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by Jonathan C. Erwin
Table of Contents
In his 1962 address at the University of California at Berkeley, President John F. Kennedy stated, “In this time of turbulence and change, it is more true than ever that knowledge is power.” Most would agree that, as we begin the 21st century, we are again in a time of turbulence, and change is happening at an ever-increasing pace. Because the purpose of education is to provide children with the knowledge and skills—in other words, the power—to live healthy, successful lives, power should be the need that schools most effectively address. Ironically, power is the need that many students find most difficult to meet in school. In The Quality School, Glasser relates what he has discovered from interviewing students throughout the United States about their school experience:
When I present my ideas to teachers and administrators, I usually interview six junior or senior high school students in front of a large audience. Because for young people the need for power is very difficult to satisfy, I always ask, “Where in school do you feel important?” This question always seems to the students to come from outer space; they look at me as if I had asked something ridiculous .... However, if I persist, most students tell me that they feel important in their extracurricular activities: Sports, music, and drama are frequently mentioned. Almost never mentioned are academic classes. (1992, p. 47)
I'm not suggesting that we do away with carefully crafted curricula or let the students “take over” the classroom. Coaches, music teachers, and drama teachers don't let the students tell them how to do their jobs, yet students feel empowered and important in sports, band, chorus, and in school plays, often work harder at these pursuits than they do in academic classes, and generally achieve higher-quality results. What I am suggesting is that teachers can employ a number of strategies that help students gain power in school.
An important concept for teachers to understand is that by helping to empower students, teachers enjoy more, not less, power. Remember the way Choice Theory defines power. First, there is power over, which is frequently the first thing that comes to mind when we hear the word power. This is the urge to control others, maybe for personal satisfaction, maybe “for their own good.” Second, there is power within. This might be called personal empowerment, which includes learning, accomplishing goals, and achieving competence or excellence. Third is power with, which is the power we achieve when we work cooperatively with others. Traveling to the moon and back would be an example of the power that can be harnessed when people work together. Every day in school, students can meet their need for power if teachers and others provide them with opportunities to achieve power with and power within. If students do not have opportunities to meet their need for power in these healthy, productive, and responsible ways, they will most likely choose power over. Seeking power over might manifest itself in behaviors like cheating, bullying other students, disrupting a classroom, or engaging in vandalism or violence. Remember, we have choices about almost everything we do, but we do not have choices about experiencing powerful urges to meet our five basic needs.
Many teachers in my workshops complain about students who engage them in “power struggles.” When teachers provide a number of opportunities for students to gain power, these students will work harder on their assignments, and behavioral problems will be reduced significantly, if not completely eliminated. This chapter explains dozens of specific strategies that teachers can use to provide students with responsible ways to meet their need for power by (1) giving students a say in the classroom, (2) helping students gain recognition, and (3) adopting other classroom procedures designed to help students gain personal empowerment in school. Chapter 5 then discusses empowerment strategies that help increase student success and achievement.
One of the most effective and practical ways teachers can give students a say in the classroom is by allowing them to participate in developing the classroom rules or behavioral guidelines. Traditionally, rules are determined by the teacher and briefly explained on the first day of class. The teacher might say, “I've got two rules. Rule number one: Respect me, respect others, and respect yourself. Rule number two: Do your work. Any questions? Good.” One benefit of this method of determining class rules is its efficiency; it takes less than two minutes. Another benefit is that these rules are simple and few.
The shortcomings of this method, however, outweigh the benefits. First, the expectations are vague. What does respecting the teacher look and sound like? How about respecting others or oneself? What does “Do your work” mean? Just do it, or do it well? If I do it, but don't bring it to class, is that okay? Second, the students have no ownership of the rules. While the teacher is explaining her expectations, some students are thinking, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Here we go again,” or are simply hearing what we hear on Peanuts cartoons when adults talk to Charlie Brown and his friends: “Wa wa waa wa waaaa.” Unless the students understand specifically what is expected of them and how the expectations benefit them, there is little chance they will be motivated to meet those expectations. When a student breaks the rules in a situation like this, which is inevitable, the teacher will likely think that unless that student is punished, chaos will ensue. Punishment will result in resentment and rebellion, creating an adversarial teacher-student relationship, and a cycle of discipline problems commences that ends only when summer vacation begins. A classroom like this is no fun for either the students or the teacher, and very little, if any, quality work is accomplished.
