Abolishing Carrots and Sticks: Visually Recognizing Effort

One of the reasons I love teaching is being able to visibly see my evolution of thought in my teaching philosophies, classroom strategies and discourse. Alfie Kohn, educational critic, consultant, mover-shaker, author of dozens of published works, has challenged and influenced my belief systems about traditional “classroom management” or discipline.

Derived from Latin, disciplina  means “instruction given, teaching, learning, knowledge.” I prefer this construct as opposed to the more recently and commonly adopted form of discipline which encompasses various forms of training and coercion to follow a set of prescribed rules.

I never fully subscribed to the Positive Behavior Support systems that are in place in many of our schools. What do they teach our children? Do this and get that. If they are respectful, they get a sticker. If they work hard, they get a toy. What is this teaching them? Certainly not any intrinsic motivation to do good simply for its own sake.

The reward for sharing their toys is seeing the joy on the face of their friend and playing together. The reward for putting forth effort is not the grade, but understanding as a result of their own perseverance.

Why do educators encourage students to make and reflect upon mistakes in their work and thinking processes, but unilaterally punish them for making mistakes in the behavior? When a child makes an error in their math computation, we sit down and help them figure it out. We should be seizing the same teaching opportunity to make our students better people by helping them solve their problems with challenging behavior.

Although I have gained new insight from many of Alfie Kohn’s writings, I feel like I still come up empty-handed. I find that he often articulates what is wrong with the educational system, but fails to give us a viable alternative.

We are cautioned by experts, such as Carol Dweck to minimize our praise and Alfie Kohn to remove the carrots and sticks from our classroom.

But where does that leave us educators to recognize students’ growth and maintain a positive classroom community?

I want my students to reflect on their own persistence and effort by making it a central part of the classroom dialogue and visibly recognizing their growth.  To that end, I have adapted the effort card system developed by Chris Biffle, the founder of Whole Brain Teaching (WBT).

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I have an effort chart posted in my classroom. Each student has their own effort card.  All of the students start the beginning of the year as novices on white. Each time they are recognized for their effort, they get to punch their card. When they have accumulated 10 punches on their card, they move on to the next level and subsequently the next color on the chart. In order to reap the beauty of the system, it is essential that the teacher is not the only person entitled to recognize student effort. Students are invited to regularly recognize their peers for their efforts and students can recognize themselves, provided that they explain their reasoning. This practice encourages a positive class community. Teachers cannot have eyes and ears in every classroom interaction. So this form of peer to peer recognition allows teachers to become aware of efforts that the students make with each other, that was previously unbeknownst to them.  As a class, we remain conscious to recognize effort, not ability.

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Although some might see this system as a reward in itself, it does not provide students with a reward that is tangible, and I make that clear to my students. It allows students to track their own effort and subsequently, their social, emotional and academic growth.

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Another ubiquitous system in schools around the globe is the behavior chart. You know the one…from stoplight colors, 3 strikes to Making Smart Choices. Although I believe that it is essentially a form of manipulation, I haven’t been able to shake it completely and permanently from my classroom. Yet, I have redesigned both my own and my students’ relationship to it. I only use it occasionally to have students monitor their choices. There is no reward for going “Above and Beyond”. Nor is there a punishment for poor choices. I have turned that into my teaching moment and my students’ opportunity to learn from their mistakes.

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Coming to Terms with Failure: Reflecting on the Growth Mindset in Pedagogy

I have a challenging class this year. They’re great kids, but their needs are strikingly diverse. In October, I’m still trying to ground my feet while meeting the needs of 20 ELLs (1 non-speaker, 3 with very limited proficiency), 3 students with significant needs, 2 with impulse control challenges and 1 gifted and talented student among the dozen of other learners everywhere in between.

So, I enlisted the help of the school psychologist for another set of eyes. I wanted her to observe a particular student that was having difficulty focusing, completing tasks and monitoring their self-control.

