Be the change, rewards

My Barren Wasteland – A Room Without Rewards

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.

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.





reflection, rewards

All You Have to Do is Show Up – A Tale of Perfect Attendance

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.

Today the debate turned to perfect attendance rewards, something that seems innocent enough on the surface, but can elicit debate in even the most timid teachers. I was lucky to engage in a great dialogue with a trusted colleague but also turned to educators around the world to get their input. The judgment was swift and to the point, most were vehemently opposing them, lambasting them for what they thought they really were; bandaid awards to those students who may not otherwise receive an award.

So why is rewarding students for perfect attendance not a great concept? The ideas were many:

  •  It is one more way for schools to separate the winners from the losers in a public forum.
  • It rewards students just for shwoing up, not effort, work ethic or learning. What life skill does that teach since there are no jobs that reward you merely for showing up.
  • Perfect attendance award does nothing but encourage students to come to school even when they are sick enough to stay home or contagious.
  • It makes losers out of the kids where life situations prevent them from coming to school; funerals, court, counselor appointments etc.
  • We are rewarding kids based on their parents behavior; whether they can get them to school or not. Why disappoint the kids further that already are battling with parents that may not be able to supply reliable transportation.
  • If this is the only thing we can rewards students for then we are not spending enough time recognizing or uncovering their talents.
  • And finally, my own opinion; if we have to reward students to come to school then what value are we placing on schools? School is meant to be a place of stimulation, of excitement, of amazing discoveries. Not a place where you show up just so you get a reward. Not a place that has to have a reward tied to it as theperetual carrot. While I agree that we should celebrate those students that do show up day in and day out, I just don’t think that an award eceremony is the right venue for it.

Add your voice to the debate! Is a perfect attendance award ceremony simply a cute certificate that does no harm, is it no big deal, or is it another way to compartmentalize students?

Awards, reflection, rewards

When Your Child Receives an Award

photo (8)

You could see her pride from the front door. “Look mom!  Look what I got!”  Thea stands in front of me holding a signed award of recognition certificate given to her by her incredible 4K teacher.   Apparently on November 5th Thea had great behavior and she now hands me the certificate to prove it.  Of course it goes on the fridge.

That night as I clean up after dinner, the award catches my eye and the irony of it hanging there so prominently hits me.  I don’t believe in awards in my classroom, it is one of the things I threw out 3 years ago and have never regretted.  And yet, today I saw just what that piece of paper meant to my kid.  You couldn’t have burst her bubble even if you tried.  But still…I wonder if this means that November 5th was the only day Thea has been behaving well?  Or was it her turn to be awarded?  What did she do exactly to get this recognition?  Did every kid get it?  I ask her and she has no idea.  All she knows is that her teacher gave this to her and to her that is all that matters.  Granted she is 4 and is not the most reliable explainer but still I wonder how did she even earn it?

Did my students ever know why they earned something?  The thing with awards is that they are subjective and are meant for show.  We pick a goal and then award a kid if they have met that goal.  Often we don’t tell them how they can earn something but instead surprise them when they have.  We make a show of it so that others know that they should try to earn one as well.  We can’t really give one to everyone because then they don’t mean as much, so we continue creating losers and winners in our classrooms simply by giving them a piece of paper or trinket in front of their classmates.  You see, it is not the actual award that sets the kid apart, it is the show of it in front of others.  You need to see that your award is special to you for it to mean something and that just sits wrong with me.   We think that physical awards make kids feel special, yet our words can do the same, in fact, often our words and taking time to say things to a child will have a much more lasting impact than any piece of paper can.  Than any trinket.  Than any ticket.

For now the award stays on our fridge, in a few days, she will no longer care about it and it becomes just another piece of paper in our already paper-filled house.  I don’t plan on keeping it and although Thea tends to hoard paper, I don’t think she will mind.  To her it was validation that she is a good student, to me it was just more questions as to the great intentions we may have as teachers.  Do we really feel we need to award students certificates any more?  Do we really need to put on a show?  Or are we just perpetuating the myth that there must always be winners and losers for people to feel special?

