Sitting around a back table in our deserted portable classroom, easily an hour after we were due to go home, Heidi and I kept searching for an answer that was not coming easily.
How, we asked ourselves over and over again, can we motivate our high school students to get their work done?
As homeschooling moms and teachers, Heidi and I were already enjoying the luxuries of small class size, students who enjoyed each others' company, and a curriculum tailor-made to suit their interests and study styles.
We'd all known each other, in and out of the classroom, for years. Heck, most of these kids we'd known since they were in diapers.
Or at least light-up sneakers.
But still, there was one particular boy, cheerful and agreeable as the day is long, who just wouldn't push the button on his homework. And before his malaise spread to the rest of the class like the dreaded Spanish flu, Heidi and I were bound and determined to get him in gear.
We spit-balled endlessly, brainstorming all manner of crazy ideas, from making him stay after class to do his homework under our noses, to paying him for complete assignments, to threatening to kick him out of class. But we knew nothing like that would work. We wanted a solution that would:
motivate rather than shame him,
come from his own internal desires,
use the exponential power of peer pressure from his classmates,
come without any nagging or penalties from us.
And in the end, that's just what we found.
Heidi designed the chart and did the beautiful lettering, I did the painting.
As always, we made a perfect team.
This creation began as a simple chart. Along the left side were the students' names, arranged alphabetically.
Along the tops of the columns, a list of upcoming weeks numbered, "one," "two," "three," and so on.
Each of the squares on the resulting graph was a blank square of white.
Separately, a painting was created to fit exactly into those open spaces. It was painted as a whole, and when it was dry, sliced up into perfect squares to fit into the blank boxes.
The painted tiles of the artwork were numbered for the corresponding week, and tucked into envelopes bearing the appropriate student's name.
Then we waited for the first week's assignment to come due.
As each diligent student presented their work in class, they were awarded their tile which they then attached to the proper box. Slowly, over the next few weeks, an image began to take shape, mosaic-style, in our otherwise blank grid.
Except for our reluctant student. After the first few weeks, his row, which happened not accidentally to run through the middle of the image, was still a set of blank white squares.
His classmates noticed.
And gently, kindly, without even a hint of drama, they suggested to him that it'd be real nice if he got his work done so the image would be properly revealed.
Heidi and I stifled our smiles and said nothing. But our eyes met across the classroom, twinkling with satisfaction.
We'll never know for sure what motivated our student to finally get his work done. All I can say is that by the time we reached Week Ten, each homework assignment had been completed, every single painted square had been properly attached to the right white box, and the final image was perfectly revealed.
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This was not the only time that Heidi and I cooked up a successful scheme to gently move our students in the direction we wanted them to go. but this story is one of my favorites because it's such a perfect illustration of how we worked together to solve tough problems:
We stuck to our principles,
leaned in with love,
respected and trusted in our students' innate desire to do the right thing,
and used our own creativity to build truly unique solutions to whatever threatened to get in the way of our students' learning.
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I've kept our completed chart for over a decade now, and whenever I see it, I smile to think what a unique, successful, and incredibly fun teaching partnership Heidi and I enjoyed together.
The sweet memories will surely last for a lifetime.
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This story comes from a class Heidi and I taught on United States Landmarks. We spent a year discussing the historical, geographic, and cultural implications of one hundred of our nations's most iconic sites and scenes. The Mystery Monument featured in our motivational poster references the Statue of Responsibility, a project in process intended to balance the Statue of Liberty by reminding us that with freedom comes responsibility. The monument is scheduled to open on the west coast in 2025.
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For more stories about this Landmarks class, and other social studies courses that Heidi and I designed, try this: