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!