How to Get Students to Believe in Themselves

By Shauntee Burns
July 27, 2010

How many times do you hear students in your classroom or library say, “I can’t”? Doesn’t that phrase make you cringe? I always tell students, "Don’t say that because you can,” and help them figure out ways to reach their goals.

That’s one way to help, but sometimes a person is not always around to reinforce a positive way of thinking. After doing some reading, I came across “The Fish Story” (this story works with various age groups).

When the students walk in your classroom or programming room, greet them and hand them a small plastic snack bag with a few goldfish crackers inside.

"Cool, can we eat them?" at least one of them, if not all of them, will usually say.

"Not just yet," is your reply. Then begin the fish story.

This is a story about a fish. It's not an exaggerated "fish tale." It's a true story about a fish that was living in a large tank in New England. This fish was inside the tank because he was being studied by scientists. He was perfectly content. All his needs were being met. At feeding time the scientists would drop some minnows down into his tank. The fish would happily gobble them up. It was a good life.

One day the scientists changed their routine. Instead of dropping the minnows freely into the tank, they placed the small fish inside of a glass tube. The tube was designed so that water could flow freely through it. The large fish swimming in the tank could easily see the tiny fish inside the tube. As the big fish grew hungry he began to try to get to the small fish inside the tube. This was his meal! He pushed the tube against the side of his tank. Of course, the hungrier he became the harder he tried. He knocked that tube with his tail and then with his whole body. Harder and harder he swatted at that tube as his hunger became overwhelming. But eventually the fish learned that he could not get to the minnows, no matter how hard he tried he simply couldn't open the tube. So he gave up.

After watching the big fish for a while longer, the scientists changed their plan again. They pulled the tube full of small minnows up out of the tank and then dumped them freely right into the large tank alongside the big fish. The poor minnows! Can you imagine what happened next? (Pause to let them think about how fast the big fish would eat those minnows.) The large fish starved to death. (Disbelief fills the room.) With minnows swimming freely all around him, he starved to death.

Why? How could that possibly happen? The answer isn't obvious, but it is simple. He no longer believed he could eat the fish. Once he stopped believing he could eat the fish, he no longer tried.

When you tell this story to students, at first they accuse you of making it up. But it is a true story. Then one of them will talk about how incredibly stupid that fish was. No human would be so silly, they say. But we are. We are just like that big fish that starved to death. In fact I think that fish is a perfect analogy for life. And I can prove it. “Now," I say to my students, "eat the fish." Usually they just stare at me. They have become so engrossed in the story of the fish that starved to death that they will have forgotten about the goldfish crackers you gave them when they walked into the room. They already have become just like the big fish.

"Eat the fish!" you will have to repeat. Slowly they begin to eat.

As they eat you say, "Any time you put limitations on yourself, needless limitations, which keep you from reaching your goal, remember — those limits are all inside your head. I want you to remember that fish — the one who starved to death with minnows swimming all around him. I want you to remember him and not make the same mistake. You have possibilities all around you! Eat the fish!"

It's a symbolic way of reminding students that they have to reject pointless limitations. They have to be diligent about rejecting the negative messages that surround them every day. You want them to remember that they are in charge of their own destiny. Maybe making them eat the fish is a little silly, but it is also memorable. Many students will not forget this activity or the important message it illustrates. Refer to it many times throughout the rest of the year. If someone is voicing self-doubt, another student may say, "What are you saying? Eat the fish!"

The fish story is a way to illustrate to students in a very concrete way that beyond the facts and despite the reality that others may doubt their dreams, there still are many wonderful opportunities "swimming" all around them. They still always have the power to create their own future. All they have to do is eat the fish.

This wonderful story and activity came from Dauna Easley, in Techniques (May 1, 2004).  Access via Academic Search Premier.