[Editor’s note: Kansan in the Bronx is a second-year teacher in a Bronx middle school.]
Sometimes it really pains me to give stuff away to children. It depends on the reason why, of course, but if it’s for anything other than on an occasion to show them I like them unconditionally I really question why I’m doing it. When I was in school I strove for success simply because I didn’t want to fail. I also had a vague but strong sense that my academic success was important. Last year, a lot of that went down the toilet as I attempted to persuade/bribe my class to behave better. It really bothered me because it was as if to say, “What I am telling you to do is not important enough for you to want to do it inherently, so I’m going to give you a chocolate to make it go down easier.” This year I’ve been giving out awards that are academic in nature rather than out-and-out bribery. The idea has been to reinforce positive behavior without seeming like it’s just an attempt to neutralize the poor behavior.
When I was a kid I was active in scouting. I liked it because it got me away from my five siblings and I was able to do things like camp, hike, rock climb, canoe, set off bottle rockets, shoot guns, smell bad, etc. I also liked it because as I worked through requirements I was given awards that reflected ambition and the ability to follow through on what I wanted to accomplish. Most of the awards/ranks/merit badges I also wore around a lot of the time on my uniform, which not only made me strut a bit more, but I would think made other scouts want to receive similar awards.
This past summer I came up with an idea based on my merit badges and on my aversion to giving pizza parties and shiny pencils to children who behave well just enough to get those things out of you. I bought a button maker. With this magical, $400 contraption, I’ve made a few hundred buttons and handed them out to my students as awards for real academic achievement after each unit and after major projects and assignments. The beautiful thing about these things is that unlike a certificate that will never be seen after an awards ceremony, I actually have students with them on their backpacks walking around every day reminding students of past content and reminding them that there will be an academic award at the end of the unit. The buttons also aren’t candy that will rot their teeth, pizza that will teach them poor eating habits or pencils that will litter my floor by the end of the week.
The button maker decision was also based on my observation of how much my students loved the buttons of Obama I gave out as awards for great campaign speeches in the fall of 2008 (don’t worry, they wrote for their candidate of choice and had the option to take Obama buttons as well as McCain buttons), which was my first successful project as a full-time teacher. They wore those things around for the rest of the year and I couldn’t help but think two things: they simply liked wearing buttons and if I could get students to wear something that reminded them of the major ideas we covered that it might help keep those things in mind as we progressed through our history curriculum.
Now, this could certainly have been gimmicky and fallen flat had it not been presented properly. To avoid this I made sure that I had student buy-in at the beginning of the year. My first unit was a Bronx history unit designed to raise student interest in my class and get some basic social studies skills underway (mapping skills, etc.). The button for that unit was a Yankee button, which was a big hit and got the students craving the things. Since then I’ve had a Civil War button with rifles crossed on the front, a class librarian button with books, a technology monitor button with computer on it, a Statue of Liberty button for immigration, a railroad crossing button for industrialization, and a recycling button for my progressives unit. Each has been an image catering to student tastes (punk rock images, graffiti art, etc.) and they’ve gotten many of even the most off-task students asking for them and wondering about them.
One of the things that first-year teachers often do is pull out prize buckets, buy pizzas, and do whatever they think will possibly calm the class down and get them to work. It’s possible that most of it or all of it won’t work in the long run. Going into this year I realized I didn’t need them nearly as much and that the things I did bring with me (buttons) were based on the synthesis of my own personality and the interests of the students. That made them more genuine awards while keeping students’ interest high. It also speaks again to the fact that in order to teach well you need to know your students, but it also has supported the idea that students appreciate things that aren’t just cheap junk you might use to get them to be quiet for a minute.
Finding things like this is part of finding your niche in the classroom. This particular thing wouldn’t work for a hundred other teachers. Figure out a way to make your classroom stand out in the minds of your students. Once you’ve found it stick with it and then find the next thing to add to your arsenal. Your students might think it’s lame and your co-workers might think it’s lame, but if you think it’s good and act like it’s awesome, your students might very well think the same eventually.