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Catch 22: Love of Learning vs. Getting the Grade


Guest contributor Ann Bradley, an assistant managing editor here at Education Week, often talks about the trials and tribulations of motivating her children to do well in school. This past weekend, she witnessed the poignancy of what really motivates kids.

Here's Ann's story:

"My 12-year-old son spent the weekend working on a project for his 7th grade Spanish class. They're studying the names of school-related items, like staplers and pencils, and they have to make a locker and fill it with 10 things, all correctly labeled. They also have to write numerous sentences explaining what is in the locker and what class it's used for.

My son, who desperately wants to do well in school but is still learning that effort equals outcome, was thrilled to get this creative assignment and determined to do his best. He spent hours turning a Nike box into a miniature locker. He spray-painted it blue, made a lock out of tin foil, and filled it with a tiny bulletin board (made by ripping a corner off the one in his room) complete with a tiny note written in Spanish stuck on with a pushpin. He even got our 5-year-old in on the act, who lent him a tiny SpongeBob backpack to hang in the locker.

At one point, he said to me, "Mom, this is so good, it looks like a girl did it!"

I guess that means only girls fuss over their schoolwork, while cool guys pretend that they have more important things, like lacrosse and whether to buzz their heads, to think about!

When I checked the assignment rubric for the project, my heart sank. Turns out the actual locker is worth only 10 points, and the rest of the 70 points will be earned with clear and complete sentences that use the right verb, etc.

Being a Type A Mom, of course, I couldn't help but point out to my son that all of his labors would only yield 10 points, and that he'd better get cracking on his sentences. It was awful to have to "shut down" his creative energies that way, although I do understand that this is a language class, not an art class.

But still, the whole experience left me feeling sad that my son, who attends one of the finest middle schools in the nation, has so few assignments that jazz him up the way the locker has. He was so motivated to make it, and the assignment gave him the opportunity to exercise a little-used part of himself--even at the risk of producing something that a girl could have done."

Does this story sound familiar? What lessons do think this offers about what motivates kids?


Hi Kevin,
I'm a retired elementary teacher.
(28 yrs.) One of the most important attributes that a child brings into the room each morning is his/her self esteem. The lower the socio economic level the more important self esteem becomes
I would start working on self esteem on day one. Little things, John, those new shoes look good on you. Mary, your hair looks great. Tiny positive perks. Look for the smiles. It doesn't take long for the seeds to grow.
Kick ball, kids wanting to be captain. I'd pick a kid and say to the child, I let you be captain but do me a favor. You know who the worst player is. Boy or girl, pick him/her first. You wouldn't believe a face could hold a smile that big. It was so easy.
Even walking down the hall, a third grader would wrap her arms around my leg. Than you, I needed that. Off he'd go.
It,s every teacher's responsibility to build up a child no matter where they are.
Another thing that I tried to instill in my students was that learning was their responsibility, not mine. My job was to help them find where the knowledge they needed could be found. The skills that they had could only grow with practice, practice, practice.
Needless to say, I was not a traditional teacher. I constantly searched for things and ideas that worked. I would often tell people if it wasn't fun for me, how in the world could the kids stand it.
I learned early in my teaching career that the the often quoted platitude that children were our most important product, was hog wash. What education was really all about was keeping adults employed. In most communities education is the largest employer with huge expenditures.
Few schools really put kids first. ex. I was often at school by 7:00. There would be kids waiting at the door. I was repeatedly tolled that they couldn't come in until the bell rang. I would often take them up to my room, We'd talk, play cards,(poker) they'd look at my collection of science stuff. They'd ask what's this or that.I'd think to myself I've Gotcha now. For many of them school was the highlight of their day.
Thanks Kevin. I have lots of ideas on how to improve education. It's a great feeling when an ex student tells me I was the best teacher they ever had.
Warmest regards, Sam

I think different children are motivated by different things. I do believe that most children are more motivated by projects and lessons that have a hands-on approach and that present to a real life audience than they are by pen and pencil lessons. Unfortunately, these types of lessons occupy a very small corner in our current test-driven approach to education.

Grammar is flat out boring most of the time. Admit it. I do, and I am an English teacher who loves grammar. The locker was supposed to whet the appetite and the sentences were what was being evaluated. Better that than just a list of sentences not attached to anything. I would like to ask this parent, then, what to do--how do I teach this to your son then? Because in my day, it was just rote copying exercises out of Warriner's.

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  • matt butcher: Grammar is flat out boring most of the time. Admit read more
  • Digital Diva: I think different children are motivated by different things. I read more
  • sam paolucci: Hi Kevin, I'm a retired elementary teacher. (28 yrs.) One read more




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