Category: Teachers Establish a Respectful Environment for a Diverse Population of Students

More on Compliance and Motivation in Schools.

Not sure if you’ve had the chance to read it, but I was thinking a lot about compliance and motivation last week.  

It’s a topic that drives my thinking all the time simply because I’ve got a second grade daughter who isn’t terribly good at “being compliant” and I LOVE that about her.  I want her to push the envelope and challenge authority and walk her own path — but I’m not sure that those kinds of behaviors are encouraged or celebrated in traditional schools.

So my fear is that school will crush her independence — and that I will start to push for her to be more compliant regardless of the circumstance simply because I don’t want her to be labeled a “behavior problem.”

If you haven’t had a chance to check out the comment section of that post, you SHOULD.  There have been some TERRIFIC thoughts and reflections shared that are continuing to challenge me.

One of the general themes in many comments is the notion that having kids who are intrinsically motivated is great — but the fact of the matter is that life is full of situations where drudgery is the reality.  In schools, that might look like introducing students to basic skills that are best learned through repetition or pushing kids to complete tasks because learning about meeting deadlines really is an essential skill for becoming a productive contributor.

Stated more simply, you can’t really be “college and career ready” if you think it is OK to pick and choose the work that you are going to complete and the work that you are going to ignore.

There’s truth in that thinking, right?

The fact of the matter is that we ALL complete tasks — both in our personal and our professional lives — that we aren’t inspired by.  We don’t do it because those tasks are intrinsically motivating.  We do it because we want to keep our jobs or to please our spouses or to avoid the consequences that come from ignoring expectations set by other people.

But as Dienne so eloquently describes, schoolkids are BURIED in mindless tasks that do little more than demand compliance.

She writes:

Honestly, as far as the routine stuff that does have to be done, I think we all do see the point and we all do chip in when it comes down to it, albeit sometimes grudgingly.

I think even a kid like Thomas probably likes to wear clean clothes and eat off clean dishes, so he can probably be talked into helping out with those things. Similarly with school work, I think if you can convince Thomas why he needs to know/be able to do something, he’d probably be willing to work hard enough to show you that he knows/can do it.

But repeating the same inane task (such as, for instance, reading truncated excerpts of obscure non-fiction works and answering trick questions just to try to figure out what the test creator is thinking) probably isn’t going to happen. And that’s where we need to ask ourselves, why should it happen?

And THAT’s the key:  Inane tasks are the norm rather than the exception to the rule in the lives of students.

It’s reading truncated excerpts of obscure non-fiction works and answering multiple choice question after multiple choice question.  It’s solving questions 14-33 on page 86 of the textbook and showing your work.  It’s making YET another PowerPoint for YET another class — and then delivering YET another five minute presentation to your peers on some topic that you are going to forget before the end of the month.

Worse yet, inspiring tasks are like white rhinoceroses:  Oddities that are rarely seen, long remembered, and hunted by darn near everyone.

Need proof?  Then try this:  Create a list of every experience from YOUR school career that you were genuinely inspired by.  What are the individual projects or tasks or classes or field trips or learning experiences that you KNOW changed who you are or how you feel or what you know.

Or if you are REALLY brave, get up from your desk RIGHT NOW.  Walk into five classrooms.  Observe the lesson that is being taught and ask yourself, “How many of those lessons will be remembered two weeks (or two days) from now?”

Short lists, right?

That’s heartbreaking, y’all.  Kids spend YEARS and YEARS in classrooms.  Shouldn’t the number of inspiring learning experiences outnumber the number of innane learning experiences by AT LEAST a factor of a thousand?

And if it doesn’t, shouldn’t we be questioning the role that schools are playing in the lives of our kids?  

#goodquestion

#worthasking


Related Radical Reads:

Compliance ≠ Motivation

Are We Too Busy Schooling?

Being Responsible for Teaching the Bored.

Compliance ≠ Motivation.

One of my favorite students of all time was a boy named Thomas*.  

What I dug the most about him was his curiosity.  It didn’t matter what topics we were talking about in class, Thomas was always wondering and always asking questions and always doing independent investigation on related ideas that left him intrigued.  He was one of the most passionate learners and thinkers that I’ve ever had the chance to work with — and I’m certain that he is going to be more than a little successful in life.

