aha moment, Be the change, punishment

Instead of Punishment

image from icanread

He was waiting for me to yell at him.

To unleash my words of destruction, let it fall over his deaf ears, while he would continue to stare defiantly at me.

His chin was ready to catch my words, deflect them even if need be.  His shoulders back, proud of what he had done even  if it had broken more than three school rules.

I cleared my throat.  he stood up taller.

Then I asked, “Why?”

A look of uncertain flashed through his yes but then quickly disappeared.

“Because I could.  because I wanted to.  Why?  What are you going to do about it?”

“This isn’t like you,” I said.  “This isn’t the kid I know.  This isn’t the kid that is proving everybody wrong.”

His shoulders slumped a tiny bit and I knew there was a chance we could talk.

I have yet to punish a child into behaving.  Don’t get me wrong, I tried for several years to punish all of them into being good.

I punished them with grades.  I punished them with referrals, with shouting, with lost recesses and lost privileges.  I punished them with phone calls home, meetings, and stern look upon stern look.  Sometimes they straightened out for a bit, if I yelled loud enough.  Other times they just got more certain of their path of destruction, smarter about the damage they inflicted.

I stopped punishing four years ago and started asking “Why?” instead.  It wasn’t a miracle word, nor did it fix everything, but it planted a seed.  A seed that can grow into a conversation.  A seed that can blossom into trust, into community, into a deeper understanding.

I grew weary of punishment because it didn’t change the kid.  It just made them more stubborn in their ways, it made them hate school, it made them hate me.  I became a part of the problem rather than part of the solution.  Sometimes I was the problem and I was the reason they were behaving so destructively.

Now, when a child has rough day, a rough month, or even a  rough year, I first look inward.  What am I doing to add more to the problem?  What am I doing that fuels it?  Then I reach out to the child; how can this be solved, what is really going on?  I keep asking why until I find something that we can use to move forward.  I am not there to fix a kid, I can’t fix anyone, but I am there to help them help themselves.  I am here to help them grow.  Punishment will never do that.

PS:  Today, Zach, one of my incredible students posted this on his blog, I swear he read my mind

In my opinion, a good teacher needs to have three very important qualities. First of all, a teacher needs to be able to put situations into a student’s perspective. A teacher should be able to think “How would a student react to kid/teacher points?” or “Would my class enjoy this project?”  or think similar thoughts. Sometimes, just putting something into a student’s eyes is the best way to solve it. Second, a teacher should be able to think ahead. You can’t plan a project if you don’t have enough time to do the project! A teacher should be able to think ahead and make a plan about what they will do each day in advance. Lastly, but certainly not least, a teacher should always ask “Why?”. Sometimes, teachers just assume that a student is not behaving without thinking about the condition. What if the student is having troubles at home so the student can’t get that homework assignment done. Or, what if the student is having a headache, so he can’t focus on his book. My one piece of advice is “Never assume a student is willingly misbehaving.”

So there you have it

I am a passionate (female) 5th grade teacher in Wisconsin, USA, proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day.  First book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classroom Back to Our Students Starting Today” can be pre-bought now from Powerful Learning Press.   Follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.


How Do I Punish My Students? Umm, I Try Not To

When I moved my blog from Blogger to WordPress last summer I mistakenly assumed that all posts would seamlessly transfer.  I have since found the error in my thinking and have decided to re-post some of my more discussed posts that didn’t survive the move.  This is one of those posts.

