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Realigning Your Teaching With Your Values

Mohandas K. Gandhi in 1947, with Lord Louis Mountbatten, Britain's last Viceroy of India, and his wife Vicereine Edwina Mountbatten.
Mohandas K. Gandhi in 1947, with Lord Louis Mountbatten, Britain's last Viceroy of India, and his wife Vicereine Edwina Mountbatten.
—Imperial War Museums/Wikipedia
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In the middle of last year, I got that troubled feeling that my beliefs and actions weren’t lining up. My classroom had way more rewards and punishments than I liked to admit.

My 1st graders were learning to read, write, and do math, but they were also learning lessons I didn’t want them to learn. They were learning to work hard so they’d get their goal score on the MAP test. To listen at the rug so they wouldn’t have to move down their clip to “Warning.” To read at home so they’d get a prize at the end of the week.

I could rationalize these systems of reward and punishment. They worked! But so does shocking a monkey, or rewarding a rat with chewy little pellets.

I was troubled and this feeling lingered. So I did what many of us do when we need a little guidance: I turned to the wisdom of my high school English teacher.

English teachers are like gurus: virtuous and mysterious founts of knowledge who can seem as otherworldly as a holy man on a mountaintop. My high school AP Lit teacher has an aptly literary name—Milton Burke—and I have long referred to him as “Sage Burke.” He even has a respectable gray beard.

The thing about sages, gurus, and English teachers is that when you ask them a question, they never give you a direct answer. They ask you a question in return, or they quote some arcane but compelling piece of literature.

Mr. Burke didn’t disappoint.

"If we get too fixated on the future—the end-of-year test, the end-of-semester grade—we can forget how much the present matters."

“Well, you know what Gandhi said about means and ends? He said that if you’re trying to get to point Z, and you think you can take path A or path B to get there, you’re wrong. By the time you get to point Z, it will be different depending on which path you took, because you will be different. The path shapes the goal. The path shapes you.”

Damn. I was afraid of that.

He was right, of course, or Gandhi was, anyway. Here are a couple of ways I’m trying to bring my beliefs and actions into closer alignment this year.

1) Talking more with my students about the end goal of learning. I’ve come to believe that our job as teachers is to help children live the lives they dream. Everything else, from AYP to GPA to GDP, are only the means to that end.

But in a time when test scores are used to judge everything from student learning to a school’s worth, it’s easy to confuse the ends with the means. When adults pass on our fixation with test data to our students, we sometimes end up doing more damage to their dreams than good.

Take an email I received last year from Ava, a student I taught in 2nd and 3rd grade who is now in middle school. Ava, the oldest of five girls, made tremendous progress as a reader during those two years, thanks in part to a home library project that allowed her to build a home library of 40 books.

Should I be happy about what Ava wrote, or troubled by it?

Hi, Mr. Minkel. I wanted to ask you a question and that question is how did you start the home library project? That is a very good project and thanks to that project I am a very good reader.

In my MAP test at the end of 5th grade my score was 232 and I went above my goal by 11 points. I still remember that in the beginning of 2nd grade my DRA level was 16 and at the end of 3rd grade I was in DRA 50.

My favorite picture books were the Piggie and Elephant books and my favorite chapter book was The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. You know now I can even read books like If I Stay by Gale Forman! The DRA level is 70 and the lexile is 830L. You know I re-read The BFG and took the journey with Sophie and the BFG again. Well bye, and remember I miss you.

I have very mixed emotions about this email. I’m proud of Ava’s growth. I’m proud, too, that I put so many great books in her hands. I love the line about taking “the journey with Sophie and the BFG again.”

But I’m troubled, too, because Ava is so preoccupied with the numbers. The important thing about the book If I Stay is not its lexile level. The important thing about Ava as a reader is not her MAP score.

That fixation with the numbers is on me, as her teacher. It’s on all of us who, although we created a system where Ava could become a strong reader, also created a system rife with distractions from the true purpose of reading and learning.

The DRA and the MAP test are valid and useful assessments. But the numbers they produce are the shadows of learning, not the learning itself. We have to be thoughtful about the ways we share those numbers with the children we teach.

2) Moving away from external rewards and punishments. As teachers, we have lived a professional existence dominated by standardized test data. That data is almost always tied to some type of punishment or reward—anything from verbal praise to performance bonuses. It’s not shocking that most of us create similar conditions for our students.

I realized when my daughter started kindergarten what a potent distraction our rewards and punishments can be. When I picked her up from school and asked about her day, she never talked about exciting science experiments or hilarious read-alouds, though I know her class did those things.

Instead, she told me she made it to pink on the behavior chart, while Beverly made it all the way to purple. She told me about Parker’s timeout when he had to change his color to red. She showed me the glitter pencil she got for passing a reading level on the computer.

I’m not opposed to all incentives. Treasure boxes are fun. And when you have a room of 20 kindergartners, you need some immediate consequences for misbehavior.

But kids can’t work hard solely because they want a glitter pencil. They can’t be kind to other students because they’re afraid of getting a timeout. We have distracted them from the true purpose of hard work and kindness.

We need to help children hold on to what they already know when they walk through the classroom door. That learning is fun. That the world around them is strange and fascinating. That when your classmate is having a hard time, you go give her a hug.

Terry Thoren, producer of Rugrats and a new animated series on character education for young children said, “We don’t need to teach kids empathy. They already have it. Our job is to protect and nurture it.”

There’s plenty we can do to move away from rewards and punishments. We can build in class meetings to praise acts of kindness and address persistent problems. We can teach kids how to resolve their conflicts through “Peace Talks."

Consider taking down the behavior chart mid-year, once we have our class community built, or get rid of it completely. If we do keep it, we can eliminate the negative bottom half so kids can only move up. I lopped off the negative consequences late last year, when my 1st graders told me they felt embarrassed to move down their pin in front of everyone. After that change, their behavior got better, not worse.

We can do a better job of talking with kids about the intrinsic pleasure of learning, too. When I asked my students at the beginning of last year, “Why should kids read at home?,” they answered, “To get a higher level,” or “To pass the grade.”

After looping with them to 2nd grade, I asked the same question. This time, their answers were a lot better. “Because your imagination can do cool things.” “Because books make me smile and laugh.” “Because reading is fun.”

If we get too fixated on the future—the end-of-year test, the end-of-semester grade—we can forget how much the present matters. We can fail to convey to our students, in the words of a teacher at the ECET2 Arkansas conference this summer that “we care about them as a person of the future and present.”

The path we walk with our students this year will shape our ultimate destination. It will shape the teachers we become and the people our students will be.

Take it from Gandhi. English teachers are rarely wrong about these things.

For more ideas on how to move away from punishments and rewards, check out Rafe Esquith’s book Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire, or read this column I wrote a few months back: Distracted by Rewards.

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