Monday, April 10, 2017

Show Me The Money- An Adventure In New Things

"I'm not a fan of extrinsic motivation, especially in fifth grade. Give them good work to do, and behavior takes care of itself."
-Me, six months ago

"Dear sweet science, I have no more ideas. Maybe trinkets will work. Would you like the precious?"
- Me, two weeks ago

I am paying my students to learn. I'm paying them to work. I'm paying them to behave, and to be cool, and just to be at school. I'm paying them for anything I can think of. Because it's the best thing I could think of trying.

I teach fifth grade. Teaching is never an easy job. This year is a little more challenging than most. I have, individually, great kids. But taken as a whole, we begin to have trouble. A favorite metaphor of mine is that classroom are like chemistry sets and students are like chemicals. Sometimes you combine two chemicals and you get a perfume. But combine one of those chemicals with a different chemical and you get a small puff of smoke instead. Add a third chemical to the mix and you get to draw your eyebrows on for a few months. It's not something that happens on purpose, it's not malicious or to be taken personally, but personalities can and will conflict. It happens with adults all the time, but we (ideally) have the tools, experience, and maturity to work through that. Many fifth graders don't, because this is when they learn the tools and gain the experience they'll use later in life. I have a lot of chemicals that are great on their own but get a little 'splody when combined.

All this to say, I have a class who struggles to live up to the expectations I set. I know part of it is I have a lot of them (36 kids). I know part of it is I probably didn't start the year as strongly and clearly as I could have, last year I had a great class and that may have made me complacent and overconfident. I know part of it is this class, as a whole, just feels younger than other classes I've taught. I realize that descriptor wouldn't be terribly helpful for someone outside of the education field, someone who doesn't work with kids, but I know teachers out there know exactly what younger means.

So I've been struggling and we've been struggling. I've changed things- we did a class contract, we had lots of very explicit conversations about expectations and behavior, I tried being The Stern Teacher, I tried a much heavier-handed discipline approach (which only lasted like ten days because I hated it so much). I've changed groups and moved kids and done rows and talked to parents and and and. I honestly feel like I tried everything I could think of to help my kids.

I even went to my principal to ask for her help. Maybe that statement doesn't mean anything big to you, and if that's true then I congratulate you on having excellent administrators. With the exception of my very first principal, I have never worked with an admin I'd have been comfortable going to and saying, "I have no more ideas. Help me." Certainly not as a brand new teacher, scared for my job and approval- "Maybe she doesn't know I'm making it up as I go, and I'm not telling her." And later as a teacher with, let's say a strained relationship with an admin- "There's zero chance she'll be able to help me, she's awful." But my current admin is great and I trust her and I'm confident enough in myself as a teacher that I'm comfortable going to her. Plus, I have a student teacher and I want her to see that I do not have all the answers, not that she thinks that anyway.

My principal gave me a bunch of ideas, the first of which was the most smack-my-forehead one. I told her my class feels young. She said, "How would you help them if they were third graders then?" Ohhh yeah. See- asking for help is good, people will show you things you can't see because they're too obvious to you. She also mentioned that another teacher I work with does Gecko Bucks with his class to start the year, and I might think about a class economy.

I have thought about a class economy before. Like many other things, I am in awe of teachers who are seemingly effortless in their ability to stay organized among so many moving parts and routines. My class is fairly simple because I subscribe to the KISS philosophy- Keep It Simple, Stupid. But that, in this case, meant that I was not setting clear enough goal for my kids, was not being explicit enough and step-by-step enough. I wasn't helping them with how I'm comfortable doing things. So I decided to change it up.

