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by Robyn R. Jackson
Table of Contents
All learners construct knowledge from an inner scaffolding of their individual and social experiences, emotions, will, aptitudes, beliefs, values, self-awareness, purpose, and more. In other words, if you are learning in a classroom, what you understand is determined by how you understand things, who you are, and what you already know as much as by what is covered, and how and by whom it is delivered.
I was teaching an on-level class of 11th grade students. The students who were quiet, polite, obedient, and respectful were my favorites, regardless of how they performed in the class. They were what I considered "good students."
Keisha, on the other hand, was not what I considered a good student. She was loud. Her work, when she turned it in, was sloppy. She came to class late and rarely had anything to contribute to the discussion. At first, I tried to believe in her. I encouraged her and told her "you can do it." I gave her extensions on her assignments and invited her to come in at lunch for extra help. I worked hard to believe in her and did my best to treat her as if she had great potential.
But, to be honest, I didn't see any potential in her and I was getting tired of trying. Every day in class was a battle. I'd ask her to take out her pencil and get to work and she'd cross her arms and stare out the window. Some days, I would push it, cajole or order her to do her work and the exchange would erupt into a battle. Many days things got so bad that I would end up sending her to the office. Other days, I have to admit, I just didn't feel like fighting. If she wanted to fail, I wasn't going to get in her way.
One day, in the midst of one of our battles, she yelled, "I hate you!" And, to be honest, I couldn't stand her either.
It had come to that.
I realize now that because I had difficulty handling Keisha, I looked at her in terms of her deficits rather than her strengths. She did not fit my image of a good student so I expected her to fail. More importantly, because I had difficulty reaching her, I blamed her. If I were really honest, I didn't like Keisha because she didn't swoon over my lessons. I had worked hard on those lessons and was working very hard to teach her what I thought was a valuable skill. After all the work I'd done, she sat there with her head on her desk. Surely there must be something wrong with her.
One day, I was complaining about Keisha to Cynthia, one of her other teachers. We both commiserated about her terrible attitude and how hard it was to get her to work. As we talked, I slowly began to realize that although we both had the same view of Keisha and the same challenges with Keisha, we had different results. Keisha did work in Cynthia's class. In fact, Keisha was currently earning a B.
"You know that child is brilliant don't you?" Cynthia commented.
"Yeah," I snorted. "She's so brilliant that she's failing my class."
Cynthia got serious. "I mean it Robyn. That girl is brilliant."
I looked at Cynthia incredulously. "Brilliant? Are you kidding me? She doesn't do work in class. She just sits there during discussions. And the papers she turns in are full of grammatical errors." I was starting to get upset.
"None of that has anything to do with how smart she is," Cynthia replied calmly.
"Of course it does," I began. Then I stopped. Cynthia's words suddenly began to sink in.
"Have you ever had a conversation with her?" Cynthia asked.
I shook my head. "How can I have a conversation with her? She is completely unreasonable. She fights me at every turn."
"Yes. That child can be pretty stubborn and ornery," Cynthia said, smiling warmly. "But you really should try to get to know her."
"Cynthia, I have 130 students. I don't have weeks to spend trying to get to know each one personally. Besides, how does learning her favorite TV show or her favorite band help me get her to do her work?"
"You don't have to take her out to lunch or invite her home for the weekend, you know." Cynthia looked at me, amused. "I am just saying that you need to look beyond how mean or inappropriate or stubborn she is being and pay attention to who she is and what she wants. Keisha acts out because she doesn't have a more appropriate way of getting what she wants. But if you can get beyond that, you will find that she writes really good poetry, and she can out-argue anyone. She has a really good mind. You just have to show her how to use her powers for good instead of evil." Cynthia winked at me.
I thought about what Cynthia said. We had the same student but we saw her in entirely different ways. How was Cynthia able to see beyond Keisha's attitude and uncover her other abilities? And, more important, if Keisha really was as brilliant as Cynthia said she was, why wasn't I seeing it in my classroom?
We all at some time or another have come across a student or two whom we felt we just couldn't reach. In some cases, we've even come up against an entire classroom of students who seemed unmotivated and incapable of learning no matter how hard we tried. We struggled all year to find a way in.
