On Saturday morning I found myself in a classroom at a local charter school (grades 5-8), and the motivational sign on the classroom wall contained the following quote:
Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle: when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.
—first published by Dan Montano in 1985 in The Economist
My admittedly limited experience with charter schools suggests that fear of students falling behind (or remaining behind) is often a significant motivating factor, and often this fear is passed on to the students as the negative consequence of not working hard enough.
In my experience, students have plenty of fear. When I taught in a charter school, I found that students were afraid to the point of paralysis when confronted with something that they hadn’t been taught an explicit strategy for. My “regular” public school students are a little more willing to go out on a limb, but they still shut down quickly when they reach the edge of their comfort zone.
This is one of the first problems I confront at the beginning of the year. There needs to be a path to success for every student, and every student needs to see that path and needs to believe that he/she can follow the path and be successful. The path needs enough challenge to feel like a genuine accomplishment, but students who stray from or fall off the path need to be picked up, returned to the path, and gently re-started along it.
I use several strategies to make this work. Late homework is worth 80%. Students can take re-tests for a grade of up to 90%. (They keep the better grade.) Any legitimate-sounding request for extra time or postponement of a test or assignment (if requested in advance) is granted. The majority of my students end up with grades in the A or B range. Very few fail, and most of the time 100% of the students pass the course by the end of the year.
Quite a few teachers have criticized my approach, and I understand their criticisms. Most teachers use grades as a judgment of their students’ skills at the end of a unit, semester, or academic year. I use grades as a motivator; by making it possible for just about any student to work his/her way up to an “A”, many of them put in the effort to do so. While I won’t claim that my approach is the “right” one (or even that it’s better than anyone else’s), I have found that students continue to put in effort in my classes, even when they won’t for any of their other teachers. Over the course of the year, I can get them to higher levels of thinking than most of them ever thought possible. Despite the ease with which they are able to earn high grades, many of my students come back and tell me that my class prepared them for college better than most of their other classes.
Whether you are a lion or a gazelle, you will thrive much more if you don’t have to spend every minute running in fear for your life.