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Have You Ever Taught A Class That Got “Out Of Control”?

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As readers of this blog know, my answer to that question is “yes.”

Due to a variety of reasons, it’s not unusual for me to have at least one class each year in our inner-city high school that has a large number of students that face many challenges in their lives that, in turn, make functioning in an academic setting sometimes another challenge — to them and to me.

This year was no exception.

I’ve written several posts sharing the positive classroom management strategies that I’ve typically used to turn things around:

When A “Good” Class Goes “Bad” (And Back To “Good” Again!)
Maintaining A “Good” Class
More About Maintaining A “Good” Class
“Why Do You Let Others Control You?”

During the first portion of this school year, I used all the tools I laid-out in my previous four classroom management posts in one class.

To be truthful, none of them really worked.

They helped me to develop relatively good relationships with the students, and to communicate effectively that I cared about them — and feeling that an adult cared about them was and is an important relationship in my students’ lives.  But these classroom management tactics didn’t create a consistent atmosphere of academic discipline.

So what did I do after exhausting all the tools at my disposal?

I asked for help.

Jim Peterson is a very talented Vice-Principal at my school (whom I’ve quoted before in posts) who suggested a new strategy — one that might have echoes of familiarity with some methods that you’ve used or seem others use, and which might provoke some initial reactions of uncomfortableness, as it did with me.

Jim’s suggestion was using a daily point system — dividing up the class into sections and providing up to fifty points per section.  Students would begin with fifty points for each section and would maintain that point total if they were on task, following instructions, and not disruptive.  They would be constantly “paid” verbally (you could also call it a “vocal stamp”) and on a clipboard– “John, I’d like you to keep your fifty points so far,” etc.  If students were not following instructions, the teacher says, “John, I’d like you to keep your forty-five points so far.”  This kind of verbal “pay-out” occurs constantly during class.  At the end of each class period students would be told their point total (this is a very simplified description of his idea).

Yes, I know some of you are thinking, as I initially thought, what is a progressive educator like me doing considering a classroom management system that sounds like behavior modification and operant conditioning?  Why am I not continuing my focus on positive strategies to help students develop their own intrinsic motivation?

I have two responses:

One, as a former community organizer, I understand the tension between the “world as it is” and the “world as we’d like it to be.”  When I was organizing, and while I’m teaching, I believe that if we operate in the “world as we’d like it to be” all the time, we become ineffective dreamers — if we only operate in the world as it is, we become cold-hearted pragmatists who do anything for expediency.   I could have continued to function only using Alfie Kohn’s “Punished By Rewards” thesis (which I still believe has much validity), and I could have continued to have an out-of-control class.

Two,  as you’ll see in the rest of this post, this new classroom management strategy, and its “evolution,” has ended-up being extraordinarily effective in developing just that kind of intrinsic motivation and self-control I want my students to have.

When I first introduced this new strategy, I was surprised to find that the most challenging students liked it the most.  They felt that it helped them see how they were doing all the time — the idea of “points” was within their experience and understanding.  One slight modification I made to Jim’s strategy was, in addition to taking points away, I gave students the opportunity to regain the points by subsequent good work and behavior.  My goal was to give every student the highest point total possible each day.

There was an immediate improvement and after a month of using this system pretty much every minute of class, it was a difference between night-and-day.  Students who before gained their gratification through talking and disruption now got it through gaining points.

Now was the time for me to see if students, after having seem the difference in themselves and in the class, were invested enough in what they had become to feel that this kind of self-perception — that they were learners in a community of learners — was motivation enough to continue this kind of atmosphere.

First I began to reduce the number of times I would tell students their point totals, then I would go a day or two without even mentioning it — the positive atmosphere continued, and the students didn’t seem to miss not getting their points.

I talked with them about how impressed I was with how they were handling themselves, and how I’d like to use the point system less.  The students were enthusiastic.

Last week a student was being a bit off task one day.  I went to him and said, “Jack (not his real name), do I have to use the point system with you today?”  His immediate response was — to my shock — almost a sense of shame on his part as he protested, “No, I don’t need it, I can do my work without it!”  He did great the rest of the class.