If the teacher engages the students in developing clear behavioral guidelines that the students see as adding quality to their school lives, the relationship between the students and the teacher is enhanced. What's more, students will be much less likely to disrupt the learning environment, which in turn increases the likelihood that students will achieve quality work. As Sullo states in Inspiring Quality in Your School, “If there were ever to be a revolution in the United States, it would probably not begin in Congress” (1997, p. 98). In other words, people who make the rules are less likely to break them. There are many ways to engage students in developing the class rules. The following process is a way I've found to be effective with students of all ages. The process not only allows the students to be a part of creating a shared vision of a quality classroom, helping them meet their need for power and instilling a sense of responsibility for their learning environment, it's also fun:
Beginning the year or the semester by developing a class constitution empowers students in a way few other strategies can. It shows the class members that the teacher trusts them to be responsible for their behavior and for their own learning. This is a strategy that has been very successful for me not only as a classroom teacher, but also as a coach, a play director, and a club advisor. Any time people are working together toward a common goal, developing a shared vision of how they hope to work together builds a sense of teamwork and helps prevent conflict.
Another way to provide students with an opportunity to have a say in the classroom is to develop a Classroom Needs Circle. This strategy is one I learned from Becky Sue Bianco, a middle school reading teacher in Watkins Glen, New York. Using this strategy, the teacher begins the year teaching her students about the basic human needs. After the students have gained an understanding of the genetic instructions that drive our behavior, the teacher explains the difference between responsible and irresponsible behavior, using Glasser's definition. Responsible behavior is that which enables us to meet our needs without making it more difficult for others to meet theirs. The students, working in pairs or small groups, list specific behaviors that would enable them to meet each of their psychological needs (love and belonging, power, freedom, and fun) in responsible ways in the classroom. Next, the teacher leads a whole-class discussion, coming to consensus on a list of behaviors derived from those developed in the pairs or small groups. After consensus, the teacher writes the behaviors agreed upon in the appropriate quadrants of a circle like the one in Figure 4.1.
Once the Classroom Needs Circle is completed to the satisfaction of the students and the teacher, it is posted on the wall. Like the Classroom Constitution, the students and teacher should refer to it frequently and use it to help themselves evaluate their behavior. Both the Class Constitution and the Classroom Needs Circle should be thought of as living documents, which can be amended at any time in an ongoing effort to attain a match between the teacher's and students' mental pictures of a quality classroom and reality.
This strategy for empowering students may not work in every subject area or at every grade level because of the amount of state or district control over the course content. In many classrooms, however, teachers can boost student motivation by engaging them in the process of curriculum development.
Student-Chosen Themes. Doug Stevens, a 7th grade English teacher in Cincinnati, explains to his students, “This year we are in this classroom to improve the way we listen, speak, read, and write.” He reads his students the state standards for each communication strand, and then asks them, “What do you want to listen, speak, read, and write about?” If you were to adopt Doug's strategy, at this point you might lead the class in brainstorming a mind map of all the topics that you could choose from. Then you might give each student five votes that he could distribute any way he'd like, using them all for one topic or spreading them around to five different topics. Finally, you might pick the top three or four topics for your content for the year, through which you can teach the skills the students need to fulfill district or state English language arts requirements.
Know-Want-Learned (KWL). This is a well-known strategy for beginning a new unit of study. Students are first asked what they know about a particular topic. This helps the teacher determine how much prior knowledge students have about the subject they're about to study, helping her connect new information into what they already know. The W represents the question, “What do you want to know about this topic?” Pursuing some of the topics generated by this question may take the class in directions that the teacher never planned on, but has the potential to lead the class into a highly motivated learning experience. At the end of the unit, the teacher helps the students articulate all that they have learned through this collaborative approach to the curriculum.
