Incentivising Education

It was our weekly English department meeting. The morale in our school was not so great so the principal attended our meeting and began with a talk about teamwork.
A few days prior to this my journalism class was discussing what to include in the next issue of the school newspaper.
“How about we talk about the Science bribes?” our editor-in-chief said.
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
She proceeded to tell me that students were brought to the auditorium during their Science classes and were given basically a pyramid of prizes for doing their best on the state Science test. This was the year the Florida Science Tests were going to count towards our school grade, but had no consequence for the students. What would be their motivation to do well?
The students showed me a copy of the Science prizes. If you scored 10% over last year’s score you would receive free prom tickets, 20% over a free yearbook and prom tickets, etc…
I was the yearbook sponsor and was never told about this.
So, during the department meeting, after the inspiring speech about teamwork when the principal asked if we had any thoughts I asked the department if they knew about the prizes for the Science tests. They did not.
Here we (and the Math department) had been responsible for the school grade almost entirely at this point, responsible for getting the bonus money that was distributed to all teachers and employees. Now, Science was instituting an incentive package for our students.
“Well,” our principal said, “this is what the Science department came up with. If the English department wants to create something similar I am all ears.”
Immediately, and much to my dismay, colleagues started talking about what we could offer to raise their motivation—extra credit, semester exam grades, special parties.
“No, no, no. We’re missing the point here. Do we really want to give I-pods to students who score the best?”
“Ooooh..I-pods, write that down.”
The bell rang and it was time to go to class, but soon after the emails started—“we could offer…., or we could give…”
I was beyond disheartened.

And this problem had not gone away. It has only gotten worse.
In my opinion, this is why these incentives are wrong…
1. In MANY standardized tests, the tests are poorly designed or scored. In other words we don’t believe for the most part that they measure real learning. See my report on the FCAT Writing scores and you will know this is true. I worked at a school that gave pizza parties to kids who scored a 6 on their writing. Two of those 14 papers were almost incomprehensible. But guess what? We didn’t see those papers until October of the following year, long after those two students enjoyed the incentives and worse—mistakenly considered themselves accomplished.
2. Our incentives are targeted primarily for improving on standardized tests. Why don’t we offer incentives for every achievement in the classroom? Why? Because the high stake tests affects school grades which affect US. And because we would never be able to afford incentives for everything they do in class. So even though we most often BELIEVE and REINFORCE to our students that these tests are only ONE measurement of their ability, and we tout in public how much we disapprove of these tests, we put huge emphasis on it. We are making it high stakes, too. It’s a bit hypocritical.
Instead of putting our efforts toward screaming about the tests –for instance a Science test that counts against us but has no bearing on a student so why would they care about taking it—we teach them how to play the game. Their scores come in great so what’s the problem some will say. Meanwhile, other schools don’t offer these incentives, kids don’t take the test or don’t take it seriously and we see that school’s low scores and shake our heads disapprovingly.
3. What are we teaching our kids? The most common argument I hear—even from my Area Superintendent at the time—is that this is the way our world works now. “In the real world employees are given incentives to reach a goal; this is not much different.”
But it is.
First of all, this quote was told to me in 2008 before we dipped into major recession. Do you think jobs today are offering incredible incentives? Having a job is the incentive. Just like in school, having an education to get a job, should be the incentive.
Ask teachers if they think students today feel more “entitled” than ever before and I think you will find they would most likely say yes. Do we have any shared blame in that? Even extra credit (for another post another day) is abused for this purpose.
Education’s goal is to make the world a BETTER place. We are here to help our students prepare for that outside world. Do we really believe that every task they face that will be difficult will come with extrinsic incentives?
Or do we want to instill in our students that education is the reward? For teachers, this is a much harder goal to reach, but when kids believe it, isn’t that the intrinsic value we find most rewarding?

Would love to know what you think. I feel I am in the minority here.


FCAT Writing Scores Explained

So with all the media attention surrounding last month’s emergency DOE session to lower the passing rate on the Florida FCAT writing test, it was time to sit down and really explain what it is that is so bothersome with this writing test. This video is long and detailed but you can see why scores come back the way they do–you can get a better understanding of why teachers don’t like them, and hopefully you can see how high stakes testing can change things for the worse.

Let me know what you think.




What they lack the most–Listening and Speaking

I am now entering my third week back in the classroom after having been out for three years.

Not a whole lot has changed.  Still have the same kind of kids and the same kind of issues.

But the one thing I am noticing is that my students’ listening and speaking skills are actually worse than their reading and writing skills. Maybe I just wasn’t as aware of this before but I can see there is a lot of work to be done in that area. It is taking our time away from the reading and writing.

