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

Posts tagged “Social & Emotional Learning

Book Review: Punished by Rewards

I love when people recommend books to me. I really do. I especially love when books are recommended that may challenge my current thinking on a topic. I firmly believe that life is all about learning and growing and that also means changing our thinking from time to time. I also love when people keep recommending books, even if their first recommendations fell completely flat (which happens on occasion.)

Several years ago, I read a book by Rafe Esquith that was suggested by a teacher friend. I hated it. Like, I really, really hated it. So much so that I did not write a review or mention the author on my blog until now. My friend acknowledged my dislike and then suggested another book: Teaching with Love and Logic. While not a favourite, I didn’t hate this one and wrote a review about it (linked).

Jump ahead a couple of years, and this wonderful friend, now in a different school, contacted me about a book she had recently read. We were at a mutual friend’s house playing games and she said, “Oh, by the way, I’ve got a book I need you to read!” She dropped it off a few days later and I put it in my To Be Read pile.

The title alone captured my attention. The use of rewards in school, work, home, and pretty much every setting imaginable is as ubiquitous as fidget spinners and bottle flipping were in my classroom last quarter. Mr. Kohn was suggesting that this practice was problematic; that it is, in fact, on the same level as punishment.

Before I go on, a few important clarifications about certain terms that get thrown around in education:

  • Expectations: these are, as the word says, what we expect of students and teachers in our schools; they are not the same thing as rules. However, there are many who have taken their rules and reworded them to sound like expectations. This infuriates me.
  • Discipline: this is the practice of teaching and practicing self-control; it is not the same thing as punishing undesired behaviour; but, much like “expectations,” the word “discipline” has somehow become synonymous with “punishing.”
  • Consequences: these are the natural result of choices we make. If you choose to wear shorts and flips-flops on a day when the mercury refuses to budge even a millimeter from the bottom of the thermometer, the consequence is going to be that you will be cold and, quite likely miserable. On the other hand, if you choose to wear thick socks, boots, warm pants, a sweatshirt, a coat, gloves, and a hat on this same day, the consequence is that you will be able to enjoy your day despite the cold. However, once again, we seem to have gotten into the habit of using “consequences” as code for “punishment.” (How often do teachers tell a student, “If you choose to study for this test, the natural consequence will be that you do well” compared to “If you choose to ignore your homework, the natural consequence will be that you will fail”?)

I was really hoping that Alfie Kohn would take some time to parse these definitions in his book and call teachers and parents to task for misusing them. Mr. Kohn is widely widely published, widely read, and widely respected. He could have used his platform to say, “Hey, you guys! You keep using these words all wrong and it is sending the wrong message to our children! Let’s fix this!”

Alas, it was not to be.

So, what did Mr. Kohn have to say in his book to support his claim that rewards are just as ineffective and harmful as punishment? He laid out a huge amount of research to support his claim and in quite a convincing manner. Rewards are far too often used as a means of manipulating or controlling another’s behaviour. Instead of explaining the rationale for a desired outcome, we simply try to bribe others into doing it.

This. Does. Not. Work.

However, Alfie Kohn doesn’t seem to think that using rewards to reinforce learning that has been explained works either, which left me confused. He used Pizza Hut’s Book-It program as an example many times. His view is that students will actually come to loathe reading as a result of receiving free pizza for reading a specified number of books. I, on the other hand, maintain that if we are trying to teach children to love reading, we reward them after the fact as a way of saying thank you or congratulations. Mr. Kohn, of course, considers that manipulative and therefore bad. You shouldn’t say thank you or congratulations. You should just say, “You did it!” I disagree.

There was one point that Alfie Kohn makes that resonated deeply with me, though. It was this:

“… students don’t learn very efficiently when adults hold out the promise of rewards, compare one child’s performance to another’s (leading them to think in terms of winning and losing rather than learning), or rely on any other practices that draw their attention to how well they are doing.”