Recently a comment on my post “If We Would Just Stop Talking, We Might Learn Something” has made me think quite a bit.  Short and simple, it asked, “Do you have your non-punishment strategies written down?  Could you please share it?”  And I went hmmm, non-punishment strategies sounds much more fancy than what I have.  The truth is, I don’t have any strategies; I simply do not punish kids.  In fact, even the word punish is such a heavily loaded word that I cringe at the sound of it.  It brings to mind canning or  publicly embarrassing children, simply not my thing.  So instead I handle situations as they arise, mostly with common sense.  Let me explain by taking some every day situations in a classroom…

  • A student keeps blurting out.  Sense of humor works for me here most of the time and I tend to look at it through a positive lens; wow, that kid can’t wait to share the answer because they are having so much fun!  Strategies used to curb or direct it has been to give them dry-erase boards to write down their answers and then flash them to me or have them tell it to a partner.  If the blurting is more like an epidemic I place a blank post-it on their desk and have them make a tally every time they blurt out.  This is used for self-awareness not as a way to reward or punish and I have seen it help kids realize the extent of their blurting who were otherwise unaware.
  • Homework is not handed in.  Even in a classroom where I try to stay homework-free, some students do not use their time as effectively as others and may have a page or two to do at the end of the day, mostly math.  So the first thing we speak about is time management; what could they be doing differently in class to curtail taking work home?  Then we also discuss taking responsibility for not having their work; if a child tells me in the morning that they did not do their homework and have a strategy for getting it done such as bringing it tomorrow or spending some time during recess, then I am fine with that plan.  The point to the conversation is; I don’t want to be the one that has to come up with the plan or have to find out that they didn’t do their work.  They need to come to me, take responsibility for it and then fix it.  Just like we do as adults.
  • And yet, the homework continues to not get done.  This does not happen a lot in my room because we just don’t have the homework.  And yet it does happen once in a blue moon. Besides a conversation with the student where we discuss things they have tried to fix it, we often do a quick phone call home to discuss strategy with parents.  This is not a punishing phone call but instead a “heads-up” we need to give a little more support here both at school and from home because the work is disappearing.  Often I find the root of this to be disorganization rather than laziness, so my number one point is; ask what happened!
  • Students goof off and generally not paying attention.  This is a huge flashing sign to me that what I am doing is not engaging and that the kids need a break.  So unless I for some extreme reason cannot stop what I am doing, I do just that; stop and switch gears.  Whether it just entails giving them a body break or asking them how they would like to learn about this concept something needs to change.  I have also had them do partner share, journaling, or whatever pops into my head to make sure they stay engaged.  Sometimes a lesson is continued but in a different format, sometimes we scrap it for the day.
  • Students are staring into space, reading a book or doing other work.  For anyone who has ever been absorbed in a great book, we know how hard it is to stop reading, so I always smile a little when I see a student reading under the table.  And yet, students do need to be doing whatever it is we are doing at the moment.  Often a quick tap on the shoulder or even just silence and waiting for them to join the rest of us works.  It is not a big deal, nor do I make it into one.

Yes, I have had students throw chairs and tables in my room, yes I have had students hit each other, and yes, I have had to send students to the office because they needed a cool down moment.  And still, even during those more extreme situations, I always try to keep in mind that there is a cause to this behavior and it is my job to figure it out.  So I do not punish my students.  I do not take away their privileges to coerce them to behave.  I do not threaten, I do not dangle things in front of their nose.  Instead I start out the year by inviting them to create the rules of the classroom and then asking them to responsibility for it.  We help each other out, we steer each other as we do, and we take the time to talk.

So although I may claim to not have any strategies, the one I might have is to listen with not just my ear,s but also my eyes.  Listen to what their behavior tells me, listen to what they tell me, and then listen to my own reflection on how to create better situations.  And that’s how I don’t punish my students.


The Story of My Brother the Onion Boy – When Zero Tolerance Makes Zero Sense

When I moved my blog from Blogger to WordPress last summer I mistakenly assumed that all posts would seamlessly transfer.  I have since found the error in my thinking and have decided to re-post some of my more discussed posts that didn’t survive the move.  This is one of those posts.

When I was 22, my 12 year old little brother brought a knife to school. Now before people freak out, it was a steak knife, kept in his backpack, until he needed to use it to cut open an onion.  You see, his 6th grade classroom had different plant experiments and my brother’s group had decided that they would slice open an onion in a live demonstration to show the rest of the class all of the layers and even have them smell it.  So he prepared as any Danish student would and packed one of our normal serrated dinner knives in his backpack.  Come science time, much to his teacher’s horror, he pulled out the knife.  His teacher, a calm and cautious woman, sent him straight to the principal’s office for possessing a knife.  And then the district’s zero tolerance policy took over.

Had this event occurred in Denmark, where we had moved from 4 years earlier, nothing would have happened.  In fact, knives in schools are a common occurrence as students bring them in to cut cakes or other foods.   No big deal.  However, in this post-Columbine American era, no chances were to be taken.  So when my little brother, a straight A student, threatened to cut up that onion he was expelled from school for a year.  The school board argued that intent did not matter, all that mattered was that he had brought a dangerous weapon to school and that it could have fallen into the wrong hands, a person who could then use it as a weapon.  However, they gave my brother an out.  If he did not want to be expelled for a year all he would have to do was admit he committed a crime, submits to a psychological evaluation, and undergo an extensive anger management therapy program he would be allowed back into school sooner. The school district urged my parents to take the punishment, have him admit his guilt, and then he could return to school the following school year.  Mind you, this was March so the next year was more than 5 months away.

Most parents would not have fought a powerful district, but mine did.  They saw injustice being made and more importantly, they realized that zero tolerance with no perspective of situation made zero sense.  So they hired a lawyer and the school district was shocked!  They had never had a family hire a lawyer before for an expulsion hearing!  When my parents opened up the hearing to the public, also unheard of, the media caught wind of it.  I cannot tell you how strange it is to drive to work and have the local morning radio team lambast your little brother ,who they felt was just another privileged white kid trying to get out of his rightful punishment.   Luckily others saw more nuance in the situation and some radio hosts even made it their mission to make more people aware of it.  So I swore at the radio, tried to protect my little brother, who admittedly had made a stupid mistake but a mistake nonetheless, and waited for the hearing.

 I don’t think there has ever been so many people to an expulsion hearing before.  I also think a lot of people were shocked at the vigor with which the school district’s lawyer went after my little brother.    Had my parents not been in a situation to hire their own lawyer, it would have been a bloodbath, with a 6th grader as its victim.  The hearing lasted 3 1/2 hours with witnesses being called to testify to my brother’s character and intent.  My brother swore he did not realize he was doing anything wrong.  

Finally after 3 1/2 hours, the independent examiner told the district that the 15 days my bother had been out of school was enough punishment and that this eagerness to prosecute was overkill.  In fact, “Here’s a child who has done well in school, who is compliant, smart, and if we haven’t gotten the message to him with a 15-day suspension, then we need our heads examined,” is what the independent examiner said.  After we breathed, hugged, and then realized the nightmare was finally over we started to see the how the victory was not just for my little brother, but for all of the students of his district because it prompted a review of the district’s zero tolerance policy.  In the end, a clause was added to the district policy much later that each case had to be evaluated and could not just be judged based on the same language.  A small but righteous victory indeed.

 So what made me think of this even that occurred 9 years ago?  A line in this article “How I Joined Teach for America – And Got Sued for $20 Million” in which the writer states, ” Furthermore, I saw from the first month that she generally gave delinquents no more than a stern talking-to, followed by a pat on the back, rather than suspensions, detentions, or any other meaningful punishment.”

Meaningful punishment?  Why does those words seem to not go together?  To me they appear almost opposite of each other.  Meaningful?  When you punish a child, it is to punish, not to have them reflect or rethink, but to judge them based on their actions and then hurt them in some way, not necessarily physically.  When we suspend students, we punish them by removing them from the privilege of learning, even though this sometimes is the worst thing that can happen to them.  When we punish students for not doing their homework by keeping them in from recess, then we are taking away their rightful time to renew and re-energize before we expect them to learn again.  What would a meaningful punishment look like?  There can be a consequence, but a punishment?