I think we might confuse behaving with listening –definitely not the same. And as I like to have lots of sharing and discussions, I can clearly see that very few people are actually listening and taking in what others say. They are mostly waiting for their moment to talk, rather than respond.

I have been trying out some new techniques–I give a large index card each day (they keep the same one all week)–and throughout the class period I ask them to write certain things on them. I collect as they walk out. Then I can check off who is actively listening. I also use the cards as an informal assessment. At the end of class I ask them to write something on the card about what we have learned.

I will be trying out some new methods and will share those next week. In the meantime, I would love to hear what techniques you have for getting students to listen to one another and respond appropriately. Please share your ideas by commenting below or email me so I can include them in the newsletter next week.

Have a great week.



Black History Month and the Achievement Gap

Beautiful book.

As I am sure you are aware, February marks the start of Black History Month.  Students across the country will learn about Rosa Parks, read Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have A Dream speech, and will organize local celebrations. I hope I do not come across as cynical, but much like last week’s celebration of “Literacy Week” in Florida, it seems a no-brainer that this is something that should be a part of our everyday classroom environment.

Despite the perceived success of our nation’s students via standardized testing, one key demographic is not keeping pace–minorities, primarily Hispanic and black males. This Achievement Gap has garnered plenty of national attention but we must look at this “gap” beyond the standardized test scores.

There is much more that must be done beyond the classroom walls to fix the problem. Poverty and prejudice might be beyond our direct control, but they are not beyond our teaching. One month to celebrate the contributions and the history of a huge portion of our students seems barely enough.

One of the initiatives of the nonprofit, The English Teacher’s Friend, is to implement a new program called NAS (Not A Statistic) intended to focus on black males for reasons beyond the Achievement Gap, including educating students and teachers about the startling statistics of highly disproportional incarceration rates, as well as a focus on local black history that is often glossed over in our curriculum and communities.

Florida statute 1003.42 Requires instruction in “the history of African Americans, including the history of African peoples before the political conflicts that led to the development of slavery, the passage to America, the enslavement experience, abolition, and the contributions of African Americans to society.”

Although we likely cover enough black history to meet the requirement in our history classes and during Black History Month, we are certainly not designating many courses of study for students to truly immerse in their own history.

I was born, raised, and taught school in Brevard County, Florida. Our County complex is called the Harry Moore Center. But it wasn’t until several years ago, on my own searching, that I found out who Harry Moore was. Harry and his wife Harriette were civil rights activists-he a member and organizer for the NAACP. They were responsible for huge increases in African American voter registration across Central Florida and both were honored educators who were fired for their political activity. They made a huge impact in the Civil Rights movement before it became an official movement. Harry investigated every publicized lynching in Florida and was likely murdered because of once such investigation–the Groveland Massacre.

Harry and Harriette Moore were killed on Christmas Day, 1951. A bomb was placed under the floors of their home directly under their bed. Harry died on the way to the hospital and Harriette died nine days later.

Since I learned about the Moore’s I have been curious to know how many students  and adults are aware of their story. I have been asking my new classes which consist of mostly minority students, if they know who Harry Moore is? I often ask adults, too. I am rarely met with someone familiar with this local connection to our National history. We live 30 miles from where the Moore’s house once stood.

This prompted me to research more Florida history in relation to African Americans and there are so many stories that our students do not know-that I did not know. This is what I love about being an educator-the constant learning and discovering. If you don’t take advantage of getting paid to learn, to discover with your students, you are missing a valuable enrichment for your life, a nice fringe benefit.

Our NAS program is designed to work with the students to discover, uncover, and enrich their understanding of the local history. Through this relevant curriculum and targeted demographics we hope to engage students with more relevant curriculum. Out of the 10-15 admitted to the program, we hope for a minimum of 3-4 to become leaders and organizers of a group to continue to share these stories and statistics through workshops and presentations at schools, conferences, and in the community.

Please follow the blog as we detail the making of this program. Through the combined efforts of students and teachers working together for a common goal, we hope to create a program that can be replicated throughout the state, and maybe elsewhere in the country.

In the meantime, I will be sharing what I can with the students I have in class right now. I will start with a checklist to see where their background knowledge stands. Visit these sites for more materials you can work into Black History month and hopefully March – January too.

Read more about Harry and Harriette Moore.

Separate is Not Equal: Brown Vs. Board: This site includes lots of resources and lessons to teach an entire unit on the inequality of education. This is a key topic to address at a time when many students find education a burden.

