Friday, September 24, 2010

Alfie Kohn Comes to the Rescue

After posting yesterday about my struggles in class, I tweeted out the blog post. A few hours later, a DM from none other than Mr. Kohn appeared in my Tweetdeck letting me know he had read my post (I practically fell on the floor), and that he wanted to know more: he wanted to know, "At what pt do I get to hold the studs responsble?" What wd that mean, exactly? Punishing them? Wd that improve lrng? Interest?". Since Mr. Kohn doesn't follow me, I couldn't get back to him through DM-ing, but he suggested an email exchange. He didn't promise a detailed response, but did encourage me to write out my questions and concerns and he would respond back when he had time.

Here is the email I sent:

Mr. Kohn-I don't believe in punishing kids- I think all kids learn from their mistakes. Your book The Schools Our Children Deserve changed many perceptions I had about schooling. Your work on homework has changed how and what I do with homework. My husband and I use your Unconditional Parenting with Love and Logic at home. So, please know I am a huge fan... but, I am running into a problem in my school, district and state, where I am continually being measured for things my students are supposed to be able to do. I wonder how I am supposed to be measured by these tests when kids have no stake in the test? Why can't we hold kids accountable when all the factors for success are there? I use Atwell's writing strategies and Daniels work on reading.

I am wondering how do I reinforce turning in homework such as writing, reading, and speaking? How do I help my kids avoid being lazy and come to class prepared? I don't have this problem, of course, with my honors level classes, but with my boys- 33 boys and me! We read current literature, watch videos, read in class, and model good writing in class; they comment about how much they like it, but they don't respond to what I ask them to do with writing or reading homework. I do most of the reading in class with them because I value the reading and writing components greatly. As far as work, my class has a no D policy so kids can't turn in what we call "crap work." As a class, we agreed to only turn in quality work- they defined for themselves and they class what constitutes quality work. Also, I accept work up until the six week grading period so they can redo an assignment as many times as necessary until they have demonstrated they have learned and understood the concept. (This is a change I made a couple of years ago based off my graduate school work with Gary Stager and Margaret Riel).

How do I hold kids accountable without "punishing" kids? How do I get them to do more quallity work and thinking without holding their hands and being the task master teacher I don't want to be? How do I get them to want to be more and hold themselves to a higher standard?

Thanks for inviting the conversation,
Anne Smith

And today, here is the response I received: (this is reprinted with his permission)

I, too, taught difficult kids once upon a time, so I sympathize. But I needed some distance from the situation to realize that I was too quick to blame them for their lack of interest in what I was trying to get them to do. I thought of them as unmotivated or resistant rather than asking how I had failed to engage them.

It's particularly important, I think, when you're on the receiving end of all this accountability nonsense (and top-down control), not to turn around and treat students the way you're being treated, but instead to treat them the way you wish you were being treated.

The high-achieving kids know how to play the game, and they jump through our hoops. Sometimes I worry more about them (over the long haul) than about the kids who don't care so much about the extrinsic inducements and are more likely to say, in effect, like Bartleby, "I prefer not to" when they don't see the point.

Maybe the problem is that you're telling them to do this stuff at home, in effect making them work a second shift after they've spent all day at school. Given that many teachers assign no homework at all (with fabulous results); given that research finds absolutely no benefit to homework, at least before high school; given that it's questionable whether schools have any business telling kids how to spend their time when they're home -- I frankly don't blame them. If you've seen my book The Homework Myth, you know I'm doing more than just asking teachers to assign less of it. At the least, it should be assigned only on those occasions when it's truly necessary (to help kids think more deeply and get them more excited about the topic), not on a regular basis.

Or maybe the problem isn't with what you're asking them to do so much as with the students' perception that they had nothing to say about it. Kids are more likely to respond positively when they participate in making meaningful decisions about the curriculum and other aspects of their education. (I write about this in the current issue of English Journal:>.)

There are plenty of consultants out there who are happy to answer a question like "How can I reinforce turning in homework?" -- a question that (a) simply assumes homework is necessary and useful, (b) draws from a behaviorist tradition (in which the idea of reinforcement is grounded), and (c) seems focused mostly on getting compliance. I think what you really want to ask is "How do I nourish their interest in learning?" [Bold is my addition] If so, then a focus on accountability and reinforcement, as well as traditional practices like grades and tests, can only get in the way.

To reach kids who are (understandably) turned off to school means you have to meet them where they are, realize that their lack of interest in what they're being made to do doesn't mean they're "lazy," think about how to create a more democratic classroom (which involves giving up some control -- a frightening prospect for most of us), and be willing to rethink many features of your curriculum and instruction -- what you're teaching and how. That's a long-term process, one that requires not only skill but courage, and it's best undertaken with at least one or two colleagues who are also more interested in creating truly student-centered classrooms than in looking for tricks to make the kids more compliant.

The first step may be something as simple as holding a class meeting, with everyone in a circle, in which you confess your frustration, ask your boys to tell you what is and isn't working for them in your class, listen without defensiveness, and request their help in improving the class. Regardless of what they tell you, the fact that you're willing to ask may itself make an impression on them.