But Thomas was rarely “successful” in school.

He wasn’t an “Honor Roll” student, pasting fancy certificates on his wall and bumper stickers on his parents’ cars quarter after quarter and year after year.  Instead, he was constantly racking up Cs and Ds in his classes.  Missing tasks were the norm rather than the exception to the rule — and the work that he DID turn in was never an accurate reflection of what he was capable of.  His apathy towards assignments was a source of constant frustration for his parents and his teachers, who tried every trick in the book — groundings, loss of privileges, after school detentions, low marks, even LOWER marks — to “motivate” him to give his best effort on every assignment.

If you went back and looked at Thomas’s academic record, you’d probably make a ton of assumptions about him.

The fact of the matter is that there is nothing inspiring about the grades that he’s earned during his school career — and outsiders who have to make decisions based on little more than transcripts would probably turn away from Thomas in a minute.  He’d be filtered out before anyone would give him an interview simply because Cs and Ds are quick indicators of struggles that most employers don’t want to bother with.

And all of those assumptions would be wrong.

Here’s why: Thomas’s academic record is nothing more than a reflection of what he was WILLING to do — not what he was ABLE to do.  He’d made a decision early on that he wasn’t going to play the “compliance game,” dutifully completing every task and meeting every deadline without question.  Instead, he judged each assignment individually — and if he found it challenging or interesting or relevant, he’d invest in it completely.  If he found it pointless or repetitive or disconnected from important questions worth considering, he’d skip it no matter what punishments you promised.

So what lesson can we learn from kids like Thomas?

Perhaps most importantly, we need to recognize that sometimes the lack of motivation that we see in our students is a function of the work that we are asking them to do.  Thomas didn’t skip assignments or turn in tasks that were partially complete because he COULDN’T do the work.  He skipped assignments and turned in partially completed tasks because he’d decided that he WOULDN’T do work just to please a teacher or to avoid a punishment.  If he couldn’t see value in a task, he wasn’t going to value it.

Stew in that for a minute, would you.  In its simplest form, Thomas’s refusal to invest in work that he didn’t believe in was a form of protest — his way of saying to his teachers, “If you want my best effort, I expect more effort out of you, too.”  Sure — it would have been easier to just do the work he was being asked to do.  And yes — there are plenty of kids who will follow directions and meet deadlines because they fear the consequences that both parents and teachers stand ready to dish out.

But please don’t mistake that compliance for motivation — and please don’t suggest that kids like Thomas who refuse to comply are automatically lazy or disobedient.

In fact, if you regularly have to use consequences — think zeros or low grades or signatures on work tracking tools or phone calls home to parents — as threats to encourage kids to complete your assignments, it might be time to look carefully at your instructional choices.

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*Name changed to protect the identity of this student!

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Related Radical Reads:

Grades AREN’T Motivating

Learning > Schooling

Are Grades Destroying My Six Year Old Kid?

 

 

Want Better Faculty Meetings? Start Here.

Last week, I blogged about my decision to write “Kudos Cookies” notes to my students.

A simple idea built on a suggestion from my friend Chris Tuttell, Kudos Cookies are short, handwritten notes of praise paired with a sweet treat.  I write anywhere from two to eight notes every morning — depending on how much time I have after arriving at school — and make deliveries all day long.

The entire experience has been fantastic.  Not only are my kids surprised and thankful for the kind words that I’m sharing, my own spirit is buoyed every morning by the simple act of showing gratitude to the kids in my classroom.

But as I try to convince colleagues to write their own notes to kids, I’m hit with the same response over and over again: “That’s such a great idea!  I’m impressed you are doing it.  But I just don’t have the time.”

Now don’t get me wrong:  I understand the time crunch all too well.  I’m behind in paper grading right now simply because I’ve chosen to spend 20-30 minutes every morning writing to kids instead of scoring assignments.  I’ve also been slow at replying to emails in my inbox — which I imagine is frustrating the dozens of people who need answers from me every single day.  The truth is that even I feel pressure to quit writing to my kids because I’ve got a ton of other things that need to get done.

Think about how heartbreaking that is, all y’all.