One of the synonyms for power as Glasser defines it is “recognition.” It feels good when we achieve something; it also feels good when others recognize our achievements. I'd like to differentiate recognition from rewards and praise, however. After years of recommending the use of rewards as shapers of student behavior, many educators have come to recognize the negative impact of extrinsic rewards on students. As Kohn explains in Punished by Rewards, there are four negative outcomes associated with the use of praise. “First, when someone is praised for doing something that isn't very difficult, she may take this to mean she isn't very smart” (1993, p. 98). This may result in lower expectations for success at difficult tasks, hindering his ability to achieve good work later on. “Second, telling someone how good she is can increase the pressure she feels to live up to the compliment. This pressure, in turn, can make her more self-conscious, a state that often interferes with performance.” Third, praise “encourages some children to become dependent on the evaluations offered by their teachers and those who are unable to meet their teachers' expectations ... ultimately decide to give up trying .... Finally, praise, like other rewards, often undermines the intrinsic motivation that leads people to do their best” (p. 99).
For our purposes, I am going to define praise as positive comments, the purposes of which have to do more with what the praiser is trying to achieve than the person being praised. Statements such as “See how nicely Miguel is sitting” or “Great speech, Samantha!” are more manipulation than recognition; it is using praise to control. Recognition is not an attempt to control; it is highly specific and provides students with opportunities for learning or for celebrating their successes. The rest of this section will provide examples of ways of giving students recognition.
Writing “Great Job” on the top of a paper may be expedient and feel good to the teacher, but it doesn't help the student learn. What made it a great job, so the student can do it again or do it better next time? “Excellent use of concrete, supporting details for your topic sentence” might help the young writer learn how to develop a paragraph. Or, “clear diction and appropriate volume” might help a student improve his presentation skills. It's important that we help students evaluate what they did well, as long as the information we provide is specific and accurate. “Feedback is one of the greatest sources of intrinsic motivation” (Jensen, 1998, p. 67). Feedback can be given in writing or as part of a one-on-one conversation between the teacher and a student.
We often send notes or official interim reports to parents when there are academic or behavior difficulties. Sending a postcard home recognizing a student's achievements can have powerful positive results, strengthening your relationship with both the student and the parents, important factors in that student's continued success in school. It is a small investment of time that pays off.
Say all of your students achieved mastery on a particular assessment. Why not have a pizza party! Some might ask, “But isn't that a reward?” No, it's a celebration. If you said to the students before the assessment, “If you achieve mastery, we'll have a pizza party!” then it would be a reward. In this case, you are not trying to manipulate anyone's behavior; you are simply expressing your delight in their success. If a student asks, “Hey, if we do well on the next project, can we have another pizza party?” you might say no and explain the difference between a bribe (or reward) and a celebration. Other ways of celebrating might have less extrinsic value than a pizza party. You might create some classroom ritual for celebrating success like a dance of joy, a “happy wiggle,” creating a unique classroom handshake, or playing celebratory music such as “The Theme to Rocky” or Aaron Copland's “Fanfare for the Common Man.”
At the end of a unit or at the end of a week, month, or semester, have students give recognition to each other. One way to do this is to have the students write their name on an envelope and place a blank piece of paper in the envelope. Have the students sit in a circle and pass their envelopes to the person to their right. Each student takes the piece of paper out of the envelope and writes down a strength that they recognized in that student during the last unit, week, semester, or year. It is more effective if the students also write a specific time when they noticed each person's strength. For example, a student might write, “A strength that D.J. brought to this class this week was his creativity. He came up with a neat title for the skit we wrote in class.” There are many variations on this activity. For example, you might have students pin 5′ × 8′ cards to one another's back, then go around the room, writing strengths on as many students backs as they can in 10 minutes. You might enjoy taking part in this activity yourself.
A great way to celebrate students' success is to allow them to publish what they assess to be their best work. There are many ways students can publish their work. It's best when they help choose the work they believe is worth publishing. Some of the ways you and the students can publish their work are to
Teachers can adopt other classroom procedures designed to help students gain personal empowerment in school.
One of the most effective ways to help people meet their need for power is simply to listen to them. It is not necessary that we agree with them, but it is essential that they believe they've been heard and understood. There are a few ways of listening to students in the classroom.
Class Meetings. The class meeting format is one of the most effective practices for allowing students to express their thoughts, feelings, and opinions and to be listened to by both the teacher and the other students. The class meeting format I recommend is explained in detail in Chapter 3.
Journal Entries. Reading and, most important, responding to students' journal entries is another effective way to help students feel like they are being listened to. You might engage students with journal prompts that invite them to
Suggestion Box. Keep a suggestion box somewhere in the room and invite students to use it to express thoughts, concerns, and opinions regarding classroom policies and procedures or to communicate private messages to you.
