Thursday, April 26, 2012

Our Kids Are Smart!

I recently learned a trick to getting middle schoolers engaged in class discussion... Candy.  I teach an after school community education program for Latina youth focusing on sexual health and self-esteem.  Working with a group of sixth grade students after they've already been in class for eight hours is a tall order.  For the past six months I've struggled to engage my group in class discussion.  The easy part is always the experiential part of the experiential learning cycle:  showing videos, reading stories or doing hands on activities.  After the fun part is over many times I loose my student's attention, transitioning between the experiential activity and discussion.  During one particular moment of frustration I took one of my students aside and asked her how I could get her peers more involved in class.  She said that one of her teachers focuses on rewarding kids whenever they offer a particularly thoughtful comment during class discussion.  I thought... Brilliant!  How easy!  So step one to getting my class engaged in meaningful discussion:  rewarding students' when they make a contribution to class, as opposed to disciplining them when they get off track.

Inspired by my student's suggestion of reward over punishment, I brought in a bag of candy into my next class.  We were talking about bullying and dating violence.  After showing a video I led the class through a series of questions and whenever a student said something that was really insightful or thoughtful I would throw him or her a piece of candy.  My student's caught on right away.  After a few student's received candy they began raising their hands more readily.  I could see them taking more time to think about their responses, as the name of the game was rewards only to those who shared thoughtful comments.  I learned another lesson the day I incorporated reward over punishment...  One of my brightest students said flippantly to the class, "Wow I'm really smart in this class.  I wish I could be this smart in school."  Her comment made think two things simultaneously:  1) Do teachers not commonly reward students when they are making great contributions to class?  2) Do students not participate in class discussion because they think they don't have anything smart to contribute?

The second question really stopped me in my tracks.  Maybe there is more to this notion of reward over punishment in an educational setting.  While kids all love receiving candy and are generally motivated by the opportunity to receive free sugar, I think what is more important in rewarding kids for their positive contributions is the act of reminding them they are smart and what they have to say is truly brilliant.  I wonder how often youth are told how smart they are and how often they are validated by their teachers, mentors and parents.  As educators we have a unique opportunity to inspire our students to perform well in school and make positive contributions to their communities.  One of the simplest ways to encourage our students to participate in class might be a candy incentive.  However, providing validation and support to our students by reminding them every day how smart and insightful they are will encourage students to do more than just speak up in class.  Who knows, they might just change the world!


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  2. Alaina,

    What a great post. Candy definitely has the power to perk people up of all ages and I think using positive reinforcement in class is wonderful. I believe that students really thrive off of hearing positive comments about the contributions they bring to class. While reading your post I put myself back into the students seat and remember how good it feels to be told you said something of merit. It is such a morale booster. I wonder if for your students the candy -- the physical presence of it makes it easier to see that they are being complimented for their participation. Perhaps if teachers are saying it, without physical reward it is not as meaningful to the students. I think that would be something interesting to inquire about, perhaps with a little experimentation on your part. Alternate with verbal praise and praise that involves candy and see the responses to both. I would love to hear what you uncover!

    Also, I know you only mentioned it briefly, but I think it was great that you asked one of your students of ways you could engage the class. It shows that you genuinely care about engaging them by going to the source to get information of what you can do. Great job!

  3. Interesting post, Alaina. I think you have a good point. There does seem to be a culture of not participating in class in the younger generation. However, I think a lot of it also has to do with the messages that the students are receiving from home and school as you said. I've had experiences where students frequently receive positive messages in their communities and homes, and are more receptive to class discussions and participation. Interestingly, the opposite is true when I've worked in schools where negative messages frequent the classrooms and hallways.
    I think you hit a nail on the head. If students do not feel they have anything of value to contribute, why will they? If they are constantly told "no," or "that's wrong," why will they continue to put themselves out there in class, only to be shut down? I definitely think we as educators need to realize that positive reinforcement and positive messages are key parts of education as well, especially if students do not receive the positivity in homes or communities.