By Brian Graves
What started off as a war-zone in Chicago, with the Chicago Teacher’s strike, turned into an unexpected opportunity for me and my students.
I can honestly say that while the strike was an event of the past I surely will not forget, I will shelve it in my “teacher experience” box.
The school year had begun with a big gray cloud hanging over the city of Chicago, ready to rain down picket signs for every Chicago Teachers Union member. Three days of school before the strike was not enough time for me to build a rapport with my students. Still, with great pride, I spent seven days on the picket line with my colleagues, standing up for what I believed in. After the strike ended and we went back to the classroom, I was a little hesitant on how my school year would present itself. I also wasn’t quite sure how to explain to my students or the need to explain what had just happened. I concluded that their future history class could teach them why they missed those seven days in 2012.
When we got back into the classroom, my assistant and I were banging our heads about how to get our students fired up for a fun third grade year. She offered the suggestion of incentives. I wasn’t a huge fan of reward-based incentives, but after enough arm twisting, I gave in. We created and implemented an Accelerated Reader monthly challenge and a homework-responsibility classroom store challenge.
The reading challenge was quite simple: In a given month, read x number of books within a specific genre (non-fiction, animals, states, countries) and generate an 80 percent or higher on the Accelerated Reader test. If the students achieved their goal, they were invited to a lunch pizza party. Last year’s class read and took 220 Accelerated Reader tests. This year, the final tally on tests taken was over 1,200! The students were encouraged to read a variety of genres, but we focused heavily on nonfiction. Because they needed to score at least 80 percent on test, they were motivated to read for understanding instead of finishing the book quickly. What a sweet success to end the year, made better by all the students passing the ever-so-lovely Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT).
The homework challenge was also a success. It too was simple. Bring in your homework everyday and earn a “homework buck” for shopping at the classroom store (stocked by me and the Target dollar section). Our homework return rate increased from 45 percent last year to an astounding 98 percent.
What did I learn from this year? A challenging beginning often ends in sweet success.