Kid of the Week. At the Huntington Woods Elementary School in Wyoming, Michigan, the first Glasser Quality School, teachers and students observe “Kid of the Week.” Each student's life is celebrated in the classroom for a full school week. At the beginning of the school year, each student is provided with a blank copy of a book entitled All About Me, and is given the assignment to complete the pages with photographs, drawings, stories, and lists of things such as “My Family,” “My Friends,” “Ways I Meet My Needs,” and “Things I Like to Do.” During each student's week, five to ten minutes of each day are dedicated to listening to the Kid of the Week share a page out of his book. On the last day of the week, the student teaches his class about something that he enjoys: coin collecting, making burritos, karate, and so forth. The finale of the celebration is the class singing a song in appreciation of that week's kid. Teachers I've worked with have discussed how they have used variations on Kid of the Week. Some have students create an “All About Me” T-shirt that is unique for each student. Others help each student develop an “All About Me” bulletin board.
Needs Collage. An activity I have found popular with students is the Needs (or Quality World) Collage. First, ask students to bring in as many magazines as possible from home. After the students have learned about the five basic human needs, they go through the magazines and cut out pictures and words that represent ways that they might meet each of their needs. Then they arrange and glue the pictures and words on poster board. It's great if you can laminate their final products. Over the next few days, part of each class can be set aside to have the students share their collages with the class. I've done this activity with students from 1st through 12th grade. They all completed their works of art with equal enthusiasm.
Students feel important when they are allowed to take responsibility for class jobs. As a child, I remember feeling really “cool” when it was my responsibility to take the attendance cards to the office. Clapping erasers was also a thrill. Any time you can give students responsibilities for necessary tasks, it is an opportunity for them to gain power. You might ask students to read the morning announcements, collect or distribute papers, or organize supplies. Different classrooms need different tasks. I'll leave it to you to decide which tasks you might delegate to your students.
Note: Students will often surprise you with what they can do and how well they can do it.
Employing students to teach or tutor other students empowers both the student doing the teaching and, by increasing her chances for success, the student being tutored. It can also help bridge the time gap between the students who achieve mastery on the first assessment and those who need more time. Simply telling the peer tutors to go help their fellow classmates is usually not enough. A child may be an excellent student, but not necessarily an excellent teacher. You might develop a training program for a few days after school to teach students how to help their classmates effectively and tactfully.
Many schools have developed peer mediation programs, which teach students to resolve conflict between other students. Why not teach all of the students in the classroom these skills? Should conflicts arise in the classroom, depending on their severity, you might give the students involved the option of working it out themselves, working with a peer mediator whom you select, or involving you, the teacher, in resolving the problem. Students will often choose to work it out themselves or with a peer mediator. This helps students learn to be independent problem solvers, while enabling the teacher to accomplish other work. There are many conflict resolution models available. The one I recommend is Glasser's Structured Reality Therapy, which involves the idea of the Solving Circle, which he explains further in Choice Theory (1998).
This activity is simply a variation of a favorite for many students in the primary grades: Show and Tell, a practice that encourages children to bring in from home something of importance to them and tell the rest of the class about it. Show and Tell provides students with a wonderful opportunity to meet their need for power. The whole class is listening as they teach their classmates something that no one in the class knows as much about as they do. Why stop this practice in 1st grade? In most states, English Language Arts (ELA) standards include something about speaking and listening for information and understanding. Why not expand Show and Tell into Teach and Tell and address the ELA standard while providing an opportunity for students to feel important and gain recognition for something they are proud of? This activity encourages students to tell the class about something they like or do well and teach the class how to do it. In teaching 12th grade English, I found my Teach and Tell unit to be among the students' favorites. They learned to make an organized, engaging oral presentation while developing effective speaking and listening skills. Behavior problems during Teach and Tell are virtually nonexistent because students know that the way they treat their peers will be the way their peers treat them when it's their turn.
Also, Teach and Tell is a great way to increase class connectedness as you and the rest of the class learn important things about one another's interests and skills. Some of the most memorable presentations my students made were How to Detail a Car, How to Make “African Egg Rolls,” Motorcycle Maintenance, Archery Basics, Field Goal Kicking, Fencing, How to Play a Drum Roll, How to Apply Makeup, Comic Book Collecting, and How to Sell Newspaper Subscriptions Over the Telephone. Kids have a tremendous amount of nonacademic knowledge and many outside interests to share. Teach and Tell gives them an opportunity to be successful academically using something they love to do and do well.
