The Common Core Standards are here! By 2014, K-12 educators all across America will be teaching their students identical standards. From California to North Carolina, school districts are already providing in-service workshops to prepare their teachers for the inevitable. As I anticipate my district’s first training in August, I will undoubtedly greet the new standards with confidence. I am ready for whatever lies ahead because I have learned through experience how to create a classroom where kids work hard to learn the standards because they want to, not because they have to.
But before I dive into “want to vs. have to” I need to share some history that will later help tie everything together. Initially—almost ten years ago—I did not embrace the standards when they were first thrust upon us. In fact, I used to say there were two things I hated most in this world: Satan and the standards! Change, as we know only too well, is seldom a welcomed visitor. Like every teacher across the country, I felt intense pressure to generate higher test scores. Thankfully, when I finally opened my door and reluctantly invited them in, the standards challenged me to be a better teacher.
To a great degree, the challenge to meet my principal’s high expectations in those early years of transformation became a “time crunch” issue. Acutely aware that every second counts, I scrutinized the time element of each lesson. With deep sadness, I abandoned much of the beloved curriculum I had amassed over more than twenty years. If it didn’t address the standards, in most cases it had to go. For a vet like me, that was the hardest part.
Yes, I reluctantly surrendered a great deal in those first years, but with undaunted tenacity I held fiercely to two non-negotiables: my Whole Child philosophy and my commitment to building strong relationships with my students. Though both extract precious time from the academic focus of the curriculum, I long ago refused to surrender my cherished motivation for spending my days in the classroom. You see, I’m a teacher for the purpose of helping my students be better people, not better test takers!
Now for the very happy news: Each year as I streamlined my curriculum to incorporate the standards--while at the same time remaining true to my core values--my state test scores have gone up and up and up. Why? Because with the Whole Child philosophy soundly in place, I’m addressing all the needs of my students—not just their intellectual needs.
We’ve all heard the well-known maxim, “Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care!” It’s a really big one, Comrades. It’s THE big one. If you asked me to tell you in one succinct sentence why my test scores are so high, I would tell you that it’s because my students know I love them. And not just a little. We all need love. It nourishes our emotional needs. It’s the big piece of the Whole Child philosophy. Once our students trust us and are convinced that we have their best interests in mind, they will willingly go along with our program. Well, most of them anyway. :)
If you really thirst after those high test scores, learn to love your students. Saint Augustine said, “The value of a single child surpasses that of a galaxy of stars.” When our students know they are deeply valued by us, they are more…willing. More willing to come in and get right to work, more willing to listen to our lessons, and more willing to work hard to reach their full potential!
We all want our students to work hard. And some certainly do--without any prodding from us. They already had a strong work ethic before they ever walked through our door. Indeed, some seem to have been equipped since birth with the strong desire to achieve excellence! It’s “built in” so to speak. We don’t have to motivate them to get to work.
Unfortunately for us all, the inspired self-starters are more and more in the minority these days. Our problem is not that our students today are not as smart these days as they used to be. Oh, no! It is that they are not as motivated. And that, from my perspective, is a vast understatement. If you asked me to tell you in one succinct sentence what is my most daunting challenge in the classroom, I would tell you without a moment’s hesitation that it is the challenge of motivating my students to work hard. It’s about teaching my students a strong work ethic without which they cannot hope to survive, much less compete, in today’s economy.
“Necessity,” so it’s said, “is the mother of invention,” and when we are impelled to seek solutions to pressing problems, answers often manifest as inspired “aha moments.” Several years ago, while working in my garden, I was blessed with such a moment. It arrived serendipitously one sweltering summer day as the temperature rose well above the 100 degree mark, and the grimy sweat poured like a river off my nose and into my stinging eyes. Suddenly, with no forethought, I leaped to my feet and burst out, “I am the Little Red Hen!” To say that I surprised myself is an understatement. Seemingly, the words had come out of nowhere--but then that’s how it always is with those inspired moments. Though at the time I had no idea what it meant, I knew instinctively that it was very important.
That night I went online and Googled “The Little Red Hen.” Like an old friend from long ago, the recollection of the dog, the cat, and the mouse returned to me. Before I even came to the end of the story, I remembered that the Little Red Hen had made a cake with the wheat she had found and that she wouldn’t let anyone eat it. Clearly, I remembered the theme of the story: If you don’t do the work, you don’t get to eat the cake. Bingo! There it was! My new inspiration for motivating my students to work hard was right in front of me.
The next day I went right to work on the concept. Ideas flowed freely. Weeks passed and by the time school started I was on fire with ways to incorporate the Little Red Hen theme.
Committed to creating a powerful first impression, on the first day of school my room was red from floor to ceiling! As my new students entered for the first time, they were greeted with twenty red helium balloons dancing all over the ceiling, red ribbons, red bulletin boards, and their new teacher—dressed in red from earrings to toes. And before the first hour was up, I had read the story and explained how it related to their new class. Mission accomplished! :)
Since that initial introduction several years ago, I continue to find new ways to incorporate the theme. In fact, this very morning as I pondered today’s writing, I thought of a new one to add next year. On the first day of school I will pass around a piece of paper on which they indicate their favorite cake flavor—chocolate, vanilla, marble, or carrot. And you can just bet I’ll keep that list all year!
From the very first day until the final good-byes—and all the days in between--I immerse my students in the theme from the Little Red Hen: In school, as well as in life, the ones who work hard are the ones who get the cake! So how do I do it? Above all, I talk passionately about the importance of hard work. Moments arise spontaneously when the theme just fits. For example, one of my students has been working exceptionally hard and achieves well above his/her typical grade. For all to hear, I applaud the student and ask how they did it. In the beginning of the year they may say that they worked really hard. That’s when I announce proudly that they were the Little Red Hen, so they got the cake. Before too long, my students come right out with, “I was the Little Red Hen, Ms. LaField!”
One idea that’s especially meaningful for my students—and their parents—is a large rubber stamp of a clip art hen that I had made at a local store. On Little Red Hen caliber work, my students who “gave it their absolute best” get the stamp on their paper. And of course I use red ink. :)
Another powerful way to integrate the theme is with a personal daily progress report. In a nutshell, the parents, the student, and I have a conference. Everyone agrees to work together to support the student to achieve his/her best. The student’s goal is simple: to work hard all day long. If the student goes home with a Little Red Hen report they “get the cake.” If not, the parents decide on a consequence.
Best of all are the times I buy a cake from our local bakery and surprise a student who has been working extraordinarily hard. I make a huge deal of it. The kids all gather around the risers and guess who got the cake. Usually they are right on because they hear me praise my students who are “coming from behind.” Nobody gets a cake unless they truly earned it! That’s why it’s such an honor to get the cake. And that’s why the recipient is so proud. They know they did their absolute best!
In the same way that I make a powerful first impression on the first day of school, I also leave my students with a lasting impression on the last day of school. Once again I’m in red from head to toe. Once again I read the story. Once again I talk passionately about the merit of hard work. On the last day everyone gets the cake. On the last day everyone is my Little Red Hen!
About Olivia LaField
Olivia LaField is the 2012 Northstate Educator of the Year. You can read more about her little red hens and other stories in her book, Living the Lessons: Building Character and Boosting Test Success. It is available through redarrowmedia.com.
You can contact Oliva at email@example.com.