 So I ask you, is there such a thing as meaningful punishment?  Is it our job as educators to punish our students?  My brother fell victim to a zero tolerance policy that wanted to punish him to the utmost of its capabilities, without common sense, without the “punishment” fitting the “crime.”  He was not angry, nor was he a criminal, and yet the district deemed him as such.  Since when do we get to lose our common sense when we make rules and them apply them blindly?  When do we realize that it is children’s futures we have in our hands and not just percentages or statistics, but real live kids that are deeply affected by our decisions to punish.

 As for Christian, he is 24 now , and in Denmark studying for his bachelors degree.  I miss him dearly, but will never forget that phone call I got from his school back in 2002, when I was sick on my mom’s couch, telling me that he had been caught with a knife, and that scared look when he realized what was going to happen to him.  Another victim of zero common sense.




Be the change, discipline, punishment, students

So I Gave Up Punishment and My Students Still Behaved

image from icanread

When I moved my blog from Blogger to WordPress last summer I mistakenly assumed that all posts would seamlessly transfer.  I have since found the error in my thinking and have decided to re-post some of my more discussed posts.  This post first appeared in June of 2011  but still rings true to me.

Three years ago 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 now a complete convert.  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 didn’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.  Yeah, didn’t work so well.  Now I instead change my teaching and learning.  While we may have had certain activities planned for that day they are modified to require movement and discussion or totally changed if I can.  The learning goals usually stays the same, the method of delivering them doesn’t.  Often this takes 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 don’t take away recess but have it reserved to work with the kids that need it, I make fewer phone calls home, and I rarely send a kid to the office.  I am sure there are tougher classes out there than mine, but this is your every day average American elementary class.  We have the talkers, the interrupters, the disrespectful, the fighters, and the sleepers.  And it works for them as well.  The kids feel part of something big, and they let me know on  just how much it means to them.  They relish the voice they have, even when it comes to their own consequences.  They relish that rewards are no longer personal but rather classroom-wide whenever I feel like it.  Kids are not singled out for horrible behavior and so I don’t have “that kid” that everyone knows will get in trouble.  Instead we are all there as learners being rewarded through our community rather than punished.  I remember the relief I felt when I placed my old punishment cups in the staff lounge and finally let go of my old ways.  To this day I  hope no one picked them up.



classroom expectations, classroom management, community, discipline, punishment, student choice, student driven, Student-centered

Don’t Act Like An Idiot – My 5th Graders Make Our Rules

image from icanread

Silence…not something that happens in a room full of 27 students.

Then one hand cautiously rises, then another, but still mostly silence…

A minute ago I had asked my students, “What do we do in this classroom when you don’t behave well?”

This was now the reaction I faced; confused looks and silence.  4 years ago, my students would have prattled off a list: we write our name on the boards, you give us a checkmark, we lose recess, we lose free time, we call home, we go to the principal’s office.   All very common consequences in classrooms.  But now, 4 years later, I have unintentionally stumped my students.

One student finally says, “Well, you expect us to not act like idiots, so we don’t.”

Another student jumps in, “Yeah, and if we do something stupid then you tell us to fix it.”

And a third, “So we just talk about it and figure it out.”

Aha!  We discuss their behavior and then we fix it in whichever way it needs to be fixed.

I threw away punishment because I always punished the same students.  It also never solved the problem but just added a grudge between the student and myself.  Today, some question whether students can truly act well when you don’t punish.  When they don’t know the consequences of their behavior.  Some think that no punishment equals no rules, no perimeters, but it couldn’t be further from the truth.

No punishment means no public shaming, no loss of privileges, no loss of recess unless we need private time to talk.  It doesn’t mean no structure, no expectations, or a free for all of student chosen behavior.  It means I expect my students to make the classroom rules.  I expect them to behave well.  I expect them to make good choices.  I don’t have a perfect classroom, but I have kids that try.  I have kids that know what the expectation is.  I have kids that make a choice everyday, whether to be active participants in our learning journey, or whether to act like idiots.  They don’t always make the right choice, but if they don’t, then we deal with it on a situational basis.