Many textbooks and teacher preparation programs argue that the way in is to get to know your students. They suggest that you do a battery of pre-assessments and getting-to-know-you exercises. While these can be useful, they are not sufficient. Students have their own experiences and therefore present their attributes and abilities in different ways. If you only pre-assess and play getting-to-know-you games, you may be ignoring other powerful components of who they are.
Some teachers recognize that getting-to-know you exercises are not enough to really understand who students are. They realize that students' cultural backgrounds are also powerful influences on how they learn. Many school systems understand at least superficially the power of culture and therefore require their teachers to take a class on cultural competence. But these classes often amount to little more than heroes, holidays, and "foods of the world" classes where teachers spend six weeks eating their way to an understanding of culture.
The problem with this approach is that it treats culture as if it were a monolithic thing that can be reduced to a list of characteristics and preferences. And, it assumes that our students have only one culture when, in fact, our students—all of us for that matter—are members of several cultures. There is their racial or ethnic culture (e.g. Latino, African-American, Asian), their regional culture (e.g. Southerner, urban, Californian, Midwesterner), their religious culture (e.g. Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Jewish), their social culture (e.g. athlete, Goth, egghead, theater kid), and their generational culture. If we spent time trying to understand all the cultural influences that make our students who they are, we would never have time to teach. And, even if we went through the trouble of learning all of the preferences and characteristics of our students' various cultures, how do we use that knowledge to motivate our students or help them learn?
It is undeniable that students' choices and learning preferences are influenced by their various cultures. But, rather than focus on learning superficial information about students or even learning the common attributes of their cultures, it is more important to understand the concept of intellectual and cultural currency, how it is acquired, negotiated, and traded in the classroom, and how you can marshal its power to help students learn.
Knowing your students means more than knowing their demographics or test scores. It means recognizing what currency they have and value and then using that currency to help them acquire the capital of the classroom.
The capital of our classrooms is the knowledge and skills that lead to high achievement. It includes both content knowledge, like the concept of whole numbers and the effect of the Magna Carta on modern government, and
procedural knowledge, like how to add and divide whole numbers or how to write a five-paragraph essay. When students acquire classroom capital, they do well on achievement tests and make good grades. Classroom capital is what we typically associate with intelligence.
However, simply knowing the facts does not ensure success for most students. Several researchers (Polanyi, 1958/1974; Sternberg et al., 2000) suggest that academic success is not based solely on knowing the right answers: it is also based on an entire subset of "tacit knowledge" or "soft skills" that make acquiring the right answers easier. In order to do well on a test, for instance, you need to know more than just the information being tested. You also need to know how to take notes, how to read the textbook, how to study effectively, how to distinguish what information is important, how to answer multiple choice questions, how to eliminate incorrect answers and make educated guesses when you do not know the answer, and how to pace yourself so that you can complete the test in the time allotted. You might need to know how to ask the teacher for help on the information you did not understand, how to identify what it is that you do not know, how to get the notes from another student if you are absent, or how to allot enough time to study.
These soft skills operate as a form of currency in the classroom. In fact, any behavior that students use to acquire the knowledge and skills important to your grade level or subject area functions as currency, and this currency is actively negotiated and traded in every classroom interaction. While these soft skills and behaviors are not often made explicit to students, they are crucial in acquiring the capital of the classroom.
We all have preferences for styles of behavior, communication, and relationships. We all have notions of what is worth knowing. These preferences are what we use to impart value to the currencies we use and accept in the classroom. If students behave in a way that we value—if they head their papers properly, for example, or come in for extra help, if they raise their hands before speaking and refrain from talking during the lecture—they are more likely to receive favorable treatment, extra help, high expectations, and access to opportunities. As a result, they are more likely to learn. If students do not have these currencies, they have a much more difficult time acquiring the capital of the classroom.
We all have preferred forms of currency. Suppose you advertise that your house is for sale and I come take a look. I like what I see and declare that I want to buy your house. "Great," you say as you take out the paperwork and prepare to draw up a contract. Meanwhile, I dig into my pocket, pull out a few shiny beads, some seashells, and a couple of wood carvings, place them on the table, and ask for the keys. How would you react?
