alfie kohn, being a teacher, education reform, Student-centered

We Say And Yet

We say we don’t want to be micromanaged as teachers and yet then we do it to our students.

We say we want democratic schools, where our voices are heard, and yet we rule our students with an iron fist.

We say we are working as hard as we can and that merit pay will not boost our dedication or our effort, and yet we dangle grades in front of our students to try to incentivize them.

We say we work too many hours as teachers without getting paid for it and yet we assign hours of homework to our students.

We say our voices are not being heard in the educational debate yet we do not listen to the voice of our students.

We say we want to be invited into the educational policy decisions being made and yet we do not invite parents and students into our own decisions.

We say that we want freedom to teach and yet we allow little freedom to our students in learning.

We say we want to teach in our own way, infused with our passion, and yet we expect students to all learn the same way.

We say that we need to time to teach and to learn all of these new things being thrust at us and yet we expect our students to all find the time and to master it at the same time.

We say we want to be respected as individual teachers and yet we show little respect to our students as individuals, expecting them to fit into whatever we have decided the perfect student should be.

We wonder why our students are losing interest in schools and never stop to look at what we do to them.  Education should not be done to them, it should happen with them.  Give back your classroom to your students; give them a voice.

alfie kohn, being a teacher, being me, punishment, rewards, Student-centered

Why Have You Not Given Up Rewards Yet?

I used to be the queen of the awesome board, the gold  stickers, and definitely the special lunches and privileges.  I thought my kids loved it, and sure some did, but after a huge hallelujah moment, I realized the harm I was doing to my classroom and I ended all individual rewards.  So have you stopped handing out rewards in your classroom?  If not here are some reasons why you should consider it.

  1. Students don’t actually need rewards to work.  Sure they work in the short-run but guess what after a while you have to up the ante and keep going up because it just isn’t going to be very effective for long.  And yes, students will take rewards if you offer them, but they will actually also work without the perpetual carrot dangling in front of their noses.    And you won’t believe me until you actually try it.   
  2. Rewards tend to go to the same kids over and over and over.  We say that it is really up to the students to get the rewards but at the same time we can probably all list the kids that would have a hard time earning one.  So then who are we fooling?
  3. Rewards split the students.  If you ever want to create a class of have and have not’s in your classroom just hand out rewards; the students will quickly figure out who the “smart” kids are and who are not.  Or worse, who the teachers like and who they don’t.
  4. Rewards devalue the learning.  By attaching a reward to a learning task, you are telling a student that the task is not worth doing if it weren’t for the reward.  That is not how learning should be.  Learning should be fun, exciting, and curiosity driven, not mechanical and focused on the end point.  When a reward becomes the end point, then that is the focus.
  5. You keep giving rewards; the students won’t work without it.  With rewards you create a culture of “what’s in it for me?” and the learning just isn’t enough.  And yet the learning and experience should be enough for the child, provided it is meaningful and purposeful.  So set them up from the beginning to earn rewards and soon there will be hardly any extra work or deeper digging into concepts.  If the child knows that they “just” have to do whatever to get a reward, or an A for that matter, then that is what they will do.  The learning stops wherever you dictate it to.
  6. The students will argue with you.  My first year students would get upset over which sticker I gave them because in their minds certain stickers were worth more.  A sticker!  Now equate that to extra recess, or books, or special lunches and think of the conflict it creates.  You want to make sure your struggling learners keep feeling more disenfranchised; keep up the rewards.
  7. Rewards become the measure of success. If you don’t reward a child then they don’t think they have succeeded.  No more handing them back a project with great feedback; if that sticker or some recognition isn’t attached then it just isn’t enough.  I had students collect stickers and notes to showcase to the other students, it became a competition of who could gather more.  It wasn’t about what they had learned or how great a project was, it was only about that note.
  8. Students lose their voice in the learning process.  When a teacher is the only one deciding on success shown through rewards, the classroom does not belong to the students.  That teacher is therefore the ultimate power within the room and the kids know it.  If you want to create a student-centered classroom, you cannot have such a vast difference in learning authority.  To build the kids confidence they have to have a voice.
  9. But they all  get rewarded….  Some schools run weekly recognitions of students for whatever reason, or some classrooms do.  And while this may seem innocent enough, after all, there is nothing tangible tied to it, it still causes jealousy and anxiety.  If a program calls for recognizing every single student for the same things, then why are we recognizing in a public way in the first place.  Wouldn’t it be easier just to state the expectations and then tell the kids that we are happy they are all living up to it?  There is no need to create weekly recognition if we are doing our jobs right as educators; making our students feel valued and respected as part of the learning community.
  10. Rewards create more work for the teacher.  I was so worried that everyone had been on my “Awesome board” that I kept track = more paperwork.  I also had to make sure that I was eating lunch with all of my students = more paperwork.  I also had to make sure I could justify to parents why one child got a certain privilege and another didn’t = more paperwork.  Do you see where I am going?  Rewards and trying to keep it “fair and balanced” creates more work for us without providing any long-term benefits. 

So you may assume that my classroom is one stripped of rewards and recognition, yet it isn’t.  My students have parties, except they get them after the fact, when we have something to celebrate.  I don’t punish them if they are being rowdy, uncooperative or downright disrespectful,  but we have circles where we discuss our behavior and how we perhaps need to adjust it.  I have high expectations for my students to “represent” as much as they have for me.  We strive to create a learning environment where we all feel comfortable messing up and trying again, because we know that the learning journey is the focus and not just the end result.  So I recognize and I reward but I do it through the learning and the conversations.  I don’t have a classroom where students expect things to do their jobs, I have a classroom of kids eager to learn, on some days more than others, but who are always willing to be a part of what we consider our second home; our classroom.  All without the use of rewards.

alfie kohn, classroom expectations, rewards

My Barren Wasteland – A Room Without Rewards

A barren wasteland with no smiling allowed.  A silent classroom with a teacher standing sternly at the front slapping a ruler against their palm waiting for the next kid that dares to actually have a good time.  These are all images people tend to get when I say I do not believe in rewards.

Recently I wrote a post detailing how I reward my students through time rather than extrinsic motivators.  One comment I received asked me whether I believed in whole classroom rewards or not, which is a question I often get.  The answer is no.  I don’t believe in the idea of rewards and agree with Alfie Kohn when he states that “Rewards and punishment  are ways of manipulating behavior that destroy the potential for real learning.”

I believe that rewards twist the focus of the classroom and provides students with a false reason to want to engage.  I believe that rewards always end up benefiting the same students and some are always left out.  I know some will say that classroom rewards are the answer to that inequity, but ask yourself; how often have you taken away classroom points or not given marbles based on the actions of one kid or just a couple?  I know I used to even though it did not reflect the behavior of the whole classroom.  So you still produce an inequity because the other kids certainly know who it is that makes them lose points and believe me that plays into social situations sooner or later.

The bottom line for me is when we perpetually stick a carrot in front of students faces whether it be through points, letters, or marbles, we are teaching them that they should not do anything without a reward.  So while in the short term it may work to have kids get points to earn something as a classroom, in the long run it is not shaping their behavior to want to behave simply for the greater good.  I need kids that want to be in my classroom and I expect kids to take responsibility for their behaviors.  So I do not make kids “earn” anything in the reward sense, and I do not single out kids.  Instead we celebrate class-wide whenever an occasion arises.   Celebrations are given not earned and they can be based on whether we have achieved something or it is a certain time of year.  Often students and I discuss how we should celebrate something and it is never ever taken away from them.    I never use it is a way to manipulate their behavior or to point out anything.  We simply celebrate, and there is always a lot to celebrate!

So while classroom rewards may seem harmless, think of what it projects.  Think of what message it really is sending the students.  Are we trying to tell them that we do not expect them to behave without some sort of reward?  Are we trying to tell them that society will always reward them extrinsically whenever they do what is expected of them, because if we are, those kids will be mightily disappointed in adult life.

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alfie kohn, education reform, rewards

GIve Me Back that Gold Star or How Do You Reward Your Students When You Don’t Believe in Rewards

Image taken from here

It used to be when a student did something exceptional, I would place a cute sticker on their worksheet, homework, or test.  I had a drawer just meant for stickers and I lovingly picked new ones for each year in the office catalogs.  I also had Bravo certificates and even great stamps that quickly but distinctly told them exactly how I felt.   Who doesn’t feel great after getting a stamp with a big thumb on it telling you “Thumbs Up!?”  Sometimes, when I had a little more time,  I would even write “Fantastic” next to that sticker just so that they knew I really meant it.

If the class was having a great day I couldn’t wait to dole out those kid points (if I remembered) so that they could earn another party. Never mind the fact that they knew they would earn it eventually because odds were they would have many more great days than bad days. I thought my kids knew that I thought they were great. I thought my kids understood why they were great.   In fact, I even had an “Awesome Wall” where all the A+ work would go up. Of course, I hoped that all kids would eventually have their work prominently displayed, but truthfully some just never did.

So this year I threw it all away. Well, I kept the stickers but they are for my daughter and husband – he loves motivational stickers on his honey-do lists.   The awesome wall got replaced with a world map, the kid/teacher points disappeared. And I felt so empty; after all, how would my kids know when they did a great job? Wouldn’t they miss the stickers and the fantastics? Ummm no. In fact, no kid ever asked me for a sticker this year. No kid ever asked me to explain their fantastic remark because I didn’t write them often.  Truthfully I found out that kids really didn’t need those extrinsic rewards, that learning still happened, that the kids still stayed motivated, of course some days more than others because guess what, they are kids.

So in throwing out all of my rewards, I found out about the biggest reward of all; time.  This simple concept that I know we have precious little of in a classroom is a hot commodity to everyone.  Now when my kids deserve recognition (which they do every day) I give them time.  Whether it is to take the time to speak to them about their work, or to write feedback.  Whether it is to give them time to work or just time to speak to one another.  How about time for a sledding party?  Or time for 5 minutes of meditation after that awesome assembly?  How about the time to just be a classroom, to just hang out and celebrate all the amazing things happening in our room, in our school, in our world?

So don’t feel like giving up rewards will steer your classroom management off course, I believe it will actually heighten it.  I believe that when you push the superficial things out of the way, deeper connections arise and the students become more willing to share, more connected, more motivated.  Finally, by getting rid of rewards I also gave myself the biggest one of all; the chance to connect deeper with my students.  The chance to speak to them more.  The chance to have them all be equals and not labeled and ranked according to grades or homework.  The chance to finally all be “Fantastic.”

alfie kohn, behavior, Classroom, punishment, Teacher

So I Gave Up Punishment and the Kids Still Behaved

This year I gave up my inane punishment plans.  Out went the sticks, the cups, the posters, the pointed fingers and definitely the lost recesses.  No more check-marks, or charts to explain what that check-mark meant, no more raised voice telling a child they better behave or else.  Some thought I was crazy, I thought I was crazy, and yet, here I am ready to do it again next year.  So what happened?

Well, a lot of conversations.  If just one child was off that day, disruptive, disrespectful and so on, it was usually handled through a quiet conversation off to the side or in their ear.  Sometimes we went in the hallway.  I tried to limit the times I called out their names and I spoke to them as human beings.  No more teacher from the top, I am going to get you if you don’t listen, but rather, “Do you see what your behavior is doing for your learning?”  Believe it or not, framed in a way where they understood what the loss was = the learning, there was better behavior or at least an attempt to behave.  And that was a central part of my plan; make the learning something they don’t want to miss.  Most kids do not want to miss recess because they have a lot of fun and hang out with their friends, which is why it is such a favored punishment.  Hit them where it hurst kind of thing.  So I decided to make my classroom fun, exciting, and collaborative.  That meant that students actually wanted to participate and not miss out.

Sometimes my whole class was off; jumpy, jiggly, or falling asleep.  In the past I would have yelled, droned on, and probably lectured about the importance of school.  No surprise there that usually didn’t work at all.  So then I would just get mad, tighten the reins and exert my control.  After all, I was the adult here and the one that should decide everything.  Yeah, didn’t work so well.  This year I instead changed my teaching and learning.  While we may have had certain activities planned for that day they would be modified to require movement and discussion or totally changed if I could.  The learning goals usually stayed the same, the method didn’t.  Often this took care of a lot of behavior that would have led to a check-mark before.  And I think that is central to this whole thing; bad behavior often comes from disengagement and boredom.  So when we change our classrooms to give students more outlet for their energy, bad behavior reduces.  My worst days were the days that I hadn’t considered my students needs enough, the days were there was too much sitting down and not enough choice.

In the beginning it was hard.  I so instinctually wanted to say “Move your stick!” that I actually had to grind my teeth.  With time it got easier.  The students knew when they were misbehaving because we discussed it.  If the whole class or a majority of students were off we had a class meeting.  Sounds like a lot of time spent on talking?  Yes, but I would have been spending the same time yelling at the kids and doling out punishment.  The kids got used to it and many of them relished the fact that they were given a voice in their behavior and how to fix it, rather than a dictation from me.  Kids started keeping each other in line as well, asking others to be quiet when need be or to work more focused.  They knew what the expectations were for the different learning settings because we had set them together.  This was our classroom, not mine.

