The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Celebrating Small Victories

I wrote recently about the short-term “token economy” system that our new music teacher and I decided to put into place for my class as an effort to bolster their positive behaviour. Another thing I have done with my classes over the years to support following rules and meeting expectations has been using a pebble jar. I have had varying success with the pebble jar over the years, but it has been more positive than not, so I’ve continued to use it. (When I first introduced it this year, I had hoped we’d be able to fill the jar in three weeks. It has taken us almost three months. Hopefully the second filling will go much faster!)

The jar I use holds 168 glass pebbles. My class had earned 167 of them but was still having a hard time with expectations, especially in Music. So I decided to have them earn the last pebble by getting an “excellent” report from the music teacher. “Pretty good, “okay,” and “all right” were not going to be good enough for the pebble. It had to be “excellent.” To show how big a deal this last pebble was, I even put it in a ring box so that I could display it while we waited to earn it.

The first few days of trying to earn the last pebble didn’t go so well and I began to briefly despair. But then things got just a little bit better. And then still a little better. Then we had a “good” report. But I was still waiting for that “excellent.” On Wednesday, we had an amazing morning. And the afternoon read aloud went pretty well, so I was being cautiously optimistic about my class’s ability to hold it together through Music. I reminded them of the last pebble once again, dropped them off, and then went about doing the usual prep work I do in the classroom with my student teacher while they were gone.

When I went to pick them up, I immediately noticed something different: the class was quietly lined up, waiting patiently, and the music teacher was actually smiling! I asked her how things went.

She looked at the class.

The class looked at her.

I looked at all of them.

Then she said the words we had been waiting to hear: “You know, Mr. Valencic? I think I have to say that today was pretty… excellent!”

The whole class cheered. I cheered (inside). As we walked out, they all seemed to hold their heads a little higher and were just a little more relaxed and more focused on their afternoon task of reading with their Learning Buddies before returning to the classroom for math. It was a small victory, to be sure, but a victory nonetheless.

The next day we had a vote for how to celebrate. The class came up with the ideas and then selected their favourite. They decided they wanted to have an electronics party. Students were invited to bring in personal electronic devices (which I kept locked in a cabinet during the day) and got to use them for 30 minutes this morning. Those who didn’t bring in devices were able to use the Nooks and the Chromebooks.

Before starting the celebration, I talked with the class about the difference between how they felt when they earned their last pebble (good, happy, excited, positive) and how they felt on other days (upset, frustrated, sad, angry). They all agreed that it felt a lot better to walk out of Music on Wednesday knowing that they had all done what they were supposed to do and they felt a lot better about themselves.

Do they still have some learned behaviours and habits that need to be unlearned and broken? Oh, definitely. Did they have an excellent day in the library yesterday and an excellent day in Music today? No, unfortunately, they didn’t. Did this experience give them a glimpse of what can be? Absolutely it did. And that’s my point for using the pebble jar: to focus students on the good and the positive and to encourage them to do more of that each day.

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