So no, I don’t need to punish my students into behaving, and not because they are all angels (ha, far from it) but because as a classroom we have decided to learn, to share, to behave like a typical 5th grader.

Don’t act like idiots, in true 5th grade language, and represent.  Those are some of the rules for our classroom.  I din’t make them but I do give them to grow and become part of our culture.  Most kids know how to act in school, it is time we gave them our trust and a chance to prove it.

Edit:  As you can see from a comment, the word idiot can be taken to something much deeper than is its intention here.  When my students and I use the word “idiot” it is meant to convey a 5th grader that deliberately chooses to do something they shouldn’t, not someone with an intellectual disability.  I never mean to offend but here I chose to let the word stand since it portrays the conversation we had. 

Be the change, being a teacher, discipline, punishment, reflection, students

Put Your Name on the Board – A Tale of Why I Gave Up Classroom Discipline Systems

image from icanread

When I moved my blog from Blogger to WordPress last summer I mistakenly assumed that all posts would seamlessly transfer.  I have since found the error in my thinking and have decided to re-post some of my more discussed posts.  This post first appeared in June of 2011 but still rings true to me. 

Put your name on the board! Those words spoken in a very stern voice accompanied by a teacher look was enough to whip the toughest student into shape. Except when it didn’t which for me was enough times to make me wonder. Could my discipline systems really be thrown out and replaced with nothing? Would chaos then reign supreme?

If you had come by my room last year you would have seen them. Those sticks in the cups or the names on the boards with checks, sometimes double checks and plenty of stern looks to go around. I was doing exactly what I had been taught in school, exerting my control as the main authority figure and if students misbehaved, well, then there was some form of punishment. Oh don’t worry; there were plenty of rewards as well. If students didn’t move their stick or get their name on the board for a week then their name got entered into drawing for pizza with me. At the end of the month if they didn’t have their name in my book for not doing their homework, they could also enter their name, and then I would finally draw names and five lucky students would have pizza with me. Confused? I was! I could hardly keep check Of all those names, checks, and punishments.

However, last year I realized something after reading Alfie Kohn; I knew I had to change. By perpetually focusing negative energy on the same students, who, lets face it, are most often the ones having their name singled out somehow already, I was indeed just adding more to their self doubt. While I believe in discipline for all students, I also believe in compassion and that philosophy simply was not fitting in with my chosen system. So I did as many teachers may do; I threw it all out. However, instead of hunting for a new system, I decided to detox myself, start this year with no system for reward and punishment and instead strive to create a classroom community where students just know what the expectation is.

I was petrified that first month. I run a tough classroom in my expectations for my students and I know that if you do not set the tone those first weeks, it can be detrimental to the rest of the year. And yet I held strong in my conviction that even the more unruly students would eventually figure this out through repeated conversations and respect. And boy, did we talk. We talked about expectations, rules, how to speak to one another, and what to do when something goes wrong. A lot of the time, I just listened to these amazing students come up with solutions to problems, listened to them explain how they envisioned our classroom, how they wanted fourth grade to be. And I was in awe; these kids knew how to behave without me telling them over and over. And they certainly would figure it out without me alternating punishment and rewards.

So after the first month I started to breathe again. I let our new system flex itself and watched the students help keep the classroom stabile. Sure, there are times when I think ooh if I just had a way to “punish” it would fix this and this and then I realize that perhaps I just need to find some time to speak to that particular student. Now instead of an exasperated tone and a system to keep them in check, we discuss, we try to fix, and we reevaluate. I don’t run the classroom with a complicated system of checks and balances, rewards and punishments, but rather with an atmosphere of community, of belonging. Is it perfect? No, but neither am I, nor my students. I am just glad I believed in my own skills enough to realize that perhaps, just perhaps, my students would know how to behave without me rewarding them for it. Once again, they blew away all of my expectations.