Veronica, my student teacher, and I got together the Sunday before Spring Break ended and plotted out how our class economy will work. First, we spent a good twenty minutes justifying it. Talking it through, why are we doing this, what's the point, what are our goals? We decided our goals were-

- We have drifted too far into catching kids being bad, we need to catch and praise way more
- We need to have them earn their responsibility and value what the classroom has
- We need to get back to a place of joy, with the students'

Kids have wallets to keep their money in, as well as
Account Balance sheets to track their money
With that in mind we built a class economy that I think works well. Here's a link to it, but context is important. As I've written about a lot, I am all about student groups and alternative seating. But after two substitute fiascoes in a row, I took both of those things away. I put all the desks back at a normal height, I put them in rows, and I gave all the kids normal chairs. I called this a Total Reset. We needed it and they needed to know that I meant it when I said expectations were not being met and consequences were to be had.

But there's a problem with this- I have a bunch of kids who did nothing wrong. Who were on it and well behaved. This isn't fair to them. So, things happen as a class, but thanks to the class economy, which we call Courson Cash, students can buy their way back into the privileges they were taking for granted. Students get paid for being at school, for making good choices, for completing assignments, for class jobs. And there's a menu of options for them to spend their money on. They can buy back the right to a height-adjusted desk, or the right to use alternative seating, the right to the MakerSpace. And this is why there's so much context at the top- Six months ago I would have hated the idea that I was making a class buy their way into these things. But I was out of ideas, and I have a deep well of ideas.

By earning money and spending it on these things, they will value them more (in theory). They will understand the responsibility that comes with the classroom privileges. And, because I'm also charging a small weekly tax on all of the privileges, they need to keep it up. Can't earn alternative seating back and then play around, because then you won't have the money to pay that tax next week and you lose the privilege.

I also started a class Instagram account (another thing I'd been avoiding because I couldn't justify having one in my head) and posting a picture on there costs $5. They were more excited about this than anything else on the menu.

It also means that everyone earns things back at their own pace and they get to choose what it is they're working towards. I have kids who do not care about getting alternative seating back (to my surprise, I must admit), so they are working towards MakerSpace or something else. Not everyone is trying to get the same thing so everyone is motivated by different things. It's almost like I'm treating my class like kids with different needs, which probably has some edufancy name...hmmmm. Anyway.

This only solved half my problem. Now individuals are working for themselves. But we're a community. How do I help them care about each other and the room as a whole? Something I've really had a hard time with, I might add.

The Toof Trust. The Toof Trust is basically class points, but within the class economy system. Some money, instead of going to individuals, goes into our class trust. And there is a menu of purchase options for that too- buy back group seating, buy back their own line order, buy back lessons by Courson and Sophie, etc. The Toof Trust is filled when they walk nicely in the halls, when they get a compliment, when transitions go well. I also allow students to donate to the Toof Trust on Fridays. So, if we're ten bucks from what we want, ten kids can chip in a dollar for the good of the whole. There's a lot of lessons there, I think.

And by having money in our pockets, it forces Veronica and I to be looking for kids to give bonuses too. We're retraining ourselves to look for good, which I've always preached but still was having a hard time with.

It's a lot more organization than I usually have when it comes to a behavior plan. There's more moving parts and I have to be thinking of it more than I'd like, honestly. But I know that as I get used to it, and as the kids get used to it, it'll be easier. The trick will be not to let to fall by the wayside, because once I stop taking it seriously the whole edifice will crash down on my head.

We're a week in, as so far it's working exactly like I hoped. Yes, the kids are motivated by money rather than by that voice inside that tells them to do great and be good, and that's not ideal. But they're fifth graders, and we're still having those discussions too. Veronica takes a small group every day for five minutes as a check-in.

More importantly, we're back to a stronger place of respect, of learning, of positivity. Now I'm able to really assign and trust those cool lessons that will keep them from playing around, I just needed to scaffold the kids more.

Goes to show, once again, that the more important rule in teaching is to never be hardline about anything. You never know what's going to work.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written two books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher and THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome). I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.


  1. This is a great post, Doug. Honest, brave, funny, and helpful to many of us. But, 36 students? In one 5th grade class? Did I read that correctly? What the heck?!?! That is nuts.

    1. Thanks!
      Yep, 36 this year! We're stacking them on top of each other.

  2. I'm stealing and adapting the idea. My 5th graders bear some striking similarities to yours. Thank you!