How did we get to the point where writing kind notes to kids is something that we can’t find the time for?  How many items on our To-Do lists would have a GREATER impact than telling our students that we are proud of them and spotlighting moments where they have impressed us?  If I quit writing and caught up on my grading and answering my email, would our school be a better place?  Would I be a better teacher?  Would my students be better learners?

Of course not.  The BEST thing I do each day is write to my students.  Each note strengthens a relationship and builds the confidence of a kid.  Nothing else matters more.

#simpletruth

The good news is that Matt Townsley and Santo Nicotera have found a solution.  Both are starting every faculty meeting with the same agenda item:  Writing positive notes to two kids that are hand delivered the next morning.

How awesome is that?

Imagine a room full of teachers spending a few minutes together reflecting on the strengths of individual students.  Imagine a building where written expressions of gratitude became a norm instead of an exception to the rule.  Imagine the positive message sent about priorities when writing to kids was the first thing done whenever teachers gathered together.  And imagine the frame of mind teachers would be in for the rest of the faculty meeting or professional development session after thinking about the kids that they serve.

And THEN imagine the joy that would ripple through your building on the morning after a faculty meeting or professional development session.  

Have 30 staff members?  Sixty students are going to start the next day with a tangible reminder that they ARE successful learners and that their teachers DO believe in them.  Wouldn’t that make your school a more joyful place?  Isn’t that what we mean when we talk about building a community of learners?  Aren’t kids more likely to respond to hand-written notes from the important adults in their lives than to the PBIS points and trinkets that you are currently giving to encourage positive behaviors in your school?

And 30 staff members are going to start the next day with a moment to show gratitude to your students — a behavior that we often overlook in schools because we are too darn busy.

So how do you get started?  Here are a few ideas:

Build 10-15 minutes into your meeting agendas for writing positive notes:  It doesn’t take long to write, guys.  I can write six notes in twenty minutes.  Setting aside ten to fifteen minutes is plenty of time for two notes.

But here’s the thing:  This has to be the FIRST item on your agenda.  Not only will that help by putting teachers in a positive, student-centered frame of mind at the beginning of your faculty meeting, it will ensure that you aren’t tempted to cut letter writing from your agenda because you run out of time at the end of the meeting OR put teachers in the position where they have to decide between writing a meaningful letter or going home at the end of a long staff development session.

Bring school-inspired stationary for every teacher to write on:  I write on cards that are 4 by 5 inch squares.  Four fit on one piece of 8 by 11 card stock.  On the front is a colored, school themed logo.  The cards are big enough for me to say meaningful things but small enough for me to fill in five minutes — so I don’t have to spend forever writing.  Print a stack of these.  Have someone cut them before your faculty meeting.  Ask teachers to pick up two as the enter your meeting — or hand out two at the door as teachers arrive.

Interview kids who have received letters:  The easiest way to convince teachers that writing to kids matters is to interview a few students and get them to talk about the letters that they’ve received.  One or two short videos of kids saying things like, “I felt noticed when I received my letter” or “I wasn’t sure my teacher liked me until I got my letter” will help to cement the notion that time spent on writing letters is well worth it.

Ask every staff member — not just teachers — to write letters:  Don’t forget that your custodians, classroom assistants and office staff members have positive relationships with kids, too.  In fact, they often have positive relationships with students who don’t stand out on the radar of classroom teachers.  Asking them to join your letter writing project will help to ensure that every kid is recognized over the course of the school year.

Recruit parents, the PTA, or your Family and Consumer Science classes to bake Kudos Cookies for you:  My students love the letters that I write.  They COULD be the only thing that you hand out to students.  But let’s face it:  My students also love the cookies that they get, too!  It makes getting a letter from me an extra special treat.  So talk to your parents or your PTA or your Family Consumer Science classes.  Give them a list of your faculty meetings and professional development days.  Have them bake cookies that you can hand out with your letters.  It’s a simple way to spread this project beyond just your classroom teachers.

NEVER skip letter writing:  Never.  Like ever.  The minute that letter writing is bumped from your agenda, you are sending the message to your staff that all of the other items you grind through — details on the new dismissal procedures, reports from the district’s financial planner on changes to your 401K plans, mandated video training on blood borne pathogens or sexual harassment in the workplace — matter more than showing gratitude to kids.  That’s what got us in this pickle to begin with!

So whaddya’ think?  Is this something you can see doing in your faculty meetings?

