it a try. Thanks to Diarmuid Fogarty, I was also able to find some intriguing literature on the use of visualization with English Language Learners (see Zoltán Dörnyei, scroll down to “Chapters in edited volumes” and look at Chapters 2-5).

With my Intermediate English class, I’ll be giving monthly assessments to both my class and another class using the same curriculum that will function as a control group.

We’ll see what happens. My belief is that it might very well help the students who think it will help them. And that taking a few seconds to focus more certainly can’t hurt.

Have you tried anything like this with your students?

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

One Comment

  1. This is just such an awesome idea. I’m working with two boys who need help with their language skills. Sometimes I don’t know how to encourage them/push them to do as well as I see they can. I’m going to try to use some success visualization with them.
    Thanks!

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