Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Star Chart

By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

Teaching Teenagers is a Whole New Ball Game

It is a bit of an understatement to say that there are some big differences between teaching adults and teaching teenagers. As I noted in a previous blog, this year I broke out of my teaching comfort zone and, after years (and years, and years) of teaching adults, I took a job teaching English as an Additional Language (EAL) to international teenagers who hope to matriculate to mainstream classes in a British private school here in Brussels. I had a lot to learn in a very short time. I even bought a book called “Your First Year as a High School Teacher, which made the History teachers on my floor laugh.

One of the biggest challenges I faced was learning how to manage my classroom. Unlike most adults, teenagers aren’t always in the class because they actually want to be. In addition, teens have that whole “center of the universe” thing going on, as well as hormonal changes, brain development, growth spurts and all sorts of physical and emotional issues that make them difficult to teach at times. Even though I really do love my students, I cannot deny that they cry and fight and manipulate in ways I was totally unequipped for. And, let’s face it, sometimes the last thing they want to do is answer questions about a reading on coffee growers in Bolivia or take notes on what Bill Nye the Science Guy has to say about how we see colors.

The Introduction of the Star Chart

I had to come up with a way of incentivizing them to learn, even when they were much more interested in their plans after school, and of rewarding them for a job well done. I must have gotten the idea for the Star Chart from somewhere, (maybe even Your First Year as a High School Teacher) but I can’t remember where it might have been. One evening early in September, I stayed late and prepared my materials. I hung up a poster-sized piece of cardstock near my desk. Then, I cut strips of paper until I had one for each student. Finally, I cut out about a million stars from yellow cardstock and put little pieces of blue tack on the back of each. The next day, I had the students write their names (and draw a little design, if they wanted) on their strip of paper. I glued the papers in a column on the left side of the poster. I stuck 3 stars beside each name.

I explained to the students that, at the beginning of every week, they would all start with 3 stars. That way, no matter what the week before had been like, they always had a fresh start on Monday. They would receive stars for exceptional work, making an unusually impressive effort, and winning the language learning games we often play in the class. I also clarified that they would not receive stars for doing the things they should already be doing, like completing class work or home work to the class standard. Finally, I pointed out that they could lose stars for not doing the work they are expected to and for not following class rules.

At the end of the week, I would count up all the stars. The two students who had the most were given “merit” stickers. Luckily for me, my school participates in www.mystickers.co.uk/. The teachers all have stickers that they give out to deserving students. The students can then log the stickers into their “mystickers” account. The school keeps track of the stickers and awards individual prizes and year group prizes to the students that have the most. If my school didn’t do this, I would have had to use another carrot, like candy or a small prize.

Enthusiastic and Skeptical

Right off the bat, some of the students were really excited about this new system. It provided short-term motivation to students that might not see why learning about the English associated with fractions (or fractions themselves, for that matter) is really something to be thrilled about. However, a few were unimpressed. When, in the early days, I had to take a star away from a student for bad behavior, he loudly stated that he didn’t care about stars. I said that was fine and that we were still going to follow the system. Over the next few weeks, though, I noticed a big change in this student, and now he cheers louder than any of the others when he gets a star.

One of the most surprising things I have found using this chart is that it is not always the same students winning the merits. They can get stars for a lot of different things, from winning games (always a gamble) to making a funny joke in English. I sometimes give a star to a student who has dyslexia when he works really hard to read a sentence. I also give stars for good writing or a good quiz result. The students who have already matriculated to many of their mainstream classes don’t have as many opportunities to win stars as those who see me for the greater part of the day, but they have the chance to win them from their other teachers, so I don’t worry too much about that.

One of the older boys, to this day, doesn’t really care that much about stars or merits. I have had to find other ways to reach him. However, I have continued to follow the star system with him, too. If he does anything particularly good, I reward him, and if he does anything naughty, I take a star. The other students then know that he is also held accountable, and even though he doesn’t technically care about merits, he always smiles when he gets one.

I know the Star Chart is only one of many ways to motivate and discipline teenagers. I would love to hear what has worked for you.

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