What if I told you that in my culture, shiny beads were of tremendous value, the wood carvings were of a sacred nature, and the seashells were our accepted currency? Would you then accept them as a form of payment for your house?
The same type of exchange happens in classrooms each day. We have a capital (knowledge and skills) that we are trying to help our students acquire. Our students have various currencies (knowledge and behaviors) that they bring with them and attempt to use in order to acquire the capital of the classroom. Often however, there is a disconnection between the currency we value and the currency they are spending. Or our students do carry the currency recognized in the classroom but refuse to spend it because they do not find the classroom capital particularly valuable.
This disconnect is to be expected. Just by virtue of being adults, we have preferences for behavior and notions of what is valuable that differ from our students' sense of what is valuable. The trouble comes when we see this disconnect as a sign that our students are somehow deficient because they have currencies and values that are different than our own.
Just because students come to us with alternate forms of intellectual and cultural currency does not mean that they are less capable. It means that they have skills that may be unrecognized in the classroom context and potential that has yet to be developed. Or it might mean that they do not yet see enough value in classroom capital to expend the effort it takes to acquire it. Rather than see them as deficient, we should reshape our approach to instruction so that we capitalize on students' currencies rather than overriding or negating them.
Ultimately, if we want students to be successful in our courses, we have to help them use their currencies to acquire classroom capital. In order to do so, we must first figure out what currencies we are accepting and what currencies our students are spending. Next, we have to determine whether there is a disconnection between the two. If there is, we need to figure out why that disconnection is occurring. There are two possible explanations. One, the disconnection is occurring because students do not have the currencies we are accepting in the classroom. If that is the case, we need to help students acquire this currency. The other explanation is that students have the currency but refuse to spend it. In this case, we have to help them value the capital of the classroom.
Most classroom problems have at their root a disconnection between the teacher's preferred form of currency and the students'. Thus, while it is important to understand and respect the students' currencies, you must also understand and respect your own.
As much as we may try, we cannot escape who we are. We have values we bring into the classroom. These values will come across in subtle, and not-so subtle ways, so it is important that you are observant of your students and of yourself. Ask yourself how your values affect the way that you see your students and your role in their lives. Examine how the way you teach is affected by the way you were taught, and develop an awareness of how all of this plays out in the way that you understand your students and the lens through which you see every interaction that takes place in the classroom.
Beliefs and values drive behavior. They have a direct consequence on what we teach, how we teach, and why we teach. Yet, how often do we take time to examine our own beliefs and values? If we are going to help students use their currencies to acquire the capital of the classroom, we must first examine our own beliefs about what is acceptable in the classroom, about what makes a "good student," and about what constitutes learning.
Not only do we need to understand what currencies we value, we need to pay attention to what currencies our students bring with them. Their academic performance will help paint part of the picture, but in order to discover what soft skills students possess and whether or not they are using them effectively, we need to look beyond test scores and grades.
William Sedlacek's (2004) research offers us a useful lens through which we can start to recognize and capitalize on the various currencies students bring to the classroom. In his book Beyond the Big Test, he argues that students have noncognitive characteristics and skills that are more predictive of academic success than the traditional measures of intelligence. Standardized tests and prior grades offer only a limited view of a student's potential.
Yes, but... can't I just use what I know about students' backgrounds and cultures already?
The danger in this approach is that it may result in subtle forms of stereotyping. Although there are cultural guidelines that exist that might help you develop an entry point into students' lives, you cannot rely on these stereotypes in order to see your students. Instead, observe your students. Listen, really listen, to them and try to understand what they bring to the table. We tend to think that we must immediately have the answers. When our students exhibit certain behaviors in the classroom, we immediately jump to an explanation of the behaviors. This principle asks that you take a step back and not jump to a conclusion. Rather, take your time to look for ways to help students capitalize on their abilities and potential in order to acquire the capital of the classroom.
Dr. Sedlacek found eight noncognitive characteristics that are predictive of academic success in college.
These eight variables offer us a way to see and value students' currencies that may otherwise go unrecognized in the classroom.
