The Art of Building Character

Competitive dance may be the key to the reclamation of character in teens that educational systems have done their best to destroy.

By now, most if not all educators have heard the research against using extrinsic motivation in schools. The use of punishment or reward to alter behaviour is a temporary motivator at best, and, in the long-term, may even result in making behaviour worse. The truth is, when the rewards or punishments are removed, student behaviour will revert to its default setting. Rewards and punishments bring about short-term behaviour modification with no subsequent effect on attitudes and values.

During a class conversation today about the possible removal of term-by-term awards for honour roll, one student said if she didn’t get an award for her hard work this term, there was no way she would try as hard next term. She thought she was proving her point about how important it was to reward students regularly for their hard work, but in reality she simply proved my point: Rewards like this in schools destroy the character of our students.

Intrinsic motivation speaks to the strength of character in a student. Students who are intrinsically motivated care about learning because they know it’s good for them. They are curious. They are passionate. They believe in making the most of learning opportunities. They believe in learning from mistakes. They value hard work. They value risk-taking. They see feedback as a means for improving rather than a judgement of their worth. They have character.

The conversation in my class today didn’t begin with the goal of discussing the school’s high honours policy. Students brought up this question in relation to the conversation I began about what they need to know about their Term 1 marks and how to use this information to their benefit as they begin Term 2. For what had to be the twentieth time since the first day of school, I lamented the fact that students in our district have immediate access to their assignment marks online.

Over the last several years, I’ve been helping students see the connections between grades, rewards, extrinsic motivation, and the destruction of their character. Let me make it simple: Grades are a form of reward; they are an external, highly uninformative statement of quality about student work. Their marks, in the form of a percentage, take my rubric of descriptors regarding the quality of their work and reduce it to a mere number; for many teachers, it even takes an assignment that covered multiple learning outcomes and averages the quality of all of those outcomes into one mostly meaningless number between 0 and 100.

Students and parents and teachers and governments and universities all have their own thoughts about what a “good” number is. And in the end, everything about a “quality” education can be discussed without ever having a conversation regarding what students have actually learned. Students are driven to obtain some balance between a grade that involves the least amount of work on their part that is still good enough to avoid punishment or obtain a reward from home or school. This is the recipe for destroying character in our students, and unfortunately we’ve perfected the procedure.

Competitive dancers in my classes, however, have some of the highest grades in my courses yet they are some of the busiest people I know. They are also among the few students who, despite their high grades, admit they put in their best efforts and yet still somehow believe they could be doing even better. These dancers not only see their potential as unlimited but also have the desire to explore that limitless void.

When I voiced these truths aloud to my class today in defence of one of the dancers whose classmates didn’t believe she could have possibly read 12 books in only two-and-half months, it was the hockey players in the class who took offence. They had a point. They are just as busy at school and at play. They work just as hard on the ice as dancers do in the studio. And yet, on average, their marks are not as high, they have not exceeded our reading goals, their reflections truthfully admit that they don’t work as hard as they should on their assignments and they hope to do better next time.

Of course, I generalize. But only because the generalization led me today to an important realization.

When faced with objections from my hockey players, who made a good point, what could possibly explain the fact that my dancers have a work ethic and worldview significantly different from most others in the class? In a heartbeat, an answer pulsed through me: Intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation. Where school has done a fantastic job of stripping character out of students through extrinsic motivation, competitive dancers reclaim that character through intrinsic motivation, and it does so in a way other sports are inherently incapable of duplicating. You see, competitive dancers don’t dance for rewards.

Okay, okay. I gave you a paragraph break to line up your disagreements. I’ll relent a bit. Competitive dancers do earn awards and rewards and often times even percentages. However, they wait an entire dance season to be rewarded. Month after month, week after week, day after day for hours a day these dancers dance for the sake of dancing alone. Again hockey players dedicate a lot of time and effort to their passion as well, but here’s the difference — throughout the hockey season, hockey players are given marks. They play regular games that result in wins and losses and more percentages in the form of stats than you can shake a stick at. I can only assume (from the baseball I’ve played) that regular conversation centres upon winning streaks and losing streaks. The entire focus is working harder to win more games, and I wonder how many conversations about “quality” hockey are had without ever discussing the basics.

Competitive dance is different. Competition season is at the end of the season. Dancers dance in a small handful of competitions that span a relatively short period of time. The bulk of their time is spent being told by their teachers that what they are doing isn’t right and to do it again. Do it again. Do it again. Do it again. It’s not perfect yet. Do it again. And again. And again. Dancers learn to fail. They learn to fail again and again and again. Competitive dancers learn that it’s okay to make mistakes. They learn that feedback is the way they get better on their next attempt rather than being the final judgement of the ability. Dancers who don’t learn this don’t keep dancing or switch to recreational dance. Competitive dancers learn resiliency. They learn mistakes are a necessary part of challenging yourself to be the best you can be . . . and then they don’t accept that their best is their limit. They learn that a sense of community and sharing their work and performing in front of their peers is part of working together towards a common goal. Competitive dancers crave one-on-one time with their teachers to discuss how they can be even better. They beg for and relish extra work (in the form of solos and duets). They know that if they don’t practice at home their teachers will know . . . but that’s not why they practice at home; they practice at home because being better is all that matters to them and they know that to be better they need to practice every single chance they get. Competitive dancers learn that redoing the same dance week after week isn’t punishment for not being perfect the first time or the second time or the hundredth time, but rather it’s the natural process of becoming perfect. Competitive dancers learn character.

Now why can’t schools teach that?