He wanted to show that he didn’t need an extrinsic reward in order to be a learner in a community of learners.

As our principal put it, the response put an interesting spin on the idea of “Punished By Rewards” — the student now viewed the possibility of getting (or losing) points as something he didn’t want or need in order to be an academic student.

Of course, moving off the point system carries some risk.  I probably could continue to use it all the time, and have students focused between 90% and 100% of the time — much of that would be due to outside control exerted by me.

Or, I could use it less (though, I suspect I’ll still need to use it occasionally — we are talking about teenagers here!), and have between 80% and 100% student focus — but all of that would be intrinsically motivated by them.

I’ll take the second option, which is far better off than the class and I were before we got Jim Peterson’s help.

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

21 Comments

  1. Hello Larry
    I have the same sort of problems here in France as well :)
    But I don’t quite understand your points system :

    Do your pupils remain seated in the same section of the class every day ?

    Also did their score have a consequence on their school results? I mean, if a pupil ended up with a bad score, what did you do with that fact ?

    I suppose that your goal was to introduce a degree of collective awareness of everybody’s responsibility towards one’s own learning, that is if you don’t keep quiet as a group, you can’t learn properly.

  2. Thanks for an interesting read. From what I saw of your class, I am looking forward to the results in mine!

  3. EV,

    Students have their regular seats, but often work in partners in different parts of the room.

    Their point totals are a major part of their grades.

    Kara,

    I’m glad you were able to observe our class on Friday!

    Larry

  4. You make some good points above.
    However, I also think that this can be helpful to you:
    The book and Training Video: PREVENTING Classroom Discipline Problems

    If you can get this book and video: [they are in many libraries, so you don't have to buy them] email me and I can refer you to the sections of the book and video [that demonstrates the effective vs. the ineffective teacher] that can help you.

    If your library does not have them, you can get them at:

    http://www.panix.com/~pro-ed/

    that are also used at this online course:
    http://www.ClassroomManagementOnline.com

    See: Reviews at: http://classroommanagementonline.com/comteach.html

    If you cannot get the book or video, email me anyway, and I will try to help.

    Best regards,

    Howard

    Howard Seeman, Ph.D.
    Professor Emeritus,
    City Univ. of New York

    Prof. Seeman
    [email protected]

  5. Larry,
    “My goal was to give every student the highest point total possible each day.”
    I think that one of the many things that helps you be so successful with your students is your positive attitude. You want your students to do the best they can. Students know that and respond positively.

    The “at-risk” students I support tell me time and time again that if a teacher doesn’t care if they do well or not, they don’t care either and behave accordingly.

    Thanks for sharing your experience with this point system. I’m going to add this strategy to my class management tool kit.

  6. Larry,
    I enjoyed reading about the point system you use in your classroom. I teach fourth grade and use a token system for classroom management that seems similar to what you use with your high school students. Every week my students start out with ten tokens(card chips)that are worth 3 minutes of free time to be used at the end of the day on Friday. We call it Respect & Responsibility = Rest and Relaxation or “R&R”. Students can lose tokens throughout the week for behaving disrespectfully in class or not being responsible. Not turning in homework for example. So for every token they lose it equals three minutes less of “R&R” on Friday. They spend whatever time they have lost working on something educational at their desks. Students love playing checkers and other games during “R&R” so they are motivated not to lose any tokens throughout the week. I have used this classroom management system for about five years now and it has been very successful for me.

    I am new to reading educational blogs. I find the enormous possibilities and opportunities for learning to be fantastic. What a powerful tool we now have to learn from each other!

    • I like your idea. Just curious about the details. Do the students keep the chips? If so, what is the process for asking them to forfeit one? Any resentment or awkwardness? What do they do during the 30 minute R & R time if they have less than 10 tokens?

