Thursday, October 21, 2010

Where's My Smiley Face?!

Remember elementary school? If you received a high score on your test or quiz, the teacher may reward you with a sticker! Oh, wonderful stickers. Some teachers let you collect the stickers to "buy" things from of a box full of corny pencils and erasers that didn't work. But, by God, you earned it and you loved it.

What no one tells you about teaching is that the older kids live for that stuff, too. I didn't start out with stickers. I started out by drawing a smiley face in the middle of the zero for "-0" (as in, there were no incorrect answers). I started doing it out of boredom one day and kept it up. Whenever someone received a perfect score, there would be a happy smiley face waiting for them. One week, I got behind and simply graded the quizzes without taking the time to put the smiley faces on the perfect scores.

One of my students was a repeating freshman. He hated school and was looking forward to dropping out. He stood at least ten inches taller than me and probably could have lifted me over his head if he wanted. He was a smart guy and often received perfect quiz scores. On the day when I passed back the smiley-less quizzes, he suddenly became upset. I asked him what was wrong. "My smiley face! Where's my smiley face?!" It took a second to register, so he pulled out his folder and showed me every single smiley faced paper he'd received during the trimester to show me that I did, indeed, put smiley faces on perfect scores. He collected them. They made him happy and made him want to get more smiley faces. I had no idea they were affecting him so much. I apologized for my mistake and wrote a smiley face on his paper. He smiled while walking back to his seat as he carefully put his smiley faced paper into his folder with the rest.

My coworkers have similar stories. The junior teacher down the hall actually uses stickers. She has a student who carefully peels the sticker from his paper and places it on his folder. His goal is to cover his entire folder. Another teacher, who is actually a resource ECE teacher, gives the students fake money for the questions they get right on assessments. They can use the money to buy from her grab box, which has the normal, small items, as well as some larger ticket items, like a cheap digital camera. Her students are in her class because they are delayed or have severe behavior issues. These students are performing well and learning because they want to be the first to have enough money to buy the digital camera.

You may think this is cheap trickery, but the students are learning a valuable lesson. Performance is rewarded with currency. If I do my job, and do it well, I get paid. If they do their job, and do it well, they receive something they want as well. I felt guilty at first for playing on their want for cheap rewards. However, I quickly learned that they were passing my class and learning the material. If it takes a few stickers to get them to enjoy Shakespeare, who am I to complain?

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