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The Golden Ticket: How to raise student achievement with three simple words

Teacher confession time: last Monday I did something that I hate doing. I brought my home life to school. More importantly I brought a horrible, no good mood into the class…a giant cloud of negativity and sadness. Kirsten, third period, destroyed that horrible mood in ten amazing minutes.  It was #EduAwesome.

She strode to the front of the room. She turned off the lights. Not a single kid said a word or even did that fake gasp thing that kids do when you turn off all the lights. Then she started. She did a memorized dramatic monologue about the Christmas Day Truce from WWI. You can read her version of the event on her blog here.  First she lit a single candle.


Just her and a candle for several minutes.

Then she took out a small Christmas tree and begin filling it with candles. As she powerfully and emotionally came to the conclusion, where WWI Generals started finding novel ways to get men to start killing each other again, she slowly extinguished each candle. When she turned on the lights everyone looked at each other like they had just walked into here.


It was amazing in every way possible.

  • If you had a rubric, it would be off the charts
  • If you had a state-wide assessment tool, it would render it useless
  • It made me want to call her parents and tell them they were wasting their time having her in high school.

At this point you probably want the lesson plan right? I mean what do I do to get kids to engage in this kind of risk-taking, highest level of student performance?  How do I encourage a performance that showed complete emotional maturity and mastery?

Ask me for the lesson plan and I’ll laugh. I always do. Here’s the lesson plan with those crucial three magic words.

We just finished reading the novel All Quiet on the Western Front. Teach us something about WWI.


That’s it. That’s my whole lesson plan. The key is those last three words. MAKE IT MEMORABLE.

Now along with those three magic words come some responsibility… for YOU as a teacher. In Willy Wonka several kids got the Golden Ticket, but only one kid got the message. You have to have the right mindset and more importantly heart set to make this work.

  • You must teach them in memorable ways to show them what it looks like and how it can be done.
  • You must BELIEVE that they can do it.
  • Your students must trust that you will be understanding of their risk taking. Giving a kid a big expectation like this without a detailed map and without a breakdown of points is unnerving for students. If you have not built rapport and trust with your students, then this won’t work.
  • You must cultivate an acceptance of whimsy, an appreciation of wonder, an esprit de corps in your class so their classmates respond to the risk-taking and varied approaches to making something memorable.


Here are a few other examples from my English 10 Honors class.


You could hear the groans of the WWI patient from across the hall. Poor soldier. 

At this point I know what you are thinking. Theriault, of course those were great those were your Honors kids. (BTW we have seven classes of Honors at the 10th grade level, we are extremely flexible in placing kids in our Honors program) So here are some examples from my CP classes.

These students created an amazing game based around the novel 1984. In this game everyone is a loser:

snakes and ladders

I also had a student who did an experiment with the Ministry of Love and the perception of time using ice held in your hand.

I want to bring up one final point. In a rush for “accountability” which, let’s face it, is really just another word for I don’t trust teachers and their GRADES to accurately measure a student’s achievement in my class, we have created a ton of “awesome” rubrics and measurement tools. The problem with a measurement tool it that it CAPS achievement. It shows a student a finite level of excellence. When you give a student an open-ended project: either an Inquiry-based Project (IBL) or Problem-based Project (PBL) or a 20%, or #geniushour project, and replace the rubric or measurement tool with the three magic words and everything that comes with those three words- you transform a ride on an elevator to the top floor to something special… something memorable.

Willy-Wonka-and-the-Chocolate-Factory (1)b


  1. I totally agree with your philosophy and what you are doing. It is usually these kinds of activities that kids remember most, that turn kids on, that make literature more than a bunch of facts about the colour of Gatsby’s car. Sock puppet Romeo and Juliet, anyone? I do think, however, it is possible to be accountable and creative at the same time. One of my greatest frustrations in teaching was the highly subjective nature of marking English-what does a 78% really mean? I would like to see a no number or letter system replaced with 3 categories. You either meet expectations, exceed them or don’t meet them. A rubric that lays out what the project is trying to do, such as demonstrating a connection to a novel, gives a guideline but doesn’t limit their ability to exceed. You do a great job with your classes, Dave and your students are lucky.

  2. Thanks goodbyeteaching (I hope to learn at least your first name one day). I agree with your comment (I still hate the word accountable- feedback is more to my liking- even the term “measurement” rankles me) I like the three categories rubric however my honors students and their parents HATE C’s (and let’s not even go to Ds) so for them meeting expectations would be a B. I guess I could make it A= exceed B= meet C= below expectations. Personally the topic of grading haunts me more than any other topic. I hate it as a teacher and as a parent. I’m watching my middle school son being slowing torn apart by the stress of grading in his gate classes that are filled with “accountability” homework. He loves to read, could read for hours- ask him to read his SS book and it’s done. But when he comes home at 9pm after a baseball game and has to do a 3-4 page outline “proving” he read and understood the reading that’s where I disagree with accountability. PS- the outline is assigned that very day- it’s a one day turn-around.

    1. It’s Cathy. Sorry about that, I just assumed you knew it. I always read Larry Cuban’s blog about school reform and he has always called me by my first name so I thought it was there somewhere. I totally agree with you about grading-it is so frustrating and meaningless in the big and real picture. I have also seen the swing in my career from a antiquated system to an open, laissez-faire one, back to a rigid one and now the present system of accountability ( which is more on the teacher’s part than any where else). It’s interesting that you mention the A,B,C categories. In Ontario, teachers are supposed to be using levels: 3 being meets the standard. This equates to 70%. We are not supposed to give grades except on the final report card when all these levels get changed to a percentage. Crazy and totally lacking in guts on the part of the Ministry of Education. Marks become the only goal for most students and this will never change unless they take them away and replace them with something more general as I proposed before.
      Sorry to hear about your son’s experience. Again the authorities and wrong thinking people equate quantity and busyness with raising standards. Such a crock!

  3. Wish I was there, she did justice to one of my favourite books. You are an inspirational teacher and for a student to respond in this way equates to the power of your lesson/teaching/learning environment.

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