      • Hi Mike. I have a pocket chart hanging on my wall and each student has an assigned number with their own pocket. They each have 10 chips inside the pocket and start out each week with 10 chips, so each week is a new start. I just tell a student, “You need to turn in a chip.” or “You owe a chip.” My students know exactly why they lose chips and often will tell me if they need to get a chip for not finishing an assignment. If they don’t turn in a homework assignment they will continue to lose chips everyday until it is turned in. If they are doing something disrespectful and I tell them to get a token, they also know exactly what the reason is. Sometimes, I will kneel down and quietly ask them if they understand why I asked them to get me a token and they all “own” their behavior. I don’t feel that their is any resentment or awkwardness. They understand the system and how it works. The students that lost tokens during the week, work on things at their desks for three minutes per token lost. If they have any assignments they are not done with then that would be the first priority to work on. Most of the time they are working on their handwriting books, dictionary skills books, etc. I don’t want any subject of school to be a punishment so I let them pick what they think they need to work on during that time. As soon as they are quietly working on something and not talking then the time starts. I hope this helps.

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  9. I use a 100 point method to keep elementary students in grades 1-4 in the target language. In order to speak English in my spanish immersion class, they must use a password phrase. They must also use simple phrases before they can go to the bathroom, get water, get a pencil or paper, etc. If they speak English, I deduct a point from the class total. The class with the highest number of points at the end of a given time period earns a fiesta. Not only does the system promote more active use of Spanish, but it helps with discipline. If I hear “unapproved” English, I deduct a point. I have tried other methods of both rewards and punishments, and this has been the most effective.

  10. Does a duck love water?

    However, I don’t focus on control – that’s a bad word. I judge a class by if we got to the destination – no matter if the car was all over the road!

    David
    http://eflclassroom.ning.com

  11. I taught in an alternative middle school for 13 years and also used a point reward system. The students EARNED points every 1/2 hour for: Staying on task, Behavior/Attitude, Following direction. Their total points for the week allowed them to move up and down a level scale and different levels had more or less rewards, like, computer time or lunch with friends.
    I wanted the system to reward behavior and not punish it. Most of the students in the program were already labeled as “the bad kids” and they didn’t need more finger pointing.
    A key to making it work was not to get angry at a student who was acting out and punish them by not giving points. After the acting out I would talk to the student about what happened and why they were not earning points. Most of the time the student would agree with the results. Connecting behavior with consequences was very important for those students.

  12. Didn’t the kids ask what the points were for? They tend to look for a prize as a reward.

    Point systems – geez, they’re so hard to manage when you’re trying to concentrate on teaching!

    d

    • The point/level system had built in rewards every day and weekly. In a classroom designed for students who were not successful in mainstream classes, managing their behavior was the focus of teaching.
      I have to say that after 13 years I did not see any significant behavior change in any student. Some students were in the program for 3 years. The students who can into the program and were successful in the first quarter continued to be successful. The students who were not successful in the first quarter continued to be unsuccessful. Success was tracking behavior, attitude, following directions, homework, staying on task. Many of the students who were not successful needed a more therapeutic setting, even though we had a behavior specialist once a week meet with the students.
      My concern is that with “Race to the Top” more schools will start dumping students who don’t add to the schools numbers into alternative placements.

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  14. I thoroughly agree with teacherjim. When dealing with disdruptive students control and repression are not the best strategies. Students must be motivated to improve their behavior in an intrinsic way and to be praised and rewarded when they do any progress or positive actions.

  15. Hi Larry! I am intrigued by your point system as I am a first year teacher who has quite the rowdy bunch of intensive Algebra freshman! Just to clarify, each section of the room gets 50 points at the beginning of the day, and then that group loses points for one student being off-task,misbehaving, etc.? Then, at the end of the day/class, ALL students in that section get whatever the point total is? Or is it each student gets 50 points? I wonder this because I have a handful of students in each class who are consistently doing their work and behaving appropriately, wouldn’t this not be fair to them? Also, the consequence/reward for their points is a grade?

    • Sandra,

      No, that’s not how this system works. If the explanation here is not clear enough, I’ll have to suggest you look at my student motivation book, which includes a detailed chapter on how it works.

      Larry

  16. Do they get anything such as hw pass or a piece of candy for maintaining the 50 points?

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