I could not agree more wholeheartedly! The entire notion of comparing students to each other is, in my estimation, one of the greatest disservices we have ever done to our children. I remember a conversation I had with my employees when I ran a small custodial business. I told them that they had two ways they could try to impress me as their boss: first, they could try to make everyone else look bad, making themselves appear superior by default; second, they could do the best work they could and leave it at that. Only one of these ways was actually successful. My wife and I didn’t pay our employees based on who was better than the others; we did promote individuals who repeatedly demonstrated the character and dedication expected.

By the time I finished reading this book, I had the following mixed emotions:

I appreciated the research that went into this book and the passion with which Alfie Kohn approaches his subject. I found value in his argument that rewards as behaviour modifiers on their own do not modify behaviour very well.

I was frustrated by the false dichotomies and straw man arguments that seemed to be throughout the book. He very frequently invoked attitudes that I have never seen anyone display or set up conflicting approaches without admitting that there could be a third way.) I don’t think we have to look at the issue as rewards vs reason. I think we can establish reason and use rewards as a way to help develop habits based on reasons, especially with children. I was also frustrated by his authoritarian vs permissive parenting dichotomy, which seemed to ignore the research on parenting styles that has been around since the 1950s.

I am curious to know why Mr. Kohn does not have a PhD yet. Maybe that is academic snobbery on my part, but I would expect someone presented as the expert on a very specific issue to have carried out enough research to earn a PhD in that field, especially since this book reads like an extended dissertation on the topic, with literature reviews and critical analysis throughout.

Finally, I recognise that this book was written in 1993 and education has evolved considerably over the past 25 years or so. I’d like to see a second edition published that responds to current practices.

So, for my dear friend who recommended I read Punished by Rewards, thank you! I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it, either. I have definite ideas I want to implement next year in regards to how I approach expectations, discipline, and consequences in my classroom and hope that I can use Alfie Kohn’s ideas to move away from a “carrot or stick” approach to one that more fully acknowledges the humanity of my students and their families.


Parting Thoughts for the End of the Year

[NOTE: What follows is a modification of the letter that I sent home to parents and students on Thursday, May 25, which was our last day of school. The inspiration for my letter came from this blog post by Andy McCall.]

A classic British story begins with the line “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” I feel like that is the best summary of this year that I will ever be able to give you. We’ve spent almost 180 days together. It seems like only yesterday, I was introducing myself and trying to figure out which one spelled their name Jayden and the other Jaidyn. I sometimes call you by the wrong name, usually because I am constantly darting my eyes across the room, trying to keep track of everything that is going on.

During the course of this year, we have had some amazing successes. Every single one of you has improved as a reader, as a writer, as a mathematician, and as a researcher. You have found ways to show kindness to others when it wasn’t necessary.

We have also had some pretty serious challenges: fights (both verbal and physical), lost tempers, impulsive actions, property damage, theft, and disrespect. We had the uncertainty of having a student teacher take over full instruction in the classroom for a large chunk of the year.

But I would like to say, on this very last day as I look back over the 2016-2017 year, that our successes have been better than our challenges and that we have all grown, teacher students, since that first day of school way back in August. As we part ways for the summer, I just wanted to give you a few words of wisdom to consider:

  1. If you see me this summer it’s okay to wave from a distance and walk up to say hello. Don’t come running at me like a raging bull or scream my name from across the store; that’s just embarrassing for both of us.
  2. Read something for at least 15 minutes every day. I don’t care what it is: a book, a magazine, a billboard, a restaurant menu, an instruction manual, a guidebook. Just read; don’t lose everything we worked for. (If you find a great book, please tell me about it!)
  3. There is this game called “GO OUTSIDE AND PLAY.” It has always been one of my favourites. Ask your parents where to find it and how to play. I promise, you will love it even more than Prodigy.

Remember that I am proud of each and every single one of you. I might show some of you that with high fives, and others with that “What in the world were you thinking” look on my face that also says, “I care about you and want you to do what’s right and kind.” I’m proud of your work. I gave you the best that I had every day, and I hope one day you’ll appreciate that. You are special, unique, and have a lot to offer the world. Never lose that. (Instead, lose the fidget spinners.) You will always be my students and I will never forget that, for whatever reason that may be. Always remember the Golden Rule and make a point to be kinder than is necessary.