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Related Radical Reads:

When Was the Last Time YOU Wrote a Positive Note Home to Parents?

Simple Truth:  Kids Want to be Noticed

Writing Positive Notes to my Students is the Best Way to Start the Day

 

Writing Positive Notes to My Students is the BEST Way to Start the Day.

Regular Radical Readers know that I made a commitment last year to handwriting positive notes to the parents of all of my students (see here and here).  The entire project was awesome.  Parents appreciated hearing kind words about their kids and kids appreciated being noticed.

I started a handwritten note project again this week, but with a twist inspired by Christine Tuttell.  This year, I’m writing directly to my kids instead of their parents — and along with each note, I’m giving my kids a cookie:

Like Chris — who does a similar project with the staff members that she supports as an Instructional Technology Facilitator — I’m calling these daily gifts of positive words of praise paired with sweet treats “Kudos Cookies.”  Also like Chris, my main goal is just to spread a bit of joy every day.

And like last year, my kids are really enjoying receiving letters from me.  Every hand delivery has been met with smiles.  In fact, many mornings, I think I’m catching kids off guard simply because they aren’t used to getting direct praise from me.  That makes me feel bad — I wish I had the chance to give every kid direct praise every single day.  But the reality is that with 120 kids and 50 minute class periods, things move too fast in a middle school to interact with every child in a deep and meaningful way every day.

Here’s what’s interesting, though:  I get just as much benefit from the positive notes that I’m writing as my students do!

Starting every morning sitting quietly at my desk thinking about just what makes each of the kids in my room special matters.  It serves as a constant reminder that no matter how hard teaching can be, it is truly an amazing profession.  Better yet, it serves as a constant reminder that every kid sitting in my classroom has unique sets of strengths that are worthy of recognition and celebration.

That kind of intentional reflection about every single kid gives ME joy, too.  Better yet, that kind of intentional reflection makes me more tolerant in the moments when the wheels fall off during the course of the day for the kids in my classroom.  Because I’ve started the day by deliberately naming the strengths of my students, their weaknesses don’t leave me frustrated.

So whaddya’ think?  Are Kudos Cookies a project you’d ever consider tackling?  

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Related Radical Reads:

When Was the Last Time YOU Wrote a Positive Note Home to Parents?

Simple Truth:  Kids Want to be Noticed

 

Buy a Kid a Book for Christmas!

Hey Radical Nation:  As you start to work on your holiday season shopping, I hope you’ll consider picking up a book for an important kid in your life, too!  There’s something special about having your own books lined up on your own bookshelf.  It sends the message that reading is important — that it is something that we believe in and invest in and spend time doing!

Have a middle school son, daughter, nephew, cousin or neighborhood friend on your shopping list?  Need a few suggestions?  

Here are some titles that have been really popular with my students this year:

Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

Red Queen is a dystopian novel — which means it is set in a screwed up future world!  In this world, people are divided into two classes:  Those with silver blood and those with red blood.  People with silver blood ALSO have remarkable powers that they use to keep those with red blood in their place.  Discontent grows among the “reds,” and that discontent leads to a rebellion and the beginnings of a civil war.  It’s the themes of fairness and justice that resonates with middle school readers — that and the incredible superpowers that the Silvers have!  Better yet:  Red Queen is the first book in a series — so if your kid digs it, there’s PLENTY more to read.

Cinder by Marissa Meyer

I like to describe Cinder — and the remaining books in the Lunar Chronicles series — as the book you would get if you mixed Star Wars with your favorite fairy tales.  The story of Cinder — a cyborg with an evil stepmother who falls in love with the Prince of her kingdom — starts of the series.  And while she’s unappreciated, Cinder plays a HUGE role in keeping the earth safe from Levana, the evil queen of the moon who has her heart set on world domination!  The story is fast paced and full of characters that you learn to love and hate.  That by itself makes it engaging to middle school readers.  What’s REALLY fun, though, is finding the parallels to Star Wars — and there are TONS to be on the lookout for.

