State of the Union’s Children

Posted: August 28, 2012 in From Student to Teacher
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Every teacher learns about this at one time or another, right? Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.  Elementary teachers are especially talented when it comes to providing motivational items, intended to promote positive behavior among their students.  My own children have explained the various systems their teachers used toward this end.

Let’s see, there was the green, yellow, and red apple system of classroom management. In this case, you definitely did not want to get the RED apple.  I seem to also recall a stoplight plan, along the same color scheme significance.  Elementary teachers are so creative!

Yesterday, number 5 began second grade and came home with the explanation of the Ty Beanie Baby system her teacher is using to help motivate the students to behave.  Very interesting indeed.

I may have given birth to six children and read many parenting books, from T. Berry Brazelton to John Rosemond, but I am far from a parenting expert.  I have made so many mistakes over the years (my babies range from 21 to 2) but then I ask myself who gets to define the “right” way of parenting?  The point is I have no concrete expertise to offer anyone.

But the glaring problem I worry about is this: what happens when children have become so inured to this external reward system for good behavior for so many years, and then they grow up? It’s like a person who is prescribed painkillers for an illness and then they get better, but have become addicted to the painkillers.  Medically, the need for the pills has ended, but the person has become quickly seduced by the pain-free feeling.  So the pill gets snatched away…hmmm.  Similarly, when the rewards for good behavior and good grades ends, what replaces the motivational catalyst?

At Meet the Teacher night last week, an acquaintance noticed my daughter had lost several teeth over the summer.  How do other parents notice these things?  I can barely tell if I have two of the same shoes on at any given moment, but she happened to see through the crowds of people into my child’s mouth.  Fascinating.

Anyway, she told me her daughter lost one tooth and the tooth fairy gave her $6.00.  That’s right.  It’s not a typo.  Six. Seis. I don’t know it in any other languages.  I managed to paste on a polite smile and say, “Nice job Tooth Fairy!”  My own children would be knee deep in the toolbox looking for some form of pliers to remove their teeth if they even suspected that’s what the Tooth Fairy was doing!

I digress.  By the time students get to high school, you have children that fit into one of three categories: those who want to do well because it is simply a part of their ethic, those who try to do well because their transcript is on the line, and those who will only make an attempt to do something close to mediocre if there’s something in it for them.

I gave my students a culminating activity to complete as we neared the end of the dreaded Anglo-Saxon Unit of British Literature.  You know, Beowulf, “The Seafarer”, etc.  In an effort to meet the latest wave of educational reform called differentiation, I provided several choices for the exploration to other facets of the Anglo-Saxon world beyond the literature (which is typically like a root canal for many students to read), such as daily life, illuminations, knots, weaponry, etc.

Despite having four weeks to complete the assignment, 95% of my honors students waited until 36 – 48 hours before even attempting to begin the project.  The remaining 5% were those students who pour every ounce of energy into every task they do.  Here’s a sample of the 5%ers:

An example of an illumination of the letter “P.”

This student is very talented and since he struggled learning the English language, this more artistic assignment gave him a great opportunity to do well in the best way for him.  I am sure one day he will be world famous for his art.  He’s what I call a natural.

For these 5%ers, the value of doing a job well is quite simply put, the reward of a job well done.  Those students who fall into the second category are my number chasers, whose sole goal in high school is not the benefit of knowledge and the enhancement of one’s foundation and principles.  No, for them it’s the transcript.  They calculate to the decimal point the value of completing a project, passing or failing a quiz, or even completing any homework.  So long as it keeps them in competing range GPA-wise with their peers hoping to get into UNC, then that will be the deciding factor of even an attempt.

Here’s another 5% gem:

Another beautiful effort to make a representation of illuminations created by many monks during the Anglo-Saxon period.

Believe it or not, I had the hardest time with the number chasers because I felt that they were selling themselves short.  They had such great minds, capable of exploring so much and offering so much more to their world.  Yet, none of it was relevant unless it affected their academic bottom line.  These were the children of lawyers and professors at UNC and Duke, children who were so fortunate in so many ways.  But they were so poor in understanding life.

The ones who just didn’t care at all are everywhere.  They are in every school where I have ever taught and although equally capable, it is so very hard to reach them.  I consider myself fortunate if I make even 30% progress in getting through their thick hides.

All in all, we are a nation that has become quite frightening when we consider the ramifications of continuing to offer external rewards and hoping that before the carrot is snatched away, the motivation shifts to an internal one.  In America, there are far too few 5%ers.  Although I grew up in a strict Catholic stratosphere and the motivation for us was always, “Do well or go to Hell,” I have thirsted to know more, and be better every day of my life.  Life without some internal motivation strikes me as lonely, but also the life of a sociopath.

I’ll leave you with one more piece of the Anglo-Saxon assignment because I was so incredibly proud to see the efforts of these few students.  In case you’re wondering, the majority of the other students chose the easiest project according to their calculations and when they got the appropriate grade for their efforts, they wondered why it wasn’t an A.  As I sorted through my teaching materials in the garage today, I came across these and it prompted the reflection above.

A drawing on un-primed canvas from a female’s perspective during the Anglo-saxon period; the assignment was to study the Bayeux Tapestry, which is French, but chronicles the transition from the tribal existence of the Anglo-Saxons to the sophistication of the Normans with the Battle of Hastings in 1066.


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