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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being a teacher, education, Passion, Teacher

No Longer Mine

I can’t take their work off the walls.  With two days left my classroom still looks as if we have all the time in the world, but we don’t.  On Thursday our journey ends and a new one begins for these incredible 23 students that I have been lucky enough to call my kids.  When I am asked what I am passionate about, many people assume technology, or writing, or math.  Sure, I love all of those things, they are interesting, they even sometimes excite me.  But passions?  I am passionate about my students.

These children are given to me on loan and it is my job to make sure they still love school when I am done with them.  It is my job to ensure that they still love learning when this year is over and that they, in fact, have grown not just academically but personally as well.  I am passionate about them because they are the reason why teaching is the best job in the world and also the most heartbreaking.

We invest our hearts every year.  Our dreams, our hopes, our ideas.  And we hope to plant a tiny seed within our students knowing that they matter, that we care, that their sheer presence makes a difference for us and everyone else.  That passion consumes me.  When the end of the year arrives, I know I have to let go.  I know they are no longer ming but someone else’s.  It is someone else’s turn to become passionate about these kids and I get new ones to focus on.  Yet my heart grows wider after the sadness leaves and I know that these students will in some way always be mine, or at least their 4th grade version will be.

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