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

I’ve spent the better part of my career reading young adult literature and few stories have captured my attention like Steelheart.  Another dystopian novel, Steelheart is set on earth in a time when ordinary humans have been bestowed with super powers.  Some can create intense heat.  Some can turn buildings to steel.  Some can generate electricity or cause plants to grow at ridiculous rates.  But here’s the hitch:  Every time that one of these “Epics” uses their super powers, they grow a little more corrupt.  The result:  Tyrants who rule the world with impunity.  That’s where the Reckoners come in.  They are a small team committed to figuring out what the weaknesses of each Epic is and taking them down one at a time.

The Elements by Theodore Gray

One of the concepts that we talk about at length in science class is that everything on earth — the air we breathe, the clothes we wear, the friends we have, the foods we eat — is made up of elements either on their own or working in combination with one another.  Need an example?  Water (H2O) is the result of Hydrogen and Oxygen atoms joining together.  Kids are SUPER fascinated by this — mostly because they haven’t ever heard of most of the elements that we have on earth.  That’s why The Elements by Theodore Gray is such a cool book.  Gray worked to build an incredible collection of every day materials that are made of elements.  Then, he photographed and wrote about his collection.  This book is visually stunning and filled with just enough text to teach good lessons without flying over the heads of middle school readers.

Where Children Sleep by James Mollison

One of the lessons that I try hard to teach my own daughter is that no matter how bad she thinks she has it, our life here in the United States really IS #blessed.  Sometimes I think we forget just how lucky we are to have been born here.  That’s why I love James Mollison’s Where Children Sleep.  Mollison traveled all over the world photographing the bedrooms and detailing the lives of average kids in different countries.  Readers can quickly see drastic differences between rich and poor nations — and that forces some pretty deep reflection.  Given how passionate kids are about their bedrooms, this is the perfect book for introducing the notion that global poverty is real!

Spy School by Stuart Gibbs

If you scanned the desks in my classroom, you’d see three or four copies of Spy School at any given time.  It’s the story of Ben Ripley — a decidedly average middle schooler living a decidedly average life until he comes home from school one day to find a real live spy from the CIA sitting in his living room.  Turns out that Ben has been invited to Spy School — a school for kids in grades 6-12 who have shown some real talent in the arts and sciences of espionage.  What Ben DOESN’T know is that he has no real talent.  The leaders of the school are just using him as bait to try to capture a mole that is trying to destroy the school from the inside out!  I think Ben resonates with middle school readers simply because he is just like them: Funny and hopeful and struggling to be liked and falling in love all while trying to learn new skills in a new school.  This is a light-hearted, funny series that is an easy read.

Deep Blue by Jennifer Donnelly

My students made me write about Deep Blue for one reason:  I’m a dude — like literally all boy — and it is a Mermaid book.  I know, I know:  That sounds RIDICULOUS — and I probably wouldn’t have picked up this book on my own.  But I lost a book bet to one of the girls on my team and she chose this one for me.  What’s REALLY nuts is that I’m LOVING it.  It’s the story of Serafina — a mermaid princess who is forced to marry a prince from another mer kingdom to strengthen a family alliance.  While performing her Doemii — the ritual required of princesses before getting married — assassins attack, Serafina’s mother is killed, and her kingdom is destroyed.  The rest of the story is all about her attempts to rebuild her kingdom.  While I haven’t finished it yet, I can tell you this:  Every time I talk about this book in class, my kids — boys and girls — sit up and pay attention.  It’s THAT good.

Unbroken — the Young Adult Adaptation — by Laura Hillenbrand

One of the messages that I try to get across to kids is that nonfiction stories are WAY cooler than fiction stories simply because they are TRUE.  Sure, you can read about the heroic acts of Silverbloods, Epics or Mermaids.  But you can ALSO read about the heroic acts of Louis Zamperini — a real live pilot during World War II who was shot down over the Pacific and forced to survive in a life raft surrounded by sharks and salt water for longer than any human castaway had ever survived before.  And that was BEFORE he was sent to a Japanese Prisoner of War camp.  Zamperini’s story is an amazing story of the human spirit and survival, but it can be pretty intense.  Hillenbrand does a good job making it approachable in this young adult adaptation, but be sure to check this out if your child is a novice reader or still recognizing that war is a horrible thing.

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Related Radical Reads:

Buy a Boy a Book for Christmas – 2015

Buy a Boy a Book for Christmas – 2013

Three Fantasy Series Your Middle Schoolers will Dig