Most of the strategies in this book are things teachers can do to help students meet their needs. But this strategy refers to seven behaviors teachers ought to avoid. Glasser refers to these common behaviors as the “Seven Deadly Habits”: criticizing, blaming, complaining, nagging, threatening, punishing, and bribing. Not only do these behaviors destroy relationships, they widen the power gap that already exists between teachers and students (2000b).
I learned the destructive power of criticism in the classroom the hard way. After I first read Glasser's The Quality School, I started out the school year intentionally creating a needs-satisfying classroom environment. After a month or so, I was enthusiastic over how well all my classes were going. The students all seemed to genuinely enjoy the class, there were no behavior problems, and I believed that this would be the most successful year I'd ever had teaching. Then I collected the first major writing assignment of the year, took it home, and graded it the way I always had in the past—writing extensive comments in the margins about the mistakes and weaknesses I observed in their essays. I handed back their papers on the following Monday. Within minutes, the wonderful class climate I'd worked so hard to create was gone. Some students were glaring at me. Others would not make eye contact. Still others were muttering under their breath. I was so shocked, I didn't know what to do, so I tried to engage the class in cooperative group discussions about the reading we'd done the night before. All the groups talked about, though, was the paper they just got back. At first, I felt angry and defensive, thinking to myself, “What a bunch of babies! After all I've done to make this class fun and interesting, they can't take a little ‘constructive criticism’?”
I wrote that day's class off and did some serious soul-searching at home that evening. What I realized was that all the class-building and needs-satisfying teaching strategies in the world could not prepare them for what they obviously perceived as criticism of their essays. The next day we had a class meeting about my role as an English teacher. At first, they were withdrawn, but when they realized that I was sincere in my effort to rebuild our relationship, they were more forthcoming. One student offered his opinion: “Well, I guess it is your job to point out our mistakes, but you could tell us a few things we did right!”
“Yeah,” said another, “I worked a long time on this paper. I must have done something right.”
“So, what you're telling me is if I tell you what you're doing right, you'll be okay with my telling you what's wrong?” I asked.
Another student answered, “Well, yeah, but on my paper you wrote ‘Weak introduction!’ What am I supposed to learn from that? How am I supposed to make it strong?”
By the end of the class meeting, the students agreed that it was my job to help them improve their writing by pointing out their weaknesses, and I agreed to also point out their strengths and to be as specific as possible in my comments. We all agreed that my remarks would be considered helpful feedback rather than criticism. The class atmosphere gradually returned to the way it was, and I learned to have that conversation with future classes before assigning the first essay.
Although Glasser considers criticism the deadliest of the Seven Deadly Habits, the others are not much better. Blaming and complaining may temporarily make the teacher feel in control, but they focus on the past, not on solving the present problem, and only serve to damage the relationship. The other four (nagging, threatening, punishing, and bribing) are all coercive techniques designed to make someone do what we want them to do. None of them teach self-discipline, responsibility, or independence, and all of them destroy the relationship that we need if we want to have any influence with students in the future. Instead of relying on the Seven Deadly Habits, Glasser recommends replacing them with what he calls the “Seven Caring Habits”: caring, listening, supporting, contributing, encouraging, trusting, and befriending (2000b). These habits, especially listening, empower students while widening the teacher's sphere of influence.
This strategy, teaching students Choice Theory, is the last strategy in this chapter not because it's the least important, but because it may be the most. When students learn and start using the ideas of Choice Theory in their lives, everyone benefits. Students learn these ideas easily and readily because they can relate to them. Choice Theory is all about their lives. Some of the benefits of teaching this theory to students include the following:
Effective teachers understand that by providing students with many and varied ways of meeting their need for power, they are helping prevent behavioral problems. In other words, by appealing to students' need for power within and power with, the teacher is avoiding power over struggles. Contrary to a widely held belief, power is not a commodity, where one person loses power if another gains it. If we empower students by giving them a voice in the classroom and really listen to what they say, if we regularly provide all students with recognition for the unique strengths they bring to the class, and if we intentionally provide students with other ways of feeling like they make important contributions to the class, we are creating an empowering environment. By empowering students, teachers actually empower themselves.
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