History.Com list of resourcesfor Black History Month.

Another interesting read: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness


The First Step: Fall in love with Language

My first week back in the classroom was a blast. Although exhausted, I am also rejuvenated. More than I ever I see the need for what we do at The English Teacher’s Friend.  During my first 4 days of teaching I attended (or presented) 5 meetings. Most meetings, as you all know, are a bit of a time waster. The intentions are always good but when one is constantly in meetings, there is no time to implement the things you discuss in the meeting.

I continuously hear this complaint from teachers–never enough time.

In these meetings we talk about how to improve student learning–how to show better scores on the next assessment (which also takes time away from teaching).

What I don’t understand is how we –and I say WE as in the greater WE in the US–cannot see the most obvious. Students have to be engaged. Who thinks these struggling students are truly interested in the strategies we teach them? Langauge Arts is just that–the art of language. We have to start with letting THEM discover the art of language. How?

Share poetry every day–without analysis, without picking apart the pieces, just sharing and letting it sink in.  Today I will share this poem with my students and when it is over I will give them a prompt: digital living –go. I will write with them in a student seat, not at my desk.  We won’t grade it. We will share. We will highlight words or lines that resonate. Then move on. Spoken Word poetry is incredibly powerful with students (and adults) and provides that “in” to the world of language. Don’t devalue the time spent on it. 


Read excerpts of books about real events they haven’t known about. Build their background knowledge without KWL charts or pre-assessed quizzes. Share your passion for reading. Offer a page for them to check out your books.


Give examples often of how language is a living thing, always evolving (some would say devolving) The popular words kids would know–like those in the new today . Occupy used to mean “the naughty”–as in to “occupy a woman.” These interesting facts on The Hot Word on Talk about how words and cliches derived their meaning.


Ask them what they want to learn about. Make a list. Find material that relates. Have them bring in articles of interest. We have that luxury in our classes that other subject areas do not. We can pull the content we want. Ours is skills based–primarily. So use that to your advantage by asking them what they want to know.


Provide writing prompts that are truly prompts–a little something to get them thinking, get them started, but then allow for them to express their own topic. Don’t grade everything they write. Give them more opportunity for brainstorming and revision.  When students listen, have them share words or phrases that stand out, words they connect with.


Too often we say we don’t have time for these things–to share poetry everyday, write open prompts everyday. I understand. Coming into this class at semester time and trying to get them ready for the “big test” in jsut a few months is daunting and I have wondered if I am doing these kids a disservice by not focusing solely on the testing-style questions.

I guess you have to ask yourself some things about that. First, they have been doing the testing cycle for a decade now. Has it worked? How many times have they  not passed? How far behind are they?

It is easier to justify these more creative and student-driven decisions when the other option hasn’t really been working. Some say we cannot afford the time to try it. I say the student cannot afford for us not to.

Students love quotes and I admit I do too. Fortune Cookie papers line my desk. This one is taped to my computer monitor: Your Present Plans Are Going To Succeed.

But this is the quote I think of the most when I think about my teaching philosophy:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

How do you get kids to LONG for language?


Back to class…

Teaching is a continual learning process. If you aren’t learning you aren’t teaching. 

I head back into the classroom today after being out of it for the past three years. Last year I was a writing coach part time at this school so I guess that counts for something, but this is a full time teaching gig. Over the break this same school lost a teacher who had all 10th grade students–students who have yet to pass our state test. With The English Teacher’s Friend taking about 60 hours a week, I really am going to have to walk the walk of all my talk about efficiency, more so than I practiced years ago.

But I’m excited. And ready.

It is 4:30 am and I barely slept last night in anxious anticipation of my first day of school. Remember that feeling we all get at the start of the year? The possibilities that lie ahead. The changes you will make. The influences you will have. By now many of you have probably gone way past that feeling and have moved into survival mode. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could harness that first-day-of-school feeling?

As I work with these students I will share my experiences on this blog.  The administration at this school is extremely supportive and they are aware and understand my role with The English Teacher’s Friend. I will still be visiting schools I have contracted with. I will still be working dilligently to help teachers across the country and I am more determined than ever to make this nonprofit a positive change agent.

Over the break I was able to hire a half dozen teachers / former teachers who want to be involved. The dedicated board members are actively assisting as well.  I hope you follow us and share with us.

I am so disheartened as I hear teachers all across the country say they are throwing in the towel. When you dread waking up and going to work, things have to change. Despite all the nonsense surrouding educaton today, this profession is too important and the kids matter too much for us to not be proactive for change.

Wish me luck.  🙂

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