Friday, November 12, 2010

Who's Benefitting from the Use of Gimmicks, Really?

I spent the day discussing curriculum with a group of administrators and TNT Teammates from several school districts.  For part of the morning, our discussions revolved around best practices, engaging activities, and effective strategies being implemented in our schools with regard to language arts literacy instruction.  Some of our TNT Teammates brought up examples of what they termed "gimmicks" used to motivate their friends to write well or improve their writing.  Listen to the gimmick Miss Suzy uses:
Miss Suzy has a poster with a space for each friend to earn 5 stars (one star for each writing piece they work on over a period of time).  A friend can earn a star when s/he scores well on the writing rubric (a score of 4 or 5 on a 5-point scale) - in other words, the friends produced an effective piece of writing.
Picture in your mind, the poster is up on the wall ... Miss Suzy has placed stars  by the names of the friends who scored 4s and 5s ... it is visually evident which friends need to improve their writing in order to earn a star ... Miss Suzy is thinking, "Now those starless friends are motivated to improve their writing! I know they want that star!" ... and our starless friends are thinking a variety of things - I want a star, too ... I don't think I am a good writer ... I don't care if I don't have a star ... what can I do to get a star - if only we could be in their heads (I digress - back to Miss Suzy).
With this visual reminder in front of her, Miss Suzy confers with the friends who did not score a 4 or 5, makes a suggestion or two for revising, and sends the friends off to make their improvements.  When those friends have improved their writing to a level that would earn a 4 or 5, a star goes up on the poster. They wanted that star so badly that they were motivated to improve their writing.  Hooray! The motivation technique worked for our friends!
Or did it?  Is anyone else thinking what I am thinking right now?  For whom did this star poster "gimmick" work?  Was it really motivating?  Here is how I see it: the poster wasn't motivating at all to our friends.  Rather, the poster was motivating for Miss Suzy.  The poster gave Miss Suzy the visual motivator she needed to narrow her focus and determine specifically which friends still needed some feedback and guidance to improve their writing.  The poster held Miss Suzy accountable to meeting the needs of her friends.

Miss Suzy's friends improved their writing not because they wanted a star on the poster (although they very well might have).  I believe Miss Suzy's friends improved their writing because of direct feedback from their TN Teacher, Miss Suzy. 

The power in helping children grow as writers lies in our hands, minds, and mouths, folks.  We cannot be satisfied and ready to move on with the knowledge that these friends "earned stars" and these friends did not. Once we know who "earned" stars who didn't, the most important part of our job begins.  Conferring with our friends who still need their "stars" is critical.

So, kudos, Miss Suzy for putting that poster up in your room! Not because it was "gimmick" that motivated your students, but because it was a "gimmick" that motivated you.

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