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

Practice Without Punishment

When I was kindergarten, my wonderful teacher, Mrs. Essington, noticed that I had a severe speech impediment and referred me for services with Mrs. White, who worked with me diligently several times a week every single week for the next nine years to help me learn how to properly pronounce several sounds such as L, R, S, and Z. (There may have been others but those are the ones that I know I worked on the most.) Even now I feel very self-conscious when I think about pronouncing those sounds, but I remember the last time I worked with Mrs. White at the end of eighth grade and she told me that I had finally graduated from needing services. How did I learn to overcome my speech impediment? Practice. Lots and lots of practice.

This is Mr. L. He loves lemon lollipops. Hearing me try to say this is how my kindergarten teacher recognised I needed speech therapy services.

In fourth grade I learned how to play the recorder in my music class. Twenty-two years later, I can play Mary Had a Little Lamb and Hot Cross Buns. But in fourth grade I was able to play the instrument with a fair degree of competency for a ten-year-old child. How did I learn to play this instrument? Practice. Lots and lots and lots of practice.

In fifth grade I joined the beginning band and started playing the trumpet. I have continued to play it in a number of settings, including concert band marching band in middle school, marching band, concert band, symphonic winds, and two jazz ensembles in high school, a concert band at the University of Illinois, a community wind ensemble through Parkland College in Champaign, a community band through a community arts grant in St. Joseph, and a church orchestra. I readily admit that I am not the greatest trumpet player in the world, but I love performing and I love being able to play the harmonic parts for my instrument. How did I learn to play the trumpet well enough to be admitted to these different bands and ensembles? Practice. Lots and lots of practice.

I was in an advanced math class in seventh and eighth grade that helped prepare me to be able to take calculus my senior year of high school. I vividly recall struggling to learn how to factor polynomials in my eighth grade algebra class. Our teacher had taught us the FOIL method to multiply two binomials and we were learning how to rewrite polynomials as two binomials. Everyone in my class had learned how to do it but I struggled for weeks. Then one day it was as if a light turned on and I understood the process! How did I learn to master this mathematical process? Practice. Lots and lots of practice.

Recognising how important it is to practice the things that you want to do well, I am surprised how often my students view some forms of practice as a form of punishment. I don’t think any of them think I am punishing them when I have them do daily math fluency practice each morning. I don’t think any of them think I am punishing them when I have them do a six-minute timed multiplication facts test each week. I don’t think they view it as punishment when I expect them to read independently and write independently each day as part of our Daily CAFE. I don’t think any of them think I am punishing them when I instruct them to read independently at home each evening for at least 25 minutes. They know that it is by doing these things often and doing them as well as they can that they get better.

But there is one form of practice that is almost always viewed as punishment: hallway expectations.

There was a time in my school’s history that we had thick carpeting throughout the building and students were permitted to speak in the hallways because the carpet dampened the noise. The summer before I got hired, however, all of the carpet was ripped out and brand new tile was put in its place. And thus began the quest to convince students (and teachers!) at Wiley to be silent in our halls. It is five years later and, while we are much better, there is still a lot of talking that goes on.

And so I have my students practice it. A lot. They are reminded of hallways expectations every time we leave the room and every time we return. We discuss why we want silent halls and we reflect on how disruptive it is when others are noisy in the halls. And yet when I have my students line up so we can practice walking in the halls the right way, eyes forward, voices silent, hands by our sides, giving each other space, I am met with groans, dramatic eye rolls, and complaints that it isn’t fair. (Oddly enough, these behaviours only come from the students who are still struggling to carry out the expected hallway behaviours. The students who are always safe, responsible, and respectful in the halls never complain when I tell them that we are going to practice.)

So I have been wondering why this is. And I think today I stumbled upon at least one reason: far too often, teachers only have students practice correct behaviours when the students are not modeling them correctly. We don’t make our students practice silent halls when they are already being silent in the halls. We don’t make them practice lining up the right way if they did it the right way the first time. We only practice them when they are wrong. My students are smart; they know when they are not doing what they are supposed to do. So it makes sense that, in their minds, they are being punished for doing something wrong.

What I need to do is find a way to make sure that they know it isn’t punishment. Just as I wasn’t being punished by Mrs. White when she helped me with my speech, just as my music teacher, Mrs. Howell, wasn’t punishing us by teaching us to play the recorder, just as my band directors, Mrs. Donnell, Mr. Tallman, Mr. Richardson, Mrs. Miller, and others, weren’t punishing us by having us practice our songs so we could play them better, teachers are not punishing their students by having them practice expected behaviours. Indeed, we want them to show us that they can do them and do them well. And if they are doing them well, we want them to do them even better. Practice isn’t punishment; it is an opportunity to improve.

How do you practice without punishment?

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