Monthly Archives: February 2014

Board Games Galore!

 “The score never interested me, only the game,” Mae West

A few weeks ago, I wrote about why games boost students’ learning.  They soothe anxiety and calm the amygdala, making student brains receptive to learning.  They make drill fun.  They give students a way to beat the teacher.  In short, they are a great tool, especially for drill or practice.

Games can be a quick five-minute review to start a lesson or to wrap up one, or they can be the core of practice in a lesson.  When I work one-on-one with students, I usually play a game for at least ten or twenty minutes of a fifty-minute session.  With that much time, you need to make sure the game is serving its purpose well and efficiently.

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It’s Not About You

When I was a teenager, my room was filled with unicorns and rainbows: posters, stickers framing the mirror, and my prized possession, a hanging rainbow, an ingenious decoration with thin strings threaded through a wooden circle, cascading from almost the ceiling to the ground, creating an eight inch in diameter column of silky rainbowness.


When I started teaching, I carefully placed my rainbow column in a corner of the room for the kids to see, touch and enjoy.  Needless to say, they loved it.  And perhaps even more needless to say, their love constantly tangled the thing up.  Every few days I’d spend twenty minutes after school patiently untangling the silky strings from the top down.

In my second third grade class, I had a student who may perhaps be the sweetest girl ever to live.  Diminutive, caring, soft-spoken and loving, Norma* loved school, loved and was loved by her classmates, and loved and was loved by me.  She was forever doing sweet little helpful things, cleaning up the library, straightening up the Band-Aid box, picking trash up of the floor.

One day, in the middle of teaching, I looked over and saw her very carefully working to untangle the rainbow column.  With scissors.  I couldn’t stop from a kind of gurgled yell of her name and something akin to “What are you doing?”  She looked up at me and in a few nano-seconds, went from looking pleased to be helping me to mortified that she did something wrong.  I did my very best to swallow my emotions, knowing that any tear I shed right then would be a dagger in her eight year-old heart.  I breathed deeply and reassured her that I knew she was trying to help, and kept repeating that as I took the ruined column to my desk, blinking hard to stay in control of my emotions.

I tell this story because it is an obvious case of what may be the most key realization for a teacher to have.  I was lucky that Norma’s transparent expression counter-balanced my sense of loss with the crystal-clear understanding that my feelings were about my loss, and not at all about her intentions.

Throughout the school day and year, especially in less obvious situations, one of the most important things to keep in mind as a teacher, or even as a parent, is the gap between how a student makes you feel and what the student intended.  Your student’s hurtful, mean, disrespectful, disruptive behavior?  It’s not about you.

Teachers, as the representation of Adult Authority in the classroom or office, often bear the brunt of a student’s complex emotional responses to authority, school, parents, learning, their feelings as a student, their feelings as a peer of other students, yet we have little or no training on interpreting their behavior as a form of communication.  Therefore, we are apt to take everything a child does personally.  We feel fully human with our own internal lives, but, if you remember way back to your own childhood, you know that children simply don’t see teachers that way.  Think of how Calvin, of Calvin and Hobbes, feels about his teacher, Mrs. Wormwood.calvin and hobbes teacher

Love us or hate us, how they treat us is not actually about us.

I had a colleague at a school once who came into the teacher’s lounge fuming.  She threw herself into a chair in frustration and said, “That Frank*, he just tried to make me look like an idiot in class!”

For a little context, Frank was a sweet but awkward, well-meaning fourth grader with mild Asperger’s.

“After I told the kids a story, I was talking about what it meant, and he butted in and said he had heard the same story, but it meant something different.  He was trying one-up me, to challenge my authority, to make me look stupid.  I thought we had a good relationship, but now I think he hates me.”

This teacher had let her strong feelings completely overwhelm her.  Rather than looking to see what Frank’s actions might mean to him, she conflated her feelings with how he intended to make her feel.  She ended up punishing Frank with harsh words and a call home for something he had no idea he had even done.

Now, I knew Frank and knew that he 1) loved this teacher, 2) wanted her to like him, and 3) equated her liking him with her being impressed by his knowledge in her subject.  Far from trying to embarrass her, he was trying to impress her and make her like him more.  The fact that he used showing off as a way to gain approval and friends was a good insight into why he annoyed so many of his peers, and perhaps a window into his life at home, but it certainly had nothing to do with his teacher.

So for your sake, and the sake of your students, when you find that kid, the one who gets under your skin or drives you nuts, take a deep breath and look at what your reactions can teach you about yourself and about the child, but for goodness sakes, remember that it isn’t about you.

*student names have been changed for anonymity

Games: Soothing the Amygdala

“Games give you a chance to excel, and if you’re playing in good company you don’t even mind if you lose because you had the enjoyment of the company during the course of the game.”
― Gary Gygax

Sometimes I feel really sorry for my students.  These poor kiddos are struggling in school, or their parents wouldn’t bring them to me.  Whether they have a learning disability or ADHD or an Autism Spectrum Disorder, they come home from school intellectually and emotionally spent.  Whew!  Survived another day.  Then their parent tells them to get in the car so they can go…back to learn all the stuff that is so hard for them during the day.  Uh…what?  No wonder some of them come in glassy-eyed, or at the least anxiously looking around to assess how school-like my office seems.

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To Reward or Not to Reward

What harm could it do?

What harm could it do?

To reward or not to reward, that is the question.  At some point, all teachers, parents, educational therapists, and, well, pretty much anyone who works with kids, find themselves in a place where they are tempted to trade a bag of M&Ms, some sparkly pencils or a pizza party for compliance.  It’s just a small _____, what harm could it do?