The lesson was a disaster. Despite what I thought was an engaging, kinesthetic science lesson, the kids were off-task, rambunctious, didn’t focus on my modeling and failed to collaborate well with each other.

As the lesson proceeding spiraling off course, I clammed up.  For some reason, I often act and respond differently to my students when there is another adult in the room. I am not myself.  Unable to re-engage, the day finished with my self-esteem depleted, worried about what my colleagues thought about me as a teacher. For days, I lamented. I was paralyzed by the fear that my colleagues viewed me as inadequate.

Apparently, I am not alone. In her book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead, Brené Brown explains, “When our self-worth isn’t on the line, we are far more willing to be courageous and risk sharing our raw talents and gifts.”

But, I knew that lesson was an anomaly. The kids had been amped up for a couple days. It was around a full moon.  Maybe it was them. Maybe it was me. Sometimes we are not our best selves. Occasionally, my teaching is just “off”.

I regularly incorporate the growth mindset concepts into our class culture. I encourage my students to celebrate failure, so that they can learn from their mistakes. We understand that we grow through challenges and stretching our thinking. We recognize and celebrate effort. Yet, why am I so hard on myself when I fall short? I decided that I needed to take some of my own advice to confront, celebrate and learn from my mistakes.

Tom Kelley and David Kelley, authors of Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All, state, “To learn from failure, however, you have to “own” it. You have to figure out what went wrong and what to do better next time. If you don’t, you’re liable to repeat your errors in the future.”

They continue, “Acknowledging mistakes is also important for moving on. In doing so, you not only sidestep the psychological pitfalls of cover-up, rationalization, and guilt; you may also find that you enhance your own brand through honesty, candor, and humility.”

So, I came to terms with my failure and instead of perceiving it as a deficit, I turned it into an opportunity for growth. Although the observation was targeted at a specific student, I elicited suggestions from the school psych about how to improve my practice. Out of that conversation, I was able to make specific changes to my transition routines, rethink student partnerships and provide sensory objects for fidgeting students. I became a better teacher for it.

The next time you have an “off” day teaching, or your lesson completely bombs, you might stop to consider it not as a perceived failure, but as an opportunity for personal and professional growth.

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Compass Education Practitioner Level 1

I recently attended a workshop entitled: Thinking, Learning and Acting for a Flourishing and Sustainable World hosted by Compass Education.

Compass Education states, “Systems thinking enables educators to help their students develop the knowledge, skills and dispositions necessary to participate in a complex and interdependent world.”


One of our first tasks was to define what sustainability meant to us. Although groups’ definitions varied, key themes that arose from the collaboration included: conscious, balance, long-term change, environment, use of resources.

Provided the framework, we began to explore models for teaching critical thinking and complex problem solving.


The Iceberg Model for Exploring Complex Issues

The Iceberg model allows issues to be examined at various levels. What is above water is what is usually seen (events). That which is below water is often unseen and requires deeper analysis to unpack and make long-term changes. We investigated the traffic problem in Bangkok, although it is applicable to many complex problems.


Closed Loop Model of the Traffic Conundrum in Bangkok

After working with closed loop models in the workshop, I was eager to try it with my students.


Student Collaboration


Our class had been studying the human body in our science unit. As a culminating activity, I presented them with the challenge of creating a closed loop system that includes both the nervous system and the skeletal system. This process encouraged a lot of discourse between the students and an evolution of their thinking as they worked through many different drafts before finalizing their loops and finally describing the connections between the nodes.


The Sustainability Compass

My big take-away was this: In order to effectively solve complex problems, it is imperative to start by analyzing the problem through the multiple lenses of the system. As a result, we can better understand all of the parts that work together and attempt to avoid unintended consequences from quick fixes and brash decision-making.

Watch here for more about Compass Education and the Sustainability Compass tool.

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Visual Note-taking and the Sustainability Compass

The unstated expectation at my school is that students write using pencils. Well, I threw that one out because I (and my students) find that note-taking with markers is more fun, engaging, visually attractive and stimulating for the mind. Students are more likely to review their notes and be able to read them when they have a contrast of colors and contain drawings to represent ideas, objects and larger concepts.


We have been investigating basic human needs and wants. While viewing slide shows to elicit discussion and background knowledge, students were encouraged to take notes and draw ideas that stood out to them. As opposed to copying notes from the board, every notebook was individualized, unique and a representation of their own thought processes and understanding.



After the introductory lessons on needs and wants, we explored the concept of a system. In addition to taking notes and drawing visual representations, we played interactive games to introduce the idea that a change to one part of the system can have a subsequent impact on the rest of the system with or without knowing it. The students worked in groups to demonstrate the systems within our basic human needs by creating the Sustainability Compass. (For more information on the Sustainability Compass see previous posts)IMG_1342










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Applying Non-fiction Text Structures to Student Inquiry

I am becoming more and more interested in systems thinking and drawing students attention out to broader, more conceptual ideas. Teaching nonfiction text structures has enhanced students’ views of their inquiries and allowed them to see their self-selected topic from multiple perspectives.

To connect to our study of water in science, we used reader’s workshop to both expand our conceptual understanding of water issues, as well as learn and apply the text structures. Utilizing the gradual release of responsibility model, we worked together as a class to practice each strategy and then the students worked in pairs to apply them to their own topics of inquiry.

Class Model of Description

IMG_1037Student Description of Garbage

IMG_1038Class Model of Cause and Effect

IMG_1047Student Work of Cause and Effect

IMG_1048Class Model of Compare and Contrast

IMG_1042Student Compare and Contrast

IMG_1044Class Model of Problem and Solution

IMG_1045Student Work Problem and Solution

IMG_1046Student Examples of Visual Note-taking




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Reading Infographics…Another Essential Literacy Skill

I had no idea infographics have been around for so long. I thought they were a 21st century publishing technique until I came across the work of Edward Tufte and former New York Times journalist Megan Jaegerman, who has been creating them since the early 90s, although they were referred to as news graphics.

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In October, I attended a workshop entitled Reading, Writing and Thinking in the Active Literacy Classroom conducted by Stephanie Harvey and Debbie Miller. During a break-out session about non-fiction, Stephanie Harvey stressed the importance of teaching reading comprehension skills specifically applied to reading infographics. She maintained that we are increasingly bombarded by these types of images and text to convey complex information. Yet, these forms of text are often cognitively challenging to read and understand because they contain content-specific vocabulary and concepts. In school, we explicitly teach students how to read certain genres of text and we should be doing the same with infographics.

I found that KidsDiscover is an excellent resource for finding content-specific infographics for upper-elementary students. I assert that infographics are an effective way of teaching about systems as they allow the reader to access challenging concepts through the use of visual elements, as demonstrated in this graphic below explaining the diverse interactions of a forest ecosystem.

Screen shot 2015-03-04 at 9.32.14 PMAttribution: Megan Jaegerman

Prior to this course, I had decided to integrate infographics into my classroom lessons to explore the water cycle and states of matter. As a culmination to their six-week long non-fiction self-selected research projects, students will publish their writing in the form of an infographic using Piktochart, as cited below. Due to the developmental stage of my third graders, they will not be designing traditional infographics, per se with charts and graphs of data. Rather, they will use the site as a format of applying visual elements of non-fiction features such as titles, headings, images, captions, text, and text boxes using color, fonts and graphics.

The integration of visual literacy in the classroom is absolutely imperative. Students should be engaged with a variety of modes of visual expression such as videos, images, infographics and wordless picture books. These mediums allow students to hone their communication and reading comprehension skills such as inferring, synthesizing, drawing conclusions and visualizing to understanding difficult concepts. Students can further apply these skills by applying them in visual note-taking, labeling, writing, and discussing different interpretations.

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How the Sustainability Compass and Systems Thinking are Changing My Students’ Thinking

I think I may have found the missing piece in my teaching practice….a systems thinking approach that opens students’ eyes to see the bigger picture to conceptualize learning. I recently attended a one-day workshop hosted by Compass Education, an organization originally founded by Alan AtKisson to teach systems thinking  and sustainability to the corporate and private sector. It didn’t take them long to realize that schools should be transforming young children’s thinking in this manner and developed simple tools to be applied in schools.



I introduced the compass with a provocation. Using a compass, students worked in teams of 3-4  to find the 4 cardinal directions in the classroom and label them. This was entirely new to them as most of them hadn’t held compasses before. Some were accurate, others were not. But it was the process that mattered. Afterwards, we discussed the function of a compass…to find direction. I had 4 students stand in each of the corners of the room to illustrate perspective. They each viewed the classroom in a different way. Our big take aways: 1. Compasses give us direction 2. We can view things from different perspectives

Introduction to the Sustainability Compass

The sustainability compass that Alan AtKisson created is a tool that can be used a lens in which to view the world. Taking the cardinal directions and replacing them with Nature, Economy, Society and Well-being, any concept can be viewed through these avenues. You can watch Alan AtKisson eloquently describe the compass on this video.

So, I invited my third graders to access their schema and explore everything they understood about each of those four words. Collaboratively, we created this compass collage, which is beautiful in its own right. But the process of its creation was the heart of the learning. Many students grappled with the idea that one image could exist in all four parts of the compass. The students defended their opinions about why they think it belongs in one place, while others offered equally good arguments for another. In the end, we came to the conclusion that many parts of our lives can be viewed through different lenses.

Compass Collage

Systems Thinking

So, the next task was to get my students thinking about how all of these concepts are interrelated. Currently, we are taking an inter-disciplinary approach to studying water. So, we made a sustainability compass with water as the exploratory concept. They brainstormed everything they could think of that was related to water and chose where to place it on the compass.

On a subsequent lesson, we had a class discussion about how these water ideas are connected.


Non-fiction Topics Compass

For more information about Systems Thinking in the Classroom try…

Compass Education

Waters Foundation

Donella Meadows Institute

Creative Learning Exchange

Linda Booth Sweeney’s Blog

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Provoking Critical Thinking in 3rd Graders Using Powerful Imagery

I sometimes forget that my 3rd graders have limited schema about world issues. I find myself relying on Google images more and more to provide them with background knowledge to be able to access difficult texts or concepts. Not only is this a best practice for providing comprehensible input, it is a tool for engaging students in critical thinking skills.

We are learning through an inter-disciplinary approach to studying water and its global issues. Prior to reading a problem-solution text about women and children walking upwards of four hours each day to collect water, we previewed the following slide show. The images provoked thoughtful questions, allowed them to make connections to prior learning and scaffolded the concepts that were to follow.

I intentionally refrained from adding too much text to the slides because I wanted the images to speak for themselves and I wanted the students to create their own meaning about them.

Slide Show

Here are just some of the questions that students rose while viewing the images:

Why do they carry water on their heads?

What happens if the water spills?

Are there cities in Africa?

What food do they eat?

Why don’t they get water from a well?

Why can’t they just put a well there?

Why is the water dirty?

Is there poop in this water?

Why don’t they just boil the water?

Why don’t they drive to the city and carry back water?


Problem and Solution Text

In Africa, women and children usually collect water for their families. Many have to spend up to 4 hours each day walking to the nearest water source to get enough water for the day. Often, the water that they collect is contaminated with germs that can cause very serious illnesses or even death.The time that is spent walking to collect water is a time that is not spent learning to read and write, making money, or caring for the younger children in the family. If communities built water wells within villages, people would only have to spend 15 minutes collecting water each day.Source: https://www.kidsgoglobal.net/the-issues/water/


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D.E.A.R…Drop Everything And Reconnect

Sometimes the routine of school becomes mundane for both students and us teachers. Sometimes the best thing to do for student engagement is to throw out the day’s lesson and let authentic inquiry and student motivation guide the rhythm of the class. That’s what we did one Monday morning and my third graders were more inspired and engaged than I had seen them in months. Their enthusiasm fueled discovery for over week and they were truly guides of their own learning. Not only were their souls fulfilled, but mine was too.

We found a beetle.

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And we took it into our classroom. The kids were filled with so many questions about it, that it was impossible to contain their excitement. We Dropped Everything And Reconnected to how we learn best, by following our curiosity. We started with asking questions.


Then, we spent time researching about it on the ipads. We worked together as a team, built ideas upon each others’ new learning and raised even more questions. Such as…What are invasive species? How are they harmful? How can we create the best habitat for it?

photo 1

We have a class re-use center, so immediately the students were drawn to collect found objects to create a “home” for our new pet. They pulled out plastic bottles and cardboard and started taping together little niches that the students thought the beetle would like to hide in. This opened the conversation to address what is actually a ‘natural’ habitat. After much discussion, we decided to discard the extraneous materials and focus only on collecting plants, flowers and fruit during their milk break.

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The kids named her as they learned that she was a Coconut Rhinoceros Beetle.  Some kids wanted to take turns caring for her over the weekend. Others wanted to take her to 4th grade next year. In the end, we discussed pros and cons of keeping her in our classroom. But, collectively we made the decision to let her go free and had a little ‘rite of passage’ ceremony. Authentic inquiries such as this are so powerful because the focus is on the process, not the product. Students are engaged in questioning, collaboration, making connections and creating their own knowledge. This serendipitous discovery prompted writing pieces as well as an uncontainable excitement for learning. Insomuch that I can’t wait to stumble upon the next discovery.

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Write About It

Have you tried this great web-based writing site called WriteAbout? If not, you’ve got to give it a try. It hosts hundreds of thought-provoking images with writing  prompts for students to respond to. From the most bizarre illusions to content-based images, this site encourages writing in all genres. You will find prompts to encourage persuasion, letter writing, fantasy stories, reflections, analysis and more. It is extremely user friendly for both students and teachers. This site is one response to the meeting the needs of teaching visual literacy in all subject areas and I believe, essential to put in your toolkit.

**Update as of February 5, 2015: I used the program today with my class and after my students edited their drafts and clicked ‘update’, their work disappeared and was irretrievable. I have emailed the company about the glitch and will post their response here when I receive it.**

**WriteAbout responded very promptly to my concern. Here is what I received as a reply: This problem has been fixed on Write About. It occurred during a window yesterday to this morning when we had made a small improvement with the Edit Post feature which caused an undetected error.

I can only apologize emphatically to you and your students who had done so much great work on your writing that was lost. Because you let us know so quickly, we were able to prevent that from happening to other classrooms.

WriteAbout Site

Students and teachers can browse through hundreds of images by searching for topics that meet their interests, as well as narrow their search by grade level. Users can log on easily using their Google accounts and student groups are convenient to set up using a provided teacher code to join groups.

WA photos

One great feature of this site is that teachers can upload their own images and prompts. Our class found a rhinoceros beetle on the playground last week and I uploaded a photo of it to prompt their writing.

beetle writing

Other fantastic features are the teacher annotating tools. It is easy to highlight and add annotations, teachers can record audio feedback, as well as write comments that can only be seen by the writer.

WA audio

This site can be used like a blog. Students could publish publicly to the web, but I preferred to create a private class group. When students publish their drafts, their peers can view their work and make comments on each others’ writing.

WA feedback

I appreciate that this site allows teachers to be able to monitor the progress of their students, while providing them timely and meaningful feedback. The “Students” page allows teachers to view and comment on their drafts, read published posts, change settings and observe student login times.

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