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” will be released this fall from PLPress.   Follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.

grades, no homework, rewards

I Need to Let Go, But Not of Everything

With the babies arriving any day now according to the doctor I have been mentally preparing to let go of my classroom, at least for the first two months of school.  This task is proving much harder than I ever envisioned.  Don’t get me wrong, trying to mentally prepare for twins is strenuous, but letting go of how I set up my room and community, yikes.

Those first two months are vital, ask any teacher and they will tell you just how much they matter, and yet I have to forget about that.  I have to trust my sub, who by the way is brilliant, but still…how will they know how fantastic 5th grade will be?  How will they know what my expectations are?  How will they know the kind of classroom I envision?  I swallow my fears and focus on the positive; the babies, the new life awaiting all of us and I realize I have had to let go.  I have had to let go of how the curriculum is taught, how their day to day lives will be, how the sub will treat them and build community with them.  I have to let go.

Yet, there are three things I cannot let go of, 3 things that I refuse to lose control over, as I reiterate to my sub just how important these are.

  1. Limited homework.
  2. No rewards/no punishment.
  3. No grades.

Is there more, well of course, but these 3 things are deal breakers, pillars of my philosophy, the things that cannot be sacrificed whoever is teaching.  And I need the students and parents to know that from day one, not day 40 as I venture into the room.  I need the parents to feel comfortable with the why behind these decisions and I need the students to know what is expected of them.  I need them to know that they set the rules, that we work together, not that learning will be forced with a carrot and stick method.  I need them them to know that work will be at school and they should see very little outside work if they spend their time wisely.  I need to get them ready to set goals, think about their learning and take control of it.  So those 3 things, those I am not letting go of.

achievement, being me, failure, rewards

No, You Didn’t Make It, Such Is Life – Should We Shield Students from Disappointment?

I still remember my reaction after I hung up the phone.  Shock, disbelief, and then uncontrollable tears and anger.  How dare he tell me I didn’t get the job?  How dare he tell me that I interviewed really well but someone else just beat me by a little bit? How dare he not give me what I deserved?  And then rational Pernille took over, I took a deep breath, and realized once again; such is life.  Disappointment, no matter how much we would rather live with it, is a constant in life.  We don’t always get what we want even though we worked so hard for it.  We don’t always get the job, the guy, the prize, whatever our heart and dedication has been set on.  We just don’t always win and that realization is part of being an adult.

This past week I had to deal with being the cause of disappointment at my school.  I, along with a fellow teacher, run the annual talent show where students audition to hopefully make it into the show.  Not all students make it because of time constraints and we are faced with tough decisions of who gets to be in the show.  This may seem a surprise for those who read this blog; that I would have anything to do with sorting children, and yet, here is my exception.  This show is not mandatory.  Students choose to audition well knowing that they may not make it.  They rehearse, they create and then they give it their best shot, and just like in adult life, sometimes that shot just isn’t good enough.  Sometimes the audition just goes poorly, sometimes they need more rehearsal, sometimes it comes down to logistics.  Whatever the cause for the cut, it is never easy to tell a child that they didn’t make it.  And yet, such is life.

So how do we deal with disappointment in our children and our students?  As a parent, I know how much I want Thea to succeed in whatever she puts her mind too but at the same time I know there will be disappointment.  I know there will be times when I cannot understand why she didn’t make it, why she didn’t get it, why she didn’t win, but at the same time I don’t want her to feel she always should.  I want her to realize that it doesn’t come down to life being unfair, but rather that we cannot get everything we put our minds and hearts to.  That it is okay to get upset but then you need to move on and do something constructive with your emotions.  That disappointment is inevitable and it is what we do afterwards and how we react to it that matters.

Some parents think the talent show should be stopped.  That it is not healthy for us to “do” this to children and I would agree with them if the students were forced to audition, but they are not.  In elementary school there is such a fear of disappointment and having our students fail.  We shield them from sadness and anything where they might not succeed, but at what cost?  We cannot shield them forever, we cannot control life and other people.  So why not help them through disappointing situations instead?  Why not have mini situations, such as a talent show, where we can help them process their feelings and give them tools they can use later in life as well.  Why not be role models rather than bubble creators?  Why not let them fail and then learn from that?  I would love your thoughts.

being a teacher, classroom expectations, punishment, rewards

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

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.