So did it work?  Absolutely, I would never go back.  I didn’t take away recess but had it reserved to work with the kids that needed it, I made fewer phone calls home, and I sent a kid to the office twice the whole year for recess related stuff.  I am sure there are tougher classes out there than mine, but this was your every day average American elementary class.  We had the talkers, the interrupters, the disrespectful, the fighters, and the sleepers.  And it worked for them as well.  The kids felt part of something, something big, and they let me know on the last day of school just how much it meant to them.  They relished the voice they had, even when it came to their own consequences.  They relished that rewards were no longer personal but rather classroom-wide whenever I felt like it.  Kids were not singled out for horrible behavior and so I didn’t have “that kid” that everyone knew would get in trouble.  Instead we were all there as learners being rewarded through our community rather than punished.  Yesterday while preparing form y switch from 4th to 5th, I put my old punishment cups to move your stick in into the lounge.  I hope no one picks them up.

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alfie kohn, education, No grades, Student, Teacher

So You Want to Quit Letter Grades – A Practical Guide From Someone Who’s Done It and Survived

Last year I made the decision to stop giving out letter grades as much as possible. This was not an easy decision or one that I made lightly. Only after research, deep reflection, and many conversations with peers did I decide that this was the best step for me within my educational philosophy. This post is not a debate of why I quit letter grades, but a how, so here goes.

  1. Do your research.  I knew that to do this right I had to have my philosophy and facts straight so I read Alfie Kohn’s work, as well as the numerous blogs, articles, and reflections on it available through a  Google search.  This strengthened my stance and gave me practical know-how.
  2. Think it through.  This is a bucking-the-system type of decision so you need to be clear on why you are doing this.  Providing students with more meaningful feedback: yes.  Less work and more free time: no.  
  3. Now think it through practically.  What is this going to look like in your room?  How will you take notes?  How will you assess their learning?  And then how will you compile that all into feedback, progress reports, and perhaps even a dictated grade on a district report card?  This was my biggest hurdle this year and something that I need to refine next year.
  4. Create your goals. All lessons have to have goals, otherwise you will have nothing to assess.  Sometimes we are not totally sure of that what those goals are since a curriculum has been prescribed to us.  Dig through it and find them or create your own within your standards and then make a list or some sort of report.  I was able to quickly assess through verbal Q&A whether a student was secure in something or not and then check off that goal, moving that student on to something else.
  5. Involve the higher ups.  I didn’t have to alert my principal to what I was planning on doing but it made my life a lot easier when I did.  Some districts will not support this without a proper discussion and it is important to have allies if someone questions your program or philosophy.
  6. Explain it to your families, and particularly your students.  The first few weeks we discussed what proper feedback was, what we could use it for, and how the feedback was just another step in our journey.  This made my students start to focus on the feedback rather than pine for a grade to be done with it.  Deadlines became more flexible and a product was seldom “done” but always a work in progress.
  7. Involve your students.  I had to still give letter grades on our report cards so I discussed with students what their grade should be.  More time consuming, absolutely, but it was wonderful to see their knowledge of the subject and understanding of what they should know.  Most of the time, their grades and mine lined up perfectly and in rare occasions were they much harder on themselves than I was.  Either way we figured it out together, through conversation and reflection, and they started to own their learning more.
  8. Plan for it.  Meaningful assessment does not just happen, it is planned and somehow noted.  If you think you are just going to remember, you are not.  So every day I had my trusty clipboard that I took notes on, checked off progress and goals accomplished on, and added anything else useful to.  This became my “grade book” and the days I didn’t use it, all of that information was lost.  
  9. Take Your Time.  Letter grades will always be easier to do because they most often are compiled from a piece of paper or a one-time presentation.  Deep feedback is not.  This happens through conversations, assignments, and lots and lots of formative assessment.  Give yourself time to take it all in, take your most important goals and give them enough time to be accomplished by your students, and then give yourself enough time to have the conversations.  The conversations are the most important tool here.
  10. Allow Yourself to Change.  This means both allowing yourself to try out not giving letter grades and then figuring out if it works for you.  This also means allowing yourself to know that this is a work in progress.  There were absolutely missed opportunities in my room this year concerning feedback, but I know what to work on now.  I also know what my goals are, how to engage students in meaningful conversation regarding their work, and also how to give better feedback.  Just like our students, we too, are learning.
  11. Most Importantly: Reach Out.  Through my PLN I was able to engage in meaningful conversations and iron out hurdles with the help of Joe Bower, Jeremy MacDonald, and Chris Wejr.  I even reached out to Alfie Kohn.  There are people who have done this before you, there are people who have gone through it before you, use them, ask them questions, and know that you are not alone.  I am always available to discuss this with anyone so reach out to me as well.

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