Competitions in the Classroom

I love watching movies, and I really love watching movies about inspiring teachers. Lean On Me, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Music of the Heart, Freedom Writers, Stand and DeliverSister Act 2, Akeelah and the Bee… the list goes on! I think what I love most about them is that they are movies that remind me that I am not the only teacher who has struggles in the classroom, but also that it can and does get better. These movies are also reminders to me that student engagement is such a huge component in contributing to a safe, positive learning environment. In fact, of the movies I listed above, each of them has a turning point in which the teacher finds a way to connect with their students’ interests and discover the joy of teaching students where they are at.

The reality of day-to-day teaching, however, is that I am not the final voice of what I do in my classroom. I have building, district, and state rules, policies, procedures, curricula, and standards that guide my instruction and inform what I teach. That being said, I am fortunate to be in a district that has leaders who encourage teachers to do what works best with their students.

So, even though I have spent this entire year teaching math with a curriculum that is much more rigid than I am used to, I have found ways to change things up to meet their needs, most often by utilising small groups and taking advantage of the abundance of student teachers and tutors and volunteers I had at my disposal throughout the year.

With just six school days remaining to the year, we are definitely in wind-down mode in many ways. My students are also working on culminating projects for writing, they are finishing books, and they are reviewing all of the concepts and skills they have learned during mathing workshop.

Yesterday and today I took a new approach to reviewing math skills. I have had a set of math and English/language arts “task cards” that I picked up from a school supply shop years ago but hadn’t really used much this year. In fact, they have mostly sat on a shelf collecting dust. I decided to brush off the dust, take out the cards, and set up a challenge:

Students self-selected teams of three or four and spread out in the room. Each team was given a random task card (face-down) that connected to a specific Common Core State Standard for Mathematics. I set a time for 30 minutes and set up a tally sheet on my Promethean Board. As soon as the timer started, students flipped the cards over and began solving the problems or completing the tasks given to them. As soon as a card was correctly completed, the team would earn one point and then receive a new card. The process repeated until the timer ran out.

Over the course of the two days that we did this, my students completed about 45 different math tasks. They were engaged, working together, encouraging their group members, checking work, explaining answers, and shouting with excitement when they completed a card and earned a point.

I don’t think I have ever seen a group so focused or engaged in mathematics as I did this afternoon. For the first time, my students were actually excited to do math. Was it because it was a competition? Because the winning team members got to select prizes from my prize box? Because they were able to work together? Most likely, it was a combination of all of the reasons and others that I haven’t even though about yet.

The entire process made me wonder: why haven’t I been doing this more often? Why have I been so reluctant to break out of the rut I found myself in, to give my students a lot more freedom than I had been giving them, the kind of freedom they have during reading, writing, and inquiry workshop times? I think a big part was that I was using a new math curriculum this year (along with everyone else in the district) and no matter how confident I was in the content and my delivery, I needed to see how the curriculum works “as written” before I start changing it up, in much the same way that I do when baking. I always follow the recipe exactly the first time to know what to expect, then I start tinkering with the ingredients to see what I can do to make it better or just different.

So I imagine that my mathematics instruction next year will be much more flexible and group-oriented than it was this year. I’m not saying that my math instruction this year was lacking, mind you. I am just saying that next year it will be better.

And it will certainly include more competitions.


Observe and Write

As the end of the year swiftly approaches, it can be tempting to cut out “extras” from the day to make room for the “essentials.” But, for me, the “extras” are essential. This is definitely true for the ongoing professional collaboration I do with Miss C, one of our kindergarten teachers–our Learning Buddies project. Next week will be our last time bringing our two classes together for the year, but that doesn’t mean that we’ve stopped doing amazing projects and activities with them!