Recognizing the array of strengths students bring with them to the classroom gives you a starting point from which you can help students acquire classroom capital. If you see a student with a positive self-concept, for example, you can help her use her confidence to persevere on more difficult tasks. If you have a student who demonstrates a realistic appraisal of his strengths and weaknesses, you can show him how to use this appraisal to set attainable learning goals and be more strategic about how he studies. If a student has leadership experience, you can show that student how to use it to form study groups or to take on more responsibility during classroom routines.
When you actively look for evidence of alternate currencies, you can show students how to use the currencies they have to acquire the capital of the classroom. And, by showing them that you recognize their strengths, you can challenge them to reach beyond their natural limits.
In addition to recognizing the different forms of currencies students bring to the classroom, we also need to identify what currencies students don't have. From there, we can help students acquire additional currencies that will help them be more successful in the classroom.
When I first was introduced to Dr. Sedlacek's (2004) research, I lamented that my students didn't have many of the noncognitive skills they needed to be successful. Many of them didn't have strong support systems available to them. Most of them had no preference for long-term goals and would easily give up. Few if any of my students had a realistic understanding of their strengths or where they needed to grow. If these eight skills were necessary for student success, I thought, then my kids were in trouble.
So, I decided that if these skills were crucial, and if my students didn't come to me with them already, it was my job to help them develop these skills during the semester they were with me. I looked at how my classroom was currently structured and decided to radically overhaul what I was doing so that my students could not only master the objectives of my course but also develop the skills they needed to be successful in my class and in school in general.
I began by forming student study groups as a way of giving students a strong support system inside the classroom. These study groups met once a week outside of class (either in person during the school day or after school, or virtually in online chat rooms I set up for just that purpose). If a student was absent from class, he didn't check with me to see what work they missed, he checked with his study groups. If a student struggled with a concept, she went to her study group for help.
I also restructured my assignments to make many of them long-term assignments as a way of helping students learn to successfully set and work toward long-term goals. At first, I broke the assignments into smaller parts and set up several checkpoints along the way to help students stick with the project to the end. As the year progressed, I had students break the long-term assignments down and set up checkpoints for themselves so that by the end of the year, I gave the assignment and the students did the work of breaking it down into manageable parts. In that way, I helped students learn how to set and achieve long-term goals.
To help students develop a more realistic understanding of their own strengths and areas for growth, I adjusted the way that I provided them with feedback (for more on this, see Chapter 5) and gave them grade tracking sheets so that they could track their progress toward mastery of the objectives. I met with students regularly to discuss their progress toward the learning targets and to help them figure out what adjustments they needed to make in order to reach those learning targets.
It took some work but by the end of the semester, my students had developed many of the noncognitive skills they needed. And, because these skills were not bound by my subject matter, they could transfer these skills to other courses and subjects.
It is important however, to be careful that in the process of helping students acquire other currencies you don't cheapen the currencies they already have. How do you avoid imposing your idea of what is valuable on the students and thus devaluing the currency that they bring to the classroom?
You teach students to carry more than one type of currency. Students naturally do this anyway. As Judith Rich Harris (1998) points out in her book
The Nurture Assumption, children often act differently at school than they do at home. In fact, they are experts at adapting their behavior to their contexts.
When I first became an English teacher, I was told that one of my biggest challenges would be to help my students abandon their slang and learn to use "proper English." I went about my task with almost religious zeal, correcting every "ain't" and "don't got" with a holy conviction. I insisted that my students use "the King's English."
Of course, when I wasn't teaching, I occasionally slipped in an "ain't" or two. In fact, when I talked with my friends, I rarely spoke the "proper" English I was imposing on my students.
One day I was in my office during a lunch period working with a student. The phone on my desk rang and I excused myself for a moment to answer the call. It was my sister and we were trying to make arrangements for getting together later that day. I chatted with her for a few moments and hung up the phone. "I'm sorry about that," I apologized as I returned to my student. He just sat there and grinned at me.
"What?" I asked, as I eyed him suspiciously.
"I knew it!" he exclaimed and began to laugh. "I knew you didn't talk like that when you weren't in the classroom."
And he was right. I didn't. Among my friends and in my neighborhood, I used a very different dialect than when I was in front of my students, or on a job interview, or interacting with my supervisors, or conducting a workshop. If I didn't use the same dialect all the time, why was I demanding that my kids did?
