The Rewards of Learning

I arrived at school Tuesday morning early — well before my 7:50am required arrival time — and the parking lot was already full. Like me, the rest of the staff wanted a jump on the day. They were scurrying around their rooms putting on finishing touches, in the teachers’ lounge making copies, and stationed in the gym to receive any new students planning to register on the first day of school.

Our rosters had been set since the previous week, and teachers had been charged with creating seating charts that would allow for easy Covid tracking should a positive case be identified. I was in my room numbering my desks to correspond with my chart.

The halls were quiet. Unlike other schools where I have taught, this school holds all students in the gym until a bell releases them to their classrooms. Then, students start walking down the hallways, searching for their rooms, while teachers stand positioned at their doorways, greeting students one by one, and allowing them to enter.

It’s all intentional — a way to bring order. A way to establish rhythms. People who have experienced trauma do better when they know what to expect. Routine is very important to the way we do everything in our school.

Once the second bell rings, and all students are in my classroom. I give them a direction to follow — grab a pencil and follow the directions on the screen, for example — while I take attendance. As I begin to mark attendance, I look up and note those who are following my directions, “Jamar is writing his name on his paper. Devon is reading the directions on the screen.” This affirms those who are following through and reminds those who are unclear on the directions of what they are supposed to be doing. When I have finished taking attendance, I walk around the room, confirming that all students are completed, and I give them a class point saying, “One hundred percent of you grabbed a pencil and followed the directions on the screen — that’s a class point.”

On the first day of class, one senior said, “Why are we still getting class points? We are seniors! This is stupid.”

“I’m glad you asked,” I said. “For some of you, the class points may seem stupid. I get it. However, I just want to acknowledge that we have all just been through a lot. For the past 18 months, we’ve been at home, sitting in our beds, logging in to Zoom rooms, or not,”

Some chuckles can be heard around the room.

“…some of you may feel a little uncomfortable being here today,” I continued, “because Covid is still real, and we are sitting fairly close to each other, and there are going to be, when everyone is here, twenty-eight bodies in this class,”

Groans and grumblings replace the chuckles.

“…so even though the points seem dumb, I want to in some way acknowledge that you are here — that you showed up — that you are choosing to opt in to this school year. So, I’m going to give class points. Roll your eyes if you must, but the class with the most points each week will get some kind of prize on Wednesday. It might be a piece of candy, some small prize, listening to music while you work on your assignment, or something else that you all choose. It might be stupid, but that’s what we’re going to do.”

I looked around the room and saw a few blank stares and a few heads nodding. I hadn’t planned it, but I ended up giving the same speech almost every block that day. Before the end of the week, students were watching the tally on the board, telling me, “Shouldn’t we have gotten a class point for that?” and finally, the last hour on Friday, “Hey, don’t give our point to first block! We’re sixth block!”

I think they are on board with the stupid class points.

In fact, they seem to be on board with most everything we are doing. We have had 100% engagement in every activity, every go-around, every assignment. When I told them to write on a sticky note a way in which they committed to respecting others in the class and to stand up and stick it somewhere on the walls of our classroom, they did. When I said to write for five minutes in their journal about the communities they belong to, they did. When I had them complete an online grammar and writing diagnostic which took them close to half an hour, they did it, and, rather than grumbling about how stupid it was, they confessed their feelings of inadequacy and their need to develop their skills.

When I heard their insecurities, I felt compassion.

“Guys, let’s not be too hard on ourselves here. This is just a diagnostic — a tool to tell us where we are. Remember, we have been away from each other for a year and a half! We have not been focusing on grammar and writing. This diagnostic is going to tell us where we need to start so that we can build these skills.”

I was impressed with their ability to honestly look at their scores and to identify the areas where they were proficient and the areas where they were struggling. They verbalized it, too. “I need to work on verb tenses.” or “I need to practice building compound sentences.”

As they finished the diagnostic, I walked around the room, handing out little white raffle tickets I picked up at Office Depot. Every time they complete an assignment, they receive a “Rathje Ticket”. Once a week, I will open the Rathje Store and they can use their tickets to purchase items that I have been stockpiling. One ticket will get them a pen, a lanyard, a trial-sized bottle of hand sanitizer, or a travel pack of tissue. Three tickets can get them a fabric mask, a small bottle of lotion, a snack bar, or a box of tic tacs. Five tickets might get them a collapsible water bottle, a college t-shirt, a pair of sunglasses, or a flash drive. The prizes will vary because most of this loot has been donated or scavenged from somewhere. I don’t have an unlimited budget for such inventory, but I do have a lot of great friends.

The students have been stacking up tickets all week — they’ve gotten tickets for completing assignments, for downloading apps, for logging into websites — and they are trying to find ways of keeping them until the store opens.

“Mrs. Rathje, do you have something for me to keep my tickets in? I don’t want to lose them.”

And they are looking forward to the store opening.

“Mrs. Rathje, I have five tickets. Can I buy something from the store?”

You might be wondering if this is a waste of time, money, and resources. Shouldn’t high school seniors just be able to do whatever you tell them to do? Isn’t the learning reward enough for the hard work they put in?

Your experience might lead you to think so. You might’ve been able to show up to school every day, follow directions, do all your assignments, and be successful without really thinking about it. Your experience, however, may not be the same as the experience my students are having.

I don’t know all of their stories yet, but I do know that during this first week of school, the highest attendance I had in any class was 65%. I know that many students don’t have the resources for school supplies, lunch, or clothing that they want to be seen in. I know that all of these kids have just been made to learn from home for a year and a half. I know they are unfamiliar with being at the school by 8am, with following a bell schedule, with sitting at a desk, with putting a pencil to paper. I know that just showing up each day is, right now, a very heavy lift.

So until it’s not, every kid who does the work of showing up is going to get something tangible — a point on the board, a ticket in her hand — for doing so. I am going to do my best to stay stocked on prizes that are appealing and to stay prepared with activities that are meaningful, relevant, and engaging.

“Everything we do in this classroom,” I tell my students every day, “is to prepare you for whatever you have planned next. I will do my best to prepare and show up for you. I am expecting you to show up and get all that you can so that you will be ready.”

This is not going to be an easy year. We’ve got a lot of work to do under difficult circumstances — making up for missed instructional time, wearing masks, avoiding Covid infections, and having limited resources. My students and I are going to need to celebrate each tiny step along the way.

I don’t know, maybe they will learn enough this year that the learning itself will be a reward, but until we get there, we’re going to need some cheering along the way.

So, wherever you are, start cheering, because we’re making a comeback, baby. Just watch us and see!

Encourage one another and build one another up.

1 Thessalonians 5:11

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