To answer that question, we need to look at the two types of motivation a person can have: internal and external.  Internal motivation is what we feel when we want to do an activity, or to have done an activity, for its own sake or for the affect it brings us. In either case, the motivation comes from within.

External motivation, in contrast, is what we feel when someone else is furnishing our motivation, either through reward or punishment.  A kid quieting in a grocery store for the promise of a chocolate bar, a student working hard to earn ten dollars for an A, a class completing its work to get stickers, all are examples of external motivation.

We can all agree that our ideal is for every child to grow up to be internally motivated, right?  Phrases like, “lifelong” and “independent” learner mean just that: we want to raise kids who love to work hard.

Here’s the thing: offering external motivation for a task does not produce internal motivation.  In fact, it destroys it.

Rewards to Motivate?

Rewards to Motivate?

In a classic study on motivation done in 1973, two groups of preschool children were asked to draw some pictures.  One group was simply asked to draw; the other group was told that if they completed X number of pictures, they could earn a reward.  Both groups drew fine.  But here is where it gets interesting: researchers left both groups alone and observed their behavior.  The non-reward group went back to drawing, as it is an intrinsically motivating (read: fun) activity.  The reward group?  Wouldn’t touch the drawing stuff.  Why should they?  They wouldn’t get anything for it, right?  In short, giving a reward made an intrinsically rewarding activity into a chore.

Another problem with using rewards to motivate students, or even adults, is that eroding internal motivation sets up the need for a never-ending system of increasing rewards.  Employee of the Month isn’t good enough.  We want to be recognized for Employee of the Day.

Both in the classroom and in one-on-one work, I have students who ask me what they will get if they win a given game.  I always tell them, “The satisfaction of having beaten your teacher.”  They usually role their eyes, but they never refuse to play.  Why?  It’s fun.  You know why?  Nothing motivates like success.  In fact, successful problem solving releases dopamine, the reward neurotransmitter, in a student’s brain.

Internal Motivation: All You Need

Internal Motivation: All You Need

I have one student in particular who, when learning a new concept, tries to avoid the work like the plague.  Her anxiety over failure makes her want to play it safe.  The moment she has  the new concept, she practically yells at me to let her do it herself, followed by requests for more and more of the same type of problem, often to the point of arguing with me that she needs more homework sheets to take home and do independently.

This is the behavior we all wish for all our students.  You want me to give you more work and more practice?  Heck yeah!  And this amazing situation arises without any external reward at all.  My student doesn’t need it; she’s got all the internal motivation she needs.

Dissolving Writer’s Block

Some kids love nothing more than being told they are allowed to write about absolutely anything they want to for an assignment.  Freedom!  Choice!  Stories of slumber parties on deserted islands and basketball games won in the last seconds flow from young pens.

What do you mean, what do I want to write about?

What do you mean, what do I want to write about?

But for a few students, choice means stark terror.  The blank page, the blank mind.  What do you mean I have to think of something to write about?

One fourth-grade student came to my private practice because, despite being a voracious reader, an amazing speller and an impeccable grammarian, he froze anytime he was asked to write.  The more open ended the assignment, the deeper the freeze.  We spent an entire session early on in our work together with me vacillating between cajoling, encouraging and being tough, and him emitting an almost continuous, monotone Uhhhhhhhh…for forty-five minutes straight.  Stark terror.  Mental deep-freeze.

Luckily, after talking with his parents, reflecting on my interaction with him and poking about the internet, I realized he was not being surly, stubborn or defiant; he was frozen with anxiety, the anxiety of facing an open-ended assignment: the threatening question, “What do you want to write about?”

There are many reasons why that seemingly innocuous question might be difficult for a student, from not understanding what makes a good story, to expressive language difficulties, to rigid thinking from an Autism Spectrum Disorder or another disorder, to just being too tired to think of anything interesting.

The approach that I have found the most useful for getting stuck kids going on their writing is a series of forced-choice questions: Do you want to write something real or fictional?  Funny, scary, realistic or fantasy (or if the answer was something real, I replace the last two questions with embarrassing or awesome)?  Is the main character a boy or a girl?  Human or animal?  Kid, teenager or adult?  In school, at home or somewhere else?  What problem are they facing?  Is it with their parents, their friends, themselves or nature?

I have never had a student not be able to answer these questions, and answer them almost immediately, to boot.  So, what is going on?  You as the teacher are scaffolding the decision-making process for the student.  Suddenly, instead of trying to think of all the possible stories in the whole wide world, the student just has to make one decision at a time.  Whew!  Anxiety goes down, processing goes up.  Further, the questions create images in the student’s head, so that slowly a whole story begins to emerge in their imagination.

Notice also that you are helping them choose all the main elements of a story: character, setting, plot (problem); you’re simply making each one easier by narrowing it down to two or three choices.  As an added bonus, you can weave in any other literary choices you have been working on, “First person or third person?  Past tense or present tense?”

Like all good scaffolding, you will want to slowly pull it away.  The next time your student needs to choose a topic, you may ask him or her to remember what questions you asked the last time.  The two of you can make a graphic organizer with the questions on it.  Eventually, once the choices are internalized, then the more common graphic organizers with a box each for setting, character and problem should be enough.

Ideas Flowing

Ideas Flowing

So the next time you ask a student “What do you want to write,” and they become a deer in the headlights instead of an excited, empowered author, try guiding your their decision-making with a series of forced-choice answers.  Your student’s nervous system, and yours, will thank you.