Yes, but... doesn't this just make it OK for students to use nonstandard grammar? And, doesn't that just handicap them from doing well on the tests?
Am I excusing nonstandard English and saying that students should be allowed to only trade in their preferred form of currency? Of course not. Doing so would handicap students by limiting their opportunities in education and their mobility in society. But just because standard English is the language of the tests does not mean it is the language of students' lives. It is not an either/or situation. Rather, it is a matter of giving students more options by giving them multiple currencies and showing students how to use the most appropriate currency in each situation they face.
It was then that I began to introduce to my students the concept of bidialectalism. We talked about how English had several different dialects. I asked my students how they spoke at home. Some used a patois of English and their country's language. Others used a variation of slang. Still others didn't speak English at home at all. I asked them what would happen if they went into their neighborhoods and spoke "proper." They laughed.
"I might get robbed," shouted one.
"Man, no one would know what I was talking about," offered another.
We laughed at the idea of walking up to a group of guys hanging out on the corner and saying, "Pardon me, but do you have any Grey Poupon?"
"What about clothes?" I asked. "Can I go into your neighborhood dressed like this?" I indicated my pants suit and heels.
"Heck no!" laughed one of my students. "Not unless you want to be mugged."
"They would think you were a social worker or a probation officer," another one exclaimed.
"You'd be fine in my neighborhood," a third offered. "Everyone dresses like that."
"Not in my neighborhood," a fourth explained. "Women don't wear pants."
"It's the same way in the business world," I explained to my students. "If you don't dress the part and talk the part, you lose your street cred, regardless of the neighborhood you are in, whether that is Southeast or Wall Street."
"How many of you want to go to college and be a business person?" I asked. They all raised their hands. "How many of you want to be rich?" Again, all hands were raised. "Then you are going to have to learn the language of the dominant culture."
Now they were interested. They weren't being told that the way they spoke was "wrong" or to abandon their own culture; they were being given the secrets to a different culture, a culture to which they previously had been denied entry. The message wasn't that by acquiring the capital of the dominant culture, they would somehow become "better" or "smarter." It just meant that they would become more mobile. They would now be able to move freely between cultures.
How empowering is it for students to now be able to spend several types of currency and to know how to determine which currency works in which economy? How much more empowering is it for kids if they feel comfortable moving between and among cultures? And how many more options will they have as a result?
As teachers, we act as navigators of the unfamiliar social and cultural terrains. Our job is to help students acquire multiple forms of currency so that no matter what culture they enter, they have the knowledge and skills they need to move freely in that culture. Rather than try to erase your students' cultures and get them to conform to the dominate culture, look for ways to help them use their culture as an entry point into the dominant culture. Look for ways to help them become bicultural and to "code switch." Look for ways to value what they bring to the table and yet show them how they can use different currencies to acquire other forms of capital.
Additionally, we need to learn how to code switch ourselves by looking for ways to adjust or even reshape the curriculum to capitalize on students' tacit knowledge, skills, and experiences rather than overriding or negating them. By connecting what we are teaching to students' lives, we not only help students access the curriculum more easily, we honor students' ways of knowing, understanding, and representing information and thus make it more likely that students will learn and retain what we are teaching and interact with the material at a more rigorous level.
Sometimes students do not have the currencies they need to be successful in the classroom. Other times, students have these currencies but refuse to use them.
There are four factors that influence students' choices to spend their currency in your classroom. The first is whether they think it is important to do well on a particular task. The second is how enjoyable they think doing a particular task will be. The third is how well they think a particular task will help them achieve their goals. And the fourth is what they think doing a particular task might cost them. If students have the currencies you are looking for and refuse to spend them, you will need to address one or more of these factors.
At the root of all of these factors is a question of value. Students will not spend their own currencies if they do not believe that what they will get in exchange is valuable. They'll need to believe that what you are teaching is relevant or worth their effort. There are two ways that you can help students value classroom capital. The first way is to create a classroom community where students can have some ownership over the routines and protocols of the classroom. In this way they will become active participants in the classroom economy and will come to value its capital. The second way is to help students connect what they value to classroom capital. Both ways will be discussed in more detail in the next two sections.