(More) Authentic Assessment Tasks

I’m a supporter of authentic assessment tasks.  I came out of university 5 1/2 years ago with a project-based teaching style all ready to implement.  I created projects for my junior highs that were fun and meaningful and (more) authentic than most assessments and evaluations I endured growing up. I say (more) authentic because for the most part I am still the main audience for their work, even if I try not to be.  I know I need to work at getting their projects in front of a more authentic audience but thus far I haven’t consistently done that.

Here are some examples of the projects I’ve created for my junior highs:  My grade 7 students wrote and (randomly) presented instructions on a topic of their choice.  We’ve had instructions about how to properly groom a miniature pony, and the pony came to school to be groomed; how to put on hockey gear (always “randomly” assigned to a girl); how to do your make-up (always “randomly assigned to a boy); how to make a disgusting sandwich (and the boy who followed the instructions actually ate it–yuck!); and how to woo a girl (so cute with the writing of a poem and set-up of a picnic).  The 7’s have also created menu’s for a restaurant of their creating and in recent years some menus have been created online.  My grade 8’s have created tv ad storyboards for a company of their choosing to pitch to someone they actually thought was an ad agency rep.  They also created trading cards of the characters from The Outsiders again thinking they were actually being sent to a company who was holding a contest to promote their new line of educational trading cards. (I love how gullible grade 8’s are, and it leads to awesome authentic tasks.)  My grade 9’s have created CD inserts for a band and album they create from the ground up, writing all the “lyrics” (poetry) to go in it, based on a theme of their choice.  They’ve also written and mailed letters of complaint/compliment to actual businesses of their choice.

But that’s junior high.  When it came to my high school classes, I must admit I struggled greatly with utilizing authentic assessment tasks.  Despite believing that these types of assessments better engaged my students, required more creative and critical thought, led to deeper understanding of texts and concepts, and brought meaning to the tasks, I balked at the high school level.    That’s not to say that I didn’t create assessments that weren’t creative and interesting, but they lacked that authentic feel, and if I’m being honest they were much fewer and farther between.  Part of the problem has been the curriculum I have to teach and assess; I’ve struggled to envision authentic assessment tasks that relate to Shakespeare (comment with your suggestions) or how academic essays are in any way authentic (when’s the last time you wrote one???).  The time frame has also been an issue.  My senior high ELA classes are semestered 84 minute periods daily.  However, there have been years where I have had junior high classes that were also 84 minutes daily, but all year.  In order to cover and assess all the outcomes, plus prepare for diploma exams worth 50% of their overall mark, I just didn’t feel I had the time to assign authentic assessments that allowed students choices, opportunities to significantly revise ideas mid-stride, or deeply explore texts and concepts.  I felt they needed to be taught and assessed and shoved off to their next class.

This year I felt that a stronger focus on 21st century competencies might replace my guilt about not offering authentic assessment tasks to my high school students.  We did some really neat stuff last term in my ELA 20 and 30 classes, mostly revolving around collaboration and critical thinking, with some creativity and tech tossed in for good measure.  I tried to differentiate, allow for personal choices, and encourage deeper thought about the world in which they live.  And things were great.  Students actually said they enjoyed the atmosphere and purpose of the class and even some of the texts; although, the notion of ELA still depressed some of them.  It had been my hope that prepping kids for the 21st century would result in improved diploma exam grades.  I no longer believe this to be true.  (You can read THIS post of mine for more explanation.)  Reflecting on the diploma exams got me to thinking that 21st century competencies really aren’t enough if these competencies are going to be assessed through inauthentic assessments.  I’m not saying that critical thinking, for example, can’t be assessed unless it’s through an authentic task, but it would certainly help.  What I am saying is that very few people write essays or multiple choice tests in the “real world.”  I know professionals don’t create in isolation under ridiculous time limits.  So why do we expect these things from our students?  The more we can prep our students for their lives when they leave our classroom, the better.  For that reason I am hoping to bring better assessment opportunities to my students.  My goals are to remove as much inauthentic assessment from my courses as possible, including my final exams; to focus even more on the 21st century competencies; to incorporate more (more) authentic assessment tasks; and to find ways to bring my students’ work to more authentic audiences.  Please, pass along any suggestions you might have.

If you have the time, I’d love for you to take a look at a (more) authentic assessment task that I created for my ELA 10 class.  They are currently working on this project, but any feedback you can offer would be great!

See No Evil:  A Film Adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s “The Possibility of Evil”


I’m not typically one of those people who needs to be validated by others in order to feel confident in who I am and what I’m doing; however, over the past couple weeks, I’ll admit to being a little downhearted.  I don’t know about you, but I get like that sometimes.  My marking begins to collect faster than I can get it back to students; I get bogged down in the paperwork; I put too much stock in the politics and standardized tests; I get depressed that the technology I want is inaccessible; I lose sight of the reason I wanted to teach in the first place–to make a difference in the lives of my students–and focus on all the reasons why I feel I can’t make a difference.  These dark times don’t often last very long, and all it takes is a day like today to snap me out of my funk and remind me that teachers really do make a difference in the lives of their students.

If you don’t mind, I’d like to briefly share my day with you. I began the day at Sexsmith Secondary School in Alberta.  As part of my ELA coaching position, I was asked to judge the school’s first poetry recitation competition.  There were two levels, one for jr high and one for sr high.  I was blown away.  Memorization isn’t something I’ve required of my students before, though I offer it as an option in a couple of units.  Watching these students today was inspiring and made me want to push my own students out of their comfort zone a bit.  It was easy to see that the teachers at SSS are pushing their kids and the kids are thriving.  It was validating for me to see that other teachers are continuing to sail out of the harbour and take some risks, and their kids are right out there beside them.

Next up was my own ELA 10-1 and 10-2 combined class.  I didn’t know if I’d make it back for the beginning of this class after the poetry competition, so I lined up another teacher to cover my class during her prep.  (That cooperation was