The project we started last week and completed today was all about observing and writing. The students got to go to the outdoor learning space we have behind the building and observe something they saw in nature, whether it was a plant, an insect, a bird, or even a rock. As they observed, they drew detailed pictures of what they saw and then they wrote a paragraph based on their observations.

The role of the fourth graders was to be support and encouragement. The role of the kindergarteners was to draw and write as much as they could on their own. Both groups were responsible for talking to each other, helping each other, and staying focused on the task at hand.

Not only did my students get to be mentors and teachers for a brief part of the day, but they also got to see the fruit of their labours. They well remember that many of their buddies did not even know all of the letters of the alphabet at the start of the year and needed help writing their own names. Now these same children were writing entire paragraphs!

Next week we will have a celebration to wrap up this project, but today? Today was just learning as usual: collaboratively and cooperatively.


17 1/2 Days

Urbana School District #116 adopted six character traits to “model, integrate, and cultivate” in all of our schools. These character traits have been an overarching focus for social-emotional learning for at least five years. The character traits we strive to instill in our students are:

  • Respect
  • Responsibility
  • Integrity
  • Cooperation
  • Compassion
  • Perseverance

At Wiley, we have a character trait of the month throughout the school year. (August/September have the same trait, as do December/January). The last trait of the year is always perseverance, which I find so important at this time!

We are approaching the final stretch. There are 17 1/2 school days between now and the end of school.

17 1/2 days to teach my students as much as I can about appreciating literacy, inquiring into the whats, hows, and whys of our world, developing their voices as authors and speakers, and expanding their abilities to effectively solve problems, whether numeric or otherwise.

17 1/2 days to continue fostering a sense of shared responsibility and mutual respect, to build a classroom community centered on intellectual and emotional growth.

17 1/2 days to assess each student’s reading, writing, and mathing abilities, to allow them to show me what they can do and how well they can do it.

17 1/2 days. That’s not a lot. It reminds me of this song from the Broadway musical The Pajama Game:

17 1/2 days doesn’t seem to be a lot on its own, but when I break it down, well, then, that’s about 130 hours and I can do an awful lot with 130 hours. I can work with 7,875 minutes. I can definitely help my students accomplish quite a bit with 7,875 minutes! And when I break it down even further, 472,500 seconds gives me plenty of time.

It all gets down to perseverance. It is all about pushing on, pushing through, of trying no matter how challenging it may be, no matter how tired we may be, no matter how much we would rather be outside playing. We have a purpose, an aim, a goal: to each achieve personal greatness every second of every minute of every day.

17 1/2 days. We will make it!


Rewards, Punishment, Consequences, and Discipline

Classroom management is really important.

No, seriously. I am going to write that again because it is that important: Classroom management is really important.

Teachers do a lot of things throughout the course of their days. It is often claimed (based on work reported by Dr. Philip W. Jackson in his book Life in Classrooms) that teachers make approximately 1,500 decisions a day. I get to work at about 7:30 am and am making decisions directly related to my classroom until 3:30 pm every day. That’s eight hours. In those 4 hours, I guarantee that I am making some kind of decision at least every 15 seconds, probably closer to 10. But let’s go with 15, or 4 decisions a minute. That’s 240 decisions an hour, which is a total of 1,920 decisions a day. So, really, I think Dr. Jackson was actually lowballing the number of decisions a teacher makes.

Every single one of those decisions impacts how the class is managed, or run. Classroom management is so important that, when searching the term, Google came up with 19,100,000 results in 0.73 seconds. If even just one-tenth of those were unique hits, that still gives us nearly 2,000,000 websites, books, articles, and other resources about this concept. Search just books on classroom management on Goodreads and you find 790 results in 0.15 seconds.

All of which is to say there is no way I could possibly address all the nuances and ideas and theories that abound when it comes to what classroom management actually is, how it works, how to do it effectively, and how to adjust to different situations as they arise. As an educator leader I recently listened to once said, when it comes to students, one size fits one; there is no magic cure that will address every need every time.