Walk into Dannette's classroom and it is like walking into another world. The bulletin boards are covered with quotes from everyone from Led Zeppelin to Socrates. There is a picture of John Belushi during his Animal House days hanging next to a picture of Audrey Hepburn. Students' artwork and posters from home hang on the walls. There is even a corner of cubbies where students keep their class notes and study materials. In the front of the classroom there is a gong and students walk up to it at seemingly random times and give it a good whack. The class looks up, smiles, and then gets back to work. During class discussions, students push the desks aside to a back corner and plop down onto bean bag chairs in the center of the room.
One day I walked by her classroom and could hear the students chanting "Eat it! Eat it!" Curious, I stepped in. There, in the middle of the classroom, five students were dangling chocolate covered crickets above their mouths. Surrounding them were other students wearing buttons that declared "I ate a bug." As each student swallowed, the rest of the class erupted in wild cheers and Dannette pinned a button on their shirts.
Why were students in an AP World History class eating bugs? It certainly wasn't part of the curriculum and it seemed almost disruptive to the rest of the class. In fact, it was the kind of thing more appropriate in a frat house than in a high school classroom. Why was she wasting valuable instructional time on something that had no relation to the curriculum and did nothing to prepare students for the test at the end of the year?
"We had just finished studying world cultures and I told my students that in some cultures, they eat bugs. They were so grossed out that I got the idea to bring in some chocolate covered ants and crickets," Dannette explained. "I wanted my students to do something that they didn't think they could do. I wanted them to know that if they could eat a bug, then they could take and pass an AP test."
Dannette created a classroom community. They were not 32 different students any more; they were all a part of the "I Ate a Bug Club."
"We bonded," Dannette said. "I looked at the Marine Corps and I looked at summer camp and I looked at sports teams and I saw how they would take a group of people from different backgrounds with different abilities and make them into a team. Together, that team would do things that seemed impossible to the individual person. These kids have never taken an AP test before and it seems impossible to them at the beginning. But, when they become a team, they encourage each other, they pull for each other. Suddenly, the test doesn't seem as impossible for these kids."
Dannette's classroom is not all fun and games. She doesn't eat bugs one day and play capture the flag the next, nor does she believe that eating a bug alone will help her students pass the AP World History exam at the end of the year. She isn't arguing that eating a bug will somehow magically transform her students into history scholars.
But she is making a powerful argument for using what was important to students to help them acquire what was important to her and to her course. She recognized the huge influence peers had on students at that age, so she used it to help motivate students to meet the rigor of her course. She also changed the context of the classroom. Traditionally, classrooms are set up for individualization. Each student is responsible for his own behavior and learning. They are, in a sense, on their own. But, what would happen, she asked, if collectivism trumped individualism? Challenges that once seemed daunting or even uninteresting when faced alone, suddenly seem possible and desirable when faced as a part of a team.
Dannette used those currencies to help her students meet the challenge of a very rigorous course. She didn't waste time trying to motivate her students to do well. Instead, she created a classroom culture around trying hard and working together to accomplish goals. She then let the students see for themselves that they were capable of doing far more than they thought they were. By starting with currencies that her students valued, she successfully helped students learn to value the classroom capital and work hard to obtain it. As a result, they didn't need her to motivate them; they were motivated themselves because they valued what they were learning.
Yes, but... I don't have time for these kinds of fluffy activities. I have to get through my curriculum.
We often ignore team-building activities because we feel that they detract from our curriculum. But, when used judiciously, these activities can help our students find an entry point to what we are trying to teach them. The key is to make sure that you select these activities with an end in mind, rather than doing them for doing's sake. Use these activities to help you reach a particular curricular goal and they will go a long way toward helping your students buy into what you are trying to teach them and into your class in general.
One of the biggest mistakes we make as teachers is that we assume that our students value classroom capital. As a result, we try to motivate students by rewarding them with things they don't value. Many of us think that the good grade should be enough of a motivation for doing the work. But, for many of our students who have not bought into the economy of our classrooms, good grades mean very little. If we want to motivate students, we have to reward them with currencies they value. Take my friend Cynthia, for example.
