Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Positive (and FREE) Reinforcement for the Classroom

Motivating students.  Every teacher's goal, right?  But sometimes we get discouraged/frustrated/overwhelmed and we start counting down the days to summer vacation.. Not saying counting down the days is bad, but how can we learn to enjoy each day?

I've tried several different things over the years and have finally found my favorite... But before we get to that, let me tell you what hasn't worked for me.
  • My 1st year teaching, I would give out "G-Money" currency (my last name used to start with 'G') whenever someone did something great.  Students could then buy stuff with it at the end of the 9 weeks. 
    • The problem: I was constantly printing out g-money.  I was not consistent with giving out the g-money.  I had to purchase rewards, which got to be expensive (even though I bought cheap stuff from orientaltradingcompany.com).  Keeping up with the rewards was almost as much work as planning my lessons!
"What do you mean you don't want a transparent ruler bookmark thingy?!"

  • Yelling.
    • The problem: This never works.
"Do your work!"

  • Student of the Week/Month
    • The problem: I was not consistent.  I would get too busy and two/three months would pass.  I also did it BIG-I would take their picture, have them fill out a survey, make a poster, and give them a chicken biscuit coupon.  It was a lot of work and $$.  Also, sometimes there are too many good students to choose just one.
"As soon as I get through these files, I should finally have time to make that poster."
  • Party/Game Day for the students with an 85% or above average.
    • The problem: With standardized tests happening 6 weeks before school is out, that leaves us only 30 weeks to cover 36 weeks worth of content.  Each day is very important if we want to cover all material prior to test time.  Party days are fun, but (in my opinion) they are a waste of time.  If I'm doing my job right, most days in my class should be fun anyway.  Also, there are some kids who just struggle.  They are not lazy or bad, so I don't want to "punish" them by not letting them participate in game day.  Again, this is my opinion, but I feel strongly about it.
  • Candy prizes.  I'll admit... I do give candy out for special occasions such as Christmas or the Last Day of School.  But I used to think it was good to give kids candy as a motivator. 
    • The problem: I think it's ridiculous to use Pavlovian conditioning on my students.  Remember Ivan Pavlov?  The guy who conditioned dogs to salivate when they heard a bell?  When my students grow up and enter the real world (college, jobs, etc.), they will not always get an immediate reward for good work.  And candy can get expensive.  AND worst of all, I will eat the candy if it's in my room!  I do not need that temptation.

So after all that failure, why keep trying?  Because teaching doesn't pay enough to keep going when you hate your job!  And students deserve more than a curmudgeon teacher.

"I love my job... Really."

The answer: We must find some easy things that we can realistically keep doing throughout the year. 

Here is what has worked for me:

1. "The Unicorn Club"
If my students score a 100% on a summative assessment (such as a test, project, or essay), they get their name on a unicorn and they become part of the "Unicorn Club".  Some students have made multiple 100s, so they are in the club multiple times.

2. "Benchmark Champions" Wall
Similar to the Unicorn Club, the Benchmark Champions wall gives kids another chance to have their name up for all to see.  In our county, we have quarterly tests called "Benchmarks".  Kids are expected to do well on these tests based on the content pacing guide.  However, students don't know exactly what will be on the test.  They also are not given a study guide for these tests.  Our leadership looks at these scores.  So how can we make kids care about their benchmark grade?  Having their names on the wall as a Benchmark Champion is like a badge of honor.  
Each color signifies a different class period, and the owls are for students who made a perfect 100%.

3. Examples of Good and Bad work
This one is a pretty common thing for a lot of teachers.  Many school districts even require teachers to do this.  It's important for students to know your expectations.  Students should also be shown what a bad example looks like.  I always create the bad example because I don't want to embarrass anyone.  I sometimes create a bulletin board for this purpose, but I've also given a brief Powerpoint presentation describing "The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly."

4. Keeping them focused on "The Big Game".
I did not watch sports until I met my husband.  Of course, I would sometimes watch the Superbowl and I usually watched the Olympics...  But now, if our TV is on, there's a 60% chance it's sports related TV.  As much as this bores me (sorry, honey), it has given me a whole new way to connect with my students.

As a class, we have several "Big Games" we are preparing for.
  • The most obvious "big game" we prep for is the CRCT (our end-of-year standardized test). The CRCT is our Superbowl and the kids know that it is my job to Coach them.  If they follow my lead, they will succeed! (hey, that rhymed!)
  • We also prep for seventh & eighth grade, thru to high school and college.  I am constantly telling them how much easier social studies will be for them in the future if they give me everything they've got TODAY.  
  • Finally, we prepare for real life!  I love teaching a subject that so heavily involves current events.  I try to connect everything we learn to the real world.  Otherwise, why do they really need to know it??  Isn't everything google-able?!  We have to tell kids why it matters.  Don't you get frustrated when your boss tells you to do something but they don't tell you why?  Aren't you more likely to give it 110% if you agree with the purpose behind the task?  So will our students.

5. Find your "go-to" respectful phrase to get students on task.
It's inevitable.  You give an assignment and expect students to start working, but there are always a few who goof-off and waste time.  What I used to do is say something to those kids, usually louder than I should... "Get on task, please!"  But wait!  95% of the class was already on task!  What about them??  So here's what I've started saying:

"Thank you everyone that's already doing what I've asked."
"Thank you for being quiet."
"Thank you for working so well today!"
"I am so impressed with these on-task discussions." 

Now, I'm serious about this!  You might not notice a difference the first day, but eventually the students that are on task will be grateful for your compliments and they will be on your side.  And ideally, the "problem" kids will start to want the compliments, too.  If the misbehavior continues, follow through with your consequences (such as a discipline board). 
6. If you only do one thing, then create a genuine classroom community.
Every human being on Earth wants to feel like they are part of a respectful, caring community.  If we can give our students this in our classroom, we have achieved something great!  For more information on how I try to do this, please read my post titled "What is Obertopia?"

To wrap-up this long (sorry!) post, I want to tell you about my 3rd period from the 2012-2013 school year.  They truly embodied the meaning of community.  They laughed together and learned together.  They cheered each other on.  They didn't get jealous if someone else won.  They gave pep talks if someone lost.  On my bad days (which they could sense because I wear my heart on my sleeve) they would give ME pep talks!  About once a week, they would break into applause for someone who achieved.  If someone asked a great question, they would pat that student on the back.  You probably think I'm exaggerating or making this stuff up... And you can think whatever you want.  But those kids inspired me.  They showed me what a classroom community should look like.  I hope I get to witness that again this year.  :)


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