He's a Bad Kid

The best part of my mornings are getting to fix my three boys breakfast. Raising three boys you're just never sure what is going to happen while they are eating breakfast. My kids major in randomness. The other morning my youngest son started telling me about how he was missing a boy who was no longer in his kindergarten class. I told him that I was sorry that he missed him and asked him if they were his friends. He quickly responded, "No, he's not my friend. He's a bad kid. He gets on red every day."

I was taken back and honestly saddened by his comment about his classmate. You see, like many classrooms, my son starts his day on a certain color. If his behavior is defined as good behavior, then he gets to move up a color. If his behavior is defined as bad behavior, then he has to go down a color. Most days when I ask him how his day was he will reply, "I was on (fill in the color)." Here is what bothered me about this conversation at breakfast and what bothers me about frequent conversations after school.

  • He frequently defines the success or failure of his day strictly by what color he is on when the day ended.
  • He judged a fellow classmate as a "bad kid" based on what color he perceived that student regularly ended his day on.

Now let me say this as clearly as I can. This is not a complaint against his current teacher or school. My boys are having a great year. They have great teachers. They are all learning and happy. This post has been a long time coming. In fact, I spoke with my son's teacher today about it and got her permission to share the story about my son. Really made me even happier about her as a teacher. I love her openness and willingness to be a reflective educator.

I was recently quoted in a piece about Class Dojo in the New York Times. I was probably on the phone for over an hour with the reporter and it was a very pleasant conversation. The interview, a twitter conversation I got involved in, the subsequent NYT rebuttal from Class Dojo, a Skype session with somebody from Class Dojo, and then this conversation with my son all happened right on top of each other. All of this has my mind going and I had to blog about it. So here are some observations and things that I'm wondering about.

Do tools like class dojo and using colors to track behavior build a positive classroom culture?

Culture is everything! Read Anthony Muhammad's books and you'll see what I mean. Here is the thinking that I think public displays of rewards and punishments reinforces.

  • Class favorites and class pets. "Oh Mr. Clark always gives Johnny Dojo points. He's his favorite." A lot of students already struggle with this mindset. Let's not reinforce it with bad classroom management practices.
  • This kid is a bad kid. As you know, I've seen this in my own son. He couldn't tell me anything else about that student except for his name and that he was a bad student. He based that on what somebody else in authority label that student. Inadvertently or not, it doesn't matter.
  • Us vs Them. Is the way we handle classroom management bringing us closer together with our students or pushing us apart? Perception is reality. If our students view us as having it out for them or that "we never liked them", it doesn't matter how accurate or inaccurate it is, that's a hard mountain to climb.

What message are we sending our students?

One of my biggest complaints about Class Dojo is the imagery of little monsters being used to represent our students. I personally am not comfortable with it. I don't want my son to be depicted as a little monster. I don't want my students to be depicted as little monsters.

My second biggest complaint with Class Dojo is that it's designed to be displayed. Now I know that teachers don't have to display it. Just like I know that teachers don't have to use the negative marks and the sound effects. However, the fact that those features exist promotes the public displaying of what should remain private information.

Technology isn't neutral. You can take a piece of technology and use it differently than how it was designed but it was designed for a purpose. It's like the idea that guns aren't a part of the problem, just the people who misuse them. (My goodness, why am I putting this in here?) Give a group of kids a set of toy guns and see what game they'll play with them. Will they play "war" or will they play "peace". No kid says, "hey look at these toy guns we just got, lets go play peace with our friends." Yes, you can take almost any tool and use it in a beneficial way but that doesn't change how it was designed to be used.

In a recent conversation I made the suggestion of removing the public and negative features from Class Dojo. The idea was rebuffed because half of the users would probably leave the platform. Now in all fairness, the ideas were written down.

Ok, I'll get off of Class Dojo because I think they have good people working for them and they have been very open to conversations. You can use their product in a positive way. Plus, I'd rather this conversation be more about the overall idea of classroom management, than just a single platform.

Who owns the learning?

If we as educators are defining what is good and bad behavior for them then when are we giving our students the chance to define their behavior themselves? More than just letting our students be involved in the creation of classroom expectations. We've got to get our students reflecting on their own actions and making their own course corrections as needed.

Are we setting up our teachers and students for failure?

If you give out a reward or punishment for a certain behavior then you better be ready to give out that reward or punishment every single time that same event occurs again. That's an impossible task but the moment you stop, you've just sent a message to the student that the rules have changed. I do believe in the idea that we can punish by rewards.

Where do we go from here?

Ok, I've got to land this plane. Let me give you two easy suggestions on how I think we can all do a better job with classroom management.

  1. Worry more about classroom engagement and less about classroom management. I've been saying for years that an active, engaging classroom and a mobile teacher are teachers' two best tools for classroom management. Be relevant, be engaging, be personable, and be empowering.
  2. Keep discipline and rewards private. Especially discipline. If you see me pulled over on the side of the road, you can speculate all you want but you don't know why that cop pulled me over. Cops don't stop all of traffic just to deal with one violator. We shouldn't stop all learning just so we can deal with one student. If you're going to give rewards publicly then the rewards should be decided upon by the public for specific reasons to avoid the ideas of teachers having their favorites and popularity contest.

Finally, let me leave you with two other great blog posts:

So How Do You Manage Your Classroom When You Don't Punish by Pernille Ripp

When Classroom Culture Conflicts With EdTech by Karen Lirenman and Erin Klein

What do you think? How do you handle classroom management? Am I completely off my rocker?

cross-posted at www.educationdreamer.com

Brett Clark is an elearning coach for the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation. He talks about tech tools on the Flipped Learning Network's weekly podcast. He is also a regular guest on the TeacherCast podcast and a blogger for TeacherCast.net. Read more at www.educationdreamer.com.