One day, I dropped by her classroom to work on a presentation we were giving together at an upcoming conference. Although it was also Cynthia's planning period, she had a handful of students in her classroom making up a test. Her teaching assistant, Ms. Bledsoe, monitored the students while we worked at a table in the back of the classroom.
It wasn't long before our work was interrupted by Ms. Bledsoe's exasperated sigh. "Jesse, I have told you three times already to get to work. Take out your pencil and finish this test."
"I'm finished." Jesse slumped in his seat and put his pencil on the desk.
"You are not finished, Jesse. You still have two pages to go. Now get to work," Ms. Bledsoe admonished.
Jesse threw the test on the floor and got up.
"Excuse me," Cynthia whispered, never taking her eyes off of Jesse. "I'll be right back."
She put a smile on her face and went over to Jesse. "Boy, sit your little self down," she drawled playfully.
Jesse didn't smile, but he did reluctantly sit back in his seat. "Miss Gill, I don't want to do this test. It's boring." He crossed his arms.
Cynthia leaned over Jesse's desk and whispered something to him. He looked up at her quizzically, and she looked him directly in the eye and smiled.
Jesse reached for the test. "I don't have a pencil."
"I've got one right here." Cynthia reached in her pocket and handed Jesse a pencil. "Now hurry up. You only have about 20 minutes."
Jesse got to work.
When Cynthia returned to the table, I whispered, "You're amazing. What on earth did you say to him?"
"Who, Jesse? Chile, I just told him that if he finished his test, I'd make him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich."
I laughed aloud and Cynthia smiled enigmatically. "Don't knock it, honey. It works."
We didn't hear a peep from Jesse for the next 20 minutes. He hunched over his desk and completed his test. When time was up, Jesse brought his test over to Cynthia.
"Did you do your best?" she asked him sternly.
"Yes, Ms. Gill. I even went back over it to check my work."
Cynthia flipped through the test and checked each page. Then, she went to her desk and took out a loaf of bread, a vat of generic peanut butter, a jar of store-brand jelly, and a plastic knife. She made what was perhaps the ugliest peanut butter and jelly sandwich I had ever seen, but to Jesse, it was a work of art. When she finished the sandwich, she handed it to Jesse who cradled it lovingly in the palms of his hands, grinning.
"Thank you, Ms. Gill," he said reverently and carefully made his way to the door. As he left the classroom, we could hear him yell, "Hey Tito, DeMarco. Look what Ms. Gill made me!"
I asked Cynthia once about those peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Why were these kids willing to work so hard for something that seemed so trivial? She used cheap bread and cheaper peanut butter and jelly. The sandwiches she made were positively ugly. What was it about these sandwiches that could get kids motivated when nothing else would? After all, wasn't it just a bribe—the high school equivalent of giving students candy if they finished their work?
"You're focusing on the wrong thing. It's not the sandwich itself that matters. It's the fact that I make it for them. Cooking for someone else is one of the most nurturing acts a person can do. These kids don't get enough nurturing at home. Jesse's mother works two jobs. She doesn't have time to make him a sandwich. So, when I make him a sandwich, he feels nurtured and loved. Jesse has to know that I care about him before he will do anything else. When he feels like I care about him, he will do the work."
Cynthia understood the idea of paying kids in their currency. Rather than impose her value system on Jesse, she recognized what currency he was taking and used what worked in his economy.
Yes, but... surely you don't expect me to start making my kids sandwiches!
I am no Cynthia. Although I love to tell the peanut butter sandwich story, I did not go out and immediately buy a loaf of bread and start making sandwiches myself. I am just not that way. But, I got her point. We did, after all, have the same students. My students too needed a certain amount of nurturing in order to be motivated. Most students do.
But, I am not the same kind of nurturer as Cynthia is. If I had gone out and started making sandwiches, I would have been little more than a poor imitation of Cynthia and my students would have seen right through me. I would have come off as false and insincere. No. I had to find a way to nurture my kids that was authentic and that fit with who I was.