So what am I writing about classroom management for? Mostly because I wanted to tease out my own thoughts on four foundational components of running an organisation such as a classroom: rewards, punishment, consequences, and discipline. For me, these terms all have very specific meaning and very specific uses that need to be clearly taught, not just to students, but also to parents, teachers, and other adults.

The first two are fairly straightforward and have had long-standing definitions that are generally understood by everyone: do the right thing and receive a reward, one that is either tangible and extrinsic or intangible and extrinsic. Do the wrong thing and something unpleasant or undesirable happens to you: a punishment.

The second two, on the other hand, seem to get a bit messier when we try to discuss them with others. What I have observed in my years teaching and in general is that “consequences” are often equated with “punishment.” Teachers often talk about “natural consequences” but what they usually refer to are the negative ones; the punishment. But consequences are simply what happens as a result of a decision. Rewards are consequences for desired behaviour. Punishment is the consequence for undesired behaviour. If you are working quietly on your exam and you are focused on the questions, the consequence, quite often, is that you will perform at your best. If you are trying to talk to others and are easily distracted, the consequence, quite often, is that you will perform poorly. The point is that consequences, in and of themselves, are neither good nor bad; they simply are.

Discipline, likewise, is far too often equated with punishment. If a student receives an office discipline referral, it isn’t because the student has done something desirable. If you hear a parent talk about disciplining a child at home, it rarely means anything other than meting out punishment that, hopefully, matches the severity of the crime. But that’s not what discipline really is, even if that is the usage that has been around for over a thousand years. Discipline is, at it’s root, a word that refers to instruction given, teaching, learning, gaining knowledge. I find it incredible disheartening that we have, for centuries, taken the view that the only way to learn something is through punishment; that we do things out of fear of something unpleasant instead of a desire for something good. (A related word, disciple, incidentally, seems to have only positive connotations as it reflects the idea of being one who has taken hold of, grasped, or fully comprehended something.)

How does all of this relate to my classroom management approach? My practice is rooted in the belief that children are still learning how to be people, how to interact with other children, with adults, with peers, and with authority figures. They are learning, in short, how to be. Sometimes this learning results in punishment, yes. Sometimes it results in rewards. I hope that they always connect their actions to the consequences that follow and, in so doing, learn personal discipline, or self-mastery. Everything I do as a teacher, all of those thousands of decisions I make each day, all come back to one single question: what is best for the students? If I can honestly say that what I have done has been because I am putting the needs of my 23 individual students, and of my class, my school, my district, and/or my community first, then I am doing what I need to do: teaching my students to be masters of their own selves. But if I am focusing on just the first two and ignoring the second, then I am not teaching them how to be, I am simply teaching them how to do.

That’s not good enough for me, and, I hope, it isn’t good enough for them, either.


Field Trip: Youth Concert

Way back at the start of the year, my fourth grade partner and I had arranged for our class to have two field trips in April: one to Springfield right before our Spring Holiday and one to the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the end of the month to celebrate the end of PARCC testing. Several weeks ago, our awesome music teacher let us know that she was able to secure tickets for our classes to go to the Krannert Center for the Youth Concert, which happened to be scheduled for April 10. That meant that our three April trips would be on the tenth, twelfth, and twenty-first.

Today was the first of the trips. We got to spend a part of the morning at the Krannert Center listening to a performance by the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra of Peter and the Wolf. It was exciting to bring our students to Krannert to see a very different kind of performance from the one we saw back at the start of the year. We talked to the students ahead of time about how to engage with a symphony orchestra performance: quiet and listening, applauding at the end of each piece.

(Obviously, the YouTube video isn’t the performance we saw today, but I wanted to share a video so that students could talk about and share what they saw and heard.)

I wish I could say that everything went flawlessly for my students, but the reality is that some of them have never been to a performance like this before and are still learning how to respond appropriately to such settings. There were many conversation afterwards about it and I hope that my students will find the opportunity to attend the symphony again at some point. I also hope that they will learn from this experience!

Thank you to the symphony members and the Krannert staff for providing such a great learning opportunity and being patient with the hundreds of students who were attending their performance this morning!