The Sort-of-Scientific Method

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Feb 01 2013

If You Give a Student a Marshmallow

Day 93: A funny thing happened in 6C’s science class today. I hadn’t been super excited for science after morning homeroom put our current level of apathy on clear display. While everyone was focused and respectful (albeit zombie-like) during morning meeting, when it came time for an activity, the large majority of the girls remained seated. Several conspiratorially whispered to friends. I don’t know what they were saying, but I’m pretty sure it went something like this: “I am 11 and thus a total adult and thus way too cool for this crap.”

The first block of our double was pretty typical. On-task behavior, no craziness, but no energy, either. My silent signal is clapping, and I had them practice it maybe five times before enough of them clapped. I’m at this point where I have no fears about managing the class, but the energy and investment seems sucked out of the room.

About halfway through class, a couple of girls asked if we could have free time at the end of class. 99 times out of 100, my answer would be an immediate and direct NO. However, here’s how I saw things today. I had some girls who were pretty negative on the idea of school. I had a lesson that wasn’t totally essential – a debrief of their midterm. I’ve written before about not wanting to lower my standards to make a class happy. However, for one period, I thought I could see if some extrinsic motivation would spark the class.

I announced that 10 class points would allow the students to take 10 minutes of free time at the end of class. I also said those points would be tied to tracking and giving props, which had all but eroded. The results? AM participated for the first time in 2013, and did so several times. So did AC. I saw several hands go up every time I needed them. Students reflected meaningfully on the Big Goal, and how they had worked hard to achieve success on the midterm.

Remember, AM has been studiously ignoring me for months. She doesn’t misbehave in my class, but she makes it very clear she wants nothing to do with me. By the end of today’s class, she wanted a ticket, and explained that she deserved it for being more respectful than usual.

Now, she wanted that ticket to purchase a marshmallow left over from their reward earlier this week – not out of any particular love for tickets, or my core values. This was an extrinsic reward, nothing more. However, that extrinsic reward led to more of AM smiling in my presence than I’ve seen in months. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but maybe, just maybe, letting things run a little fast and loose today has won me some points with the students I’ve been having the hardest time reaching.

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Experimental Procedures of a Second-Year Teacher

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