Setting Literacy Goals Your Students Can Keep (with a little help from Jillian Michaels)

I've made them and broken them.  You've made them and broken them.

New Year Resolutions.

New Year Resolutions.

I make them each year, crafting a master list of all the things I'd like to start, improve, or remove.  Making resolutions has that same back-to-school feeling: having a do-over to start off on the right foot.

Now, let's be clear. 80% of this list usually stays as is: a list.

For instance, 'becoming more active' always tops the list.  Every year I compile ways to become more active, ranging from a more consistent yoga practice to having high hopes of running a 1/2 marathon one day.  But year after year, I start off strong (like so many others), then wane a few months after the new year, and find myself putting it back on the list on January of the next year.

But this year might be different. Yes, this is the year I met Jillian Michaels.


Jillian Micheals, fierce trainer featured on The Biggest Loser, has a cult following of inconsistent, hopeful fitness devotees, like myself.  I'm convinced (or I've convinced myself) that her approach to working out will help me keep my resolution this year.  Here's what works (I hope) about Jillian's approach to setting and following through with fitness resolutions:

  • She sets simple and straightforward goals:  to lose weight and tone-up in the shortest amount of time possible.  
  • The goals are doable and attainable, yet challenging.  Her workouts are 20 minute circuits, but an intense 2o minutes.
  • She is affirming and no-nonsense at the same time.  Be there no mistake: Jillian is a yeller.  A compassionate, caring, scary yeller.

The real power of Jillian's approach to fitness goal-setting is brevity.  It's going to take 2o minutes of working out a day and that feels doable, concrete and it works.

In that spirit, here are some doable, concrete, effective ways to help kids set reading and writing goals for the new year:

Five Ways to Make Goal-Setting Resolutions Stick 

1. Use language that feels close to the child when helping kids set goals.

Jillian trains ordinary people on reality television.  She motivates her clients by connecting with them, not talking above their heads.  Jillian uses language close to her clients, so that her clients can see themselves in their fitness goals.  For example, she says things like "I know this is hard, but there are no results without hard work!" (You may, after working out to Jillian for awhile, find yourself whispering these things to yourself. You may not be proud of that fact, but there it is.)

We, too, want our students to see themselves in the goals they set.  As we coach kids to set literacy goals for the new year, rehearse ways to set them in kid-friendly language.

Here are some examples:

  • One thing I'd really like to write this year is...

  • I'd like to be the kind of writer who...

  • Something I'd like try in my writing this year is....

  • I want to find ways to get lost in the books I'm reading.

  • I want to find more time to read.

  • I want to think deeply about the books I'm reading.

I-statements, simply put in direct ways, help kids form an identity around the goals they set.

2. Create visible ways to track progress towards the goals

Jillian promises results.  She just doesn't promise them overnight. In her workout DVD, 30-day Shred, she coaches clients to achieve results by tracking progress toward their goal across a month. Every 10 days, clients check in with their endurance and strength and self-assess to see if they are ready for the next workout tier.  Clients make calendars, charts and checklists to help them track their progress through the here, like here.

Apply this Jillian-move to help kids track their reading and writing goals.  For example, let's say a student sets the goal to read more in the new year.  Instead of checking in once at the end of the month, coach the student to track their progress by making a calendar snapshot where they create 'tiers' or mini-check-ins for this goal. At the end of each week, the student makes a plan to check in with their coach (you!) to help evaluate their progress with the goal.


Smaller check-ins and visible ways to track progress help goals stay concrete and doable.

3. Help kids break goals into smaller, achievable steps.

Jillian knows that people like me aren't going to go from no workout to Insanity-level workout (click here for my nightmare of workouts).  She breaks her workout up into small, achievable steps.  Step 1 = 3 minutes of strength. Step 2 = 2 minutes of cardio. Step 3 = 1 minute of abs.  Small. Achievable. Steps.

Here's a sample of breaking the same reading goal of reading more into steps:


Breaking things down allows us to know the next step and assess our progress.

4. Form teams of students who are working toward similar goals.

If you visit Jillian's official site, you'll see that one of the tools she offers is a message board for community members to gain daily support for their weight loss, strength and endurance goals.

Setting and achieving goals is remarkedly more successful when done with the support of others versus accomplishing them alone.    Try a team-based approach when helping kids set literacy goals for the new year.   Perhaps you arrange categories, like some of the ones below, and create a team environment to help manage the progress and ultimate outcomes of the goals.


Everyone knows that improving something like our fitness is very hard to do alone. Same holds true for things like reading and writing. Also, if you put your kids into teams then they can do things like say "Goooo team!" as they start reading, which is awesome.

5. Encourage kids to talk about the goals they've set consistently and publicly.

If you visit YouTube and search '30 day shred,' you'll find a collage of people posting their results and progress.  The act of testifying toward the progress of the goal is powerful and effective.  People (much, much braver than me) post before and after shots to celebrate their achievements and help inspire others to do the same.

Now, we're talking about supporting middle school kids talk publicly about themselves and school.  Yes, this could be a tad tricky!  Here are some ways to break the ice:

  • Have student video-journal their progress toward the goal. This is one fantastic by-product of the reality TV generation.  We are quite comfortable and familiar watching reality show contestants film their inner thoughts and composing video-diaries about every scene of an episode.  Encourage kids to tape their reflections toward their goal and share it with other classmates working toward the same goal. 
  • Micro-blogging or blogging is another way kids can find a comfortable voice when tracking and naming their progress.  Kids (and teachers) are used to a status-update culture, where we turn daily monitoring into a public declaration (Here are some of my latest: Day one of 30-day shred done! and Just ate two pieces of quiche that cancels out my first day of 30-day shred and it was worth it:) 
  • Have student form mini-roundtables where they share their progress in smaller groups of 3 or 4.  Schedule these roundtables for the first or last five minutes of class.

Who knows, you might cultivate a YouTube rising star like here, where thousands of readers flock to here this young readers book reviews!

Now, we can't promise that after 30 days all of your students will be 'shredded' as readers and writers (nor do we know what that even means). But we do know that this is a great time of year for reflection and goal setting. Take advantage of the season and set up some structures to help your kids do the reading or writing equivalent of 300 push ups!

Happy New Year!

Big Idea: Setting goals.             Tiny Detail: Concrete ways to track progress and assess goals.

- Kate and Maggie