I know my response raises more questions than it answers, and I apologize that I don't have the time to do justice to the issues you're struggling with. (My inbox is perpetually full, and I've already spent more time than I should have.) I do appreciate your reaching out for help, though -- something that complacent and cynical teachers rarely do -- and I wish you luck in this journey.

-- Alfie Kohn

Yes, Alfie Kohn lived up to all I have believed him to embody- he came to the rescue of a teacher in need of some direction. A teacher who wants to do best by her students. He answered the call and left me thinking of how to approach my students and my teaching in a whole new direction. I know Monday will be a different day with me focusing on "How do I nourish their interest in learning?" rather than "How do I reinforce turning in homework?" or "When do [students] get to be held accountable?". Thanks for Mr. Kohn for showing me which side of the fork in the road I want to follow.


Sylvia said...

Awesome. be sure to write about what happens if you try his advice!

Michelle said...

What an incredible learning experience for you... one that will be a great opportunity for your students. I agree with Sylvia! I am anxious to read more about what you try, what successes you have, and what obstacles you might find. Good luck!

Gary said...


As always, Alfie is quite eloquent. I'm glad he wrote back to you. I was hoping he would and relieve me of responding :-)

That said, Alfie is correct you need some allies. Perhaps more importantly, you need allies in the earlier grades. The kids you work with are already quite damaged by the time you get them.

I increasingly think that there is a lot to be learned from the unschooling movement (John Holt, Ivan Illich, etc...) You might actually need to "detox" or "deschool" the kids before they'll begin to respond in ways you desire.

Also, your district undermines your effective education of the kids by making it so difficult to approve what the kids are permitted to read. If they had a lot more choice of high-interest reading material, I suspect that more would read.

You might slow things down a bit and use the time wasted chastising, begging or praying that kids do their homework to do the work in class. You might also have fewer assignments and replace others with richer, more meaningful ones.

What are the habits, rituals and celebrations of mature readers and writers? (See - Everything I Know About Reading Instruction I Learned from Oprah Winfrey)

What if you required that kids read all of the texts but only write responses to the one of their choice?

Maybe you should challenge the kids to do something really substantial (and crazy) like participate in

Above all, the most important thing you can do for the kids is make your deliberation process transparent. Let the kids know how you are grappling with these issues. The lessons they learn from your example are better than Beowulf.

Phil said...

Wonderful! I am so glad that he took the time to write back. In my class we had a conversation a few years ago about these concepts and what came out of the discussion as Alfie said, is how many students were just playing the grade game.

As we moved away from this to more meaningful work, I saw my typical A students struggle the most as they were now asked to create and apply and not simply regurgitate.

I also began to have individual discussions with each of my students about their interests and goals, which then influenced my choice for projects and lessons. Giving them a say in how they learned had a tremendous impact. This has not reduced my ability to prepare them for life or the standardized tests but in my opinion enhanced it. We can lead a horse to water but we can't make them drink. As my friend says, "You have to make the horse thirsty".

Additionally, over the last couple of years I have worked hard to create a culture of supportive feedback and refinement in my class. Whether it is helping someone to understand a math problem, or providing kind, helpful, and specific feedback on how they can refine their writing; I have been truly amazed at these students and how much they have bought in. Keep in mind that my school does not track and is by lottery so these are not unique students by any means.

I wrote up my experiences in my blog, I hope that this helps you out. Good luck to you and your students and thank you for blogging and thinking about this issue!

annes said...

Sylvia and Michelle-
I tried his advice today, make sure you watch for a post later this week.

Thanks for the feedback and as always for pushing me to think outside the norm. One of the things the kids said today was how much they appreciated the different learning environment we have made in class. I just need to slow it down a bit as you have suggested. There is no point in racing to the finish line if I am the only one there at the end.

Phil- I really appreciate you taking the time to respond as well. Great ideas for me to build off of and use to support the change I am trying to make.

Thanks everyone! Blog post later this week with our Alfie discussion from today!

Lauren Lee said...


I just wrote about this article too. Thanks for sharing it, sharing your thinking about it, and sharing Kohn's ensuing response. I am really interested in knowing how you proceed from here. I certainly haven't moved toward the no homework policy, but have moved in all my classes toward less homework. This hasn't changed a thing so far and I am having the same concerns and frustrations. I appreciate what Phil said about "making the horse thirsty" and am trying my darndest, but feel I'm yielding few results. Please continue to share your thoughts and successes. I look forward to learning more from you.

Phil said...

I would strongly encourage you to have a discussion with your class and see what they are passionate about. Then find a real world opportunity to express themselves (e.g. assemble a story to publish, storytelling to children) anything to get them out there.

I believe the answer will come when you ask them. However, after years of being told and not asked they may be reticent or even ignorant of their own needs so some activities of self expression may help out.

annes said...

Lauren- thanks for the feedback. As always, I will share what I take away from this experience. So far, things have been going better as I keep reminding my gentlemen of what changes they asked for in class; they are holding me accountable and I want to make sure I am doing the same for them.

annes said...


thanks again for the suggestion. We had a really great conversation on Monday that I am going to blog about regarding what they need from me, and what my frustrations are with them. I am going to blog about this soon.