Yesterday’s letter from Paul, a former high school teacher who defended the use of junk food classroom rewards, received an overwhelming response. And, as you might expect given this self-selecting readership, most Lunch Tray readers didn’t take too kindly to Paul’s position.
I thought it would be worthwhile to highlight just two or three of the most compelling comments on the post and I also wanted to add a few thoughts of my own.
My Thanks To Paul
First, I want to thank Paul for letting me share his letter with my readers. As I said in a private email to him yesterday, I hope he doesn’t feel like I threw him to the wolves! 🙂 I appreciated the thoughtfulness of his first letter and his follow-up comment yesterday; usually the defenders of junk food rewards just call me a Food Nazi or a weak-willed parent who can’t tell my children “no,” but clearly Paul has given thought to the issue and is trying to see both sides. And I think we all can tell that when he was a teacher, he genuinely cared for his students and was trying to do right by them.
Furthermore, I’m a proud and committed public school parent in a state that now ranks second to last in the nation for per-student spending. (Thanks, Rick Perry!) So I’ve seen it all, from middle schoolers sitting on the floor for several weeks because there weren’t enough teachers to go around, to a tiny “temporary building” (if a building has been around for years and will be around for years hence, how is it “temporary?”) crammed with a teacher, 27 desks and 27 large fifth-grade bodies. I have nothing but sympathy and respect for public school teachers, particularly those working in lower income populations as Paul did. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, I suspect that many of us, after teaching for about a week in such conditions, might find our minds drifting toward the Hershey’s Kisses as a surefire means of keeping order and motivation in the classroom. So let’s not be too quick to judge, unless we’ve walked in a teacher’s shoes (as some of you have.)
(By the way, another teacher, Emily, also came by to endorse candy rewards. See here.)
Blogger, Heal Thyself
As you know, I’m the parent of two kids, now 10 and 12. And you can well believe that in twelve years of parenting, I’ve certainly made my share of mistakes when it comes to misusing food. Does anyone remember how, on the advice of my then-four-year-old daughter (really), I started giving my toddler son candy to get him to sit still while I cut his nails, and this routine persisted for years on end? Yeah, not good. I’m sure there were many instances when I handed my toddlers a snack (healthy, we hope) from my diaper bag or purse just to keep them occupied. And even now — even now, people! — I sometimes find myself holding out food as a reward in less obvious ways, like reminding a distraught kid on a particularly bad day that we’ll be having his/her favorite dinner that night, or letting the “winner “of a game or challenge be the one to choose our dessert on Friday night.
Food has a profound hold on all of us, an allure that’s hardwired into our brains to ensure our very survival. So it’s no wonder that even the most self-examined among us might turn to food as a reward, a comfort, a distraction or for other reasons having nothing to do with nourishment.
OK, now, let’s turn to the comments.
Why ANY Classroom Rewards, Food or Otherwise?
One issue that came up repeatedly in the comments, and which I alluded to in my Food in the Classroom Manifesto, is whether we ought to be providing extrinsic rewards of any type – food or otherwise — for academic or behavioral achievement. One representative comment came from reader Mommm!!!! who wrote:
I disagree with rewarding kids for doing what their supposed to be doing anyway. How did we even arrive here? Why do we feel the need to reward children for behaving properly and for doing their homework/classwork? I think kids have been doing it for decades upon decades in classrooms worldwide without being in a donkey carrot dangling type atmosphere.
This is a question beyond the purview of this blog, but my gut feeling is that extrinsic rewards can actually undermine a child’s motivation. I’ve seen this in my own home when I resorted in desperation to a sticker chart or similar system to reinforce a desired behavior. Inevitably, my kids soon developed a dismaying, “So, what’s in it for me?” attitude toward any future task they were expected to perform. I know others have had real success with such systems, and I’m certainly no education expert, but I can only share my own negative experience with extrinsic rewards.
Alternatives to Food Rewards
Assuming you buy into the idea of rewards, many readers shared creative ideas for non-food options. Paul rightly pointed out that the sparkly eraser isn’t going to get a bunch of high schoolers excited and he doesn’t like the idea of homework passes for philosophical reasons. He wrote:
Older kids are not as excitable when it comes to trinkets. Also, the high school curriculum isn’t as conducive to giving free time as a reward. Some of my coworkers would use homework passes or bonus points as a reward. Personally, I think (especially at the high school level) that a student’s grade should reflect their knowledge of the subject, and not their behavior.
For older children, get a little creative. . . . . Give them a pass to eat lunch in the teacher’s lounge with a friend. Let them choose an assignment where they get a one-day extension on the deadline. Create a “class bucks” program where they earn points towards being able to cash them in for a movie day, or for a trinket from the school bookstore. Because, frankly, in the adult world your rewards are generally tied to the environment — if you do well at work, you are rewarded with a raise, or a promotion, or more flexibility. It’s a reward that suits the tasks by which it was earned. Motivate your students to do well academically by making their life at school tangibly better in some way.
A Heartwarming Story of a Unique, Non-Food Reward
Finally, I wanted to direct you a comment left by reader Mara Panazarella Winders, in which she excerpts an interview with film director Wes Anderson. I promise you it’s worth taking a second to read it. I don’t expect an overburdened public school teacher to be able to devote that kind of time and attention to all of his/her students, but it’s a remarkable example of one teacher showing unusual creativity and sensitivity in motivating a child.
Thank you to all who commented and continue to comment on yesterday’s post. This is a conversation I know we’ll continue to have and I appreciate everyone’s insights.
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