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,
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: www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/nonreaders.htm
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.