Often when we read inspiring stories of great teachers or see a feel-good teacher movie, we want to rush out and do what they do. We grab a bullhorn like Joe Clark, or take them to an amusement park like Michelle Pfeifer did in Dangerous Minds. We keep them after class for hours like Jaime Escalante. But we fail to consider whether our students are like those in the movies, or whether we are like those teachers. We want to be like them, sure, but we have to take into account our own personalities. What made Joe Clark or Jaime Escalante so successful was that they found a way to reach their students by being who they were.
Kids are smart. They can see through us. They know when we are being sincere and when we are being "fake." While they may cut us a little slack in the beginning, they will soon begin to rebel against our teacher act if we are not sincere. If we don't believe it, why should they?
So, if making sandwiches is not your thing, figure out what is and do that.
Sure, Jesse should have been motivated by the intrinsic reward of doing well. But, in Jesse's economy, the intrinsic rewards were not nearly as important as that peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
When you start where your students are, you don't think in terms of "should." If you want to motivate students to learn, first find out what currency they are spending (or the currency they value) and pay them in that currency. From there, you can teach them how to find the reward in other things. For many of our students, intrinsic motivation has to be developed. It comes only after they have experienced the pleasure of doing well and know the rewards of success. At the beginning, many of our students haven't experienced consistent academic success and are not convinced that it will bring any pleasure. In fact, academic success has been a source of pain for them because it has been heretofore an unachievable goal. This is why it is so important to start with what motivates them and then as they experience more success, help them transfer or become motivated by that success.
For some students, it will take grades or points or extra credit. For other students, it will take the promise of some more tangible reward like extra time on the playground or a fieldtrip.
For Jesse, it took a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Think about the rewards you currently have in place in your classroom. Are they consistent with what your students value? If not, think about how you can make them more consistent with your students' values. Pay attention to what your students value (or even ask them!). Then, think of how you can reward them in ways that they value.
One day, I was doing a formal observation in Chris's 7th grade math class as she was teaching students how to solve quadratic equations.
"How do we solve for x in this equation?" she asked, as she wrote an equation on the overhead projector.
Several students raised their hands. Chris waited a few beats and then called on one student. As the student talked, Chris wrote on the overhead. When the student finished, Chris asked, "Why did you choose to solve the equation the way that you did?"
The student paused for a second and considered his answer. Then he began to explain his reasoning to the class. When he finished, Chris asked the class, "Did anyone use a different way to solve this equation?"
A few students raised their hands. Chris called on a student who explained another way to solve the equation. When the student finished, Chris asked her, "Why did you choose to solve the equation that way?" Again, the student explained her reasoning. Then Chris asked the class, "Is there another way that you could solve this equation?"
This time, the students were less quick to raise their hands. Chris waited and let them think about her question for a moment. When after several moments no one raised a hand, Chris prompted, "Let's see, you've added, subtracted, multiplied . . ." Again, Chris waited. Suddenly one student raised his hand. Chris called on him. "You could divide the two sides by six," he offered.
Chris smiled. "Okay, tell me how that would help me solve this equation." The student talked her through the equation as the other students took copious notes. Chris put down the overhead marker for a moment. "We have at least three ways of solving a quadratic equation here," she announced as she pointed to the overhead. She summarized each of the three methods. Then she asked, "Why would I use method one?" The students offered a few answers. Chris nodded her head, and then paused. "Well, are there situations where method two might work better?" The students thought for a moment and then offered a few scenarios. Chris listened and probed with more questions until the students had suggested several different situations where method two might work better than method one. "What about method three?" Again, the students explored the different scenarios.
When the students finished, Chris began to hand out a worksheet. "Now that we have learned how to solve quadratic equations, I want you to practice. This worksheet contains 12 problems. I want you to experiment with the three different methods that we just examined and find which method works best for you."
Chris didn't just teach her students one way to do things. She acknowledged that there were several different ways to solve the problem and allowed students to select the method that worked best for them. She helped them examine each method so that they understood the advantages and disadvantages that each offered and then let them decide based on their own preferences. As a result, Chris honored the currencies and preferences of her students and at the same time, helped them acquire new currencies that they could use to be successful in her classroom.
Help your students use the currencies they bring with them to help them acquire the capital of the classroom.
Copyright © 2009 by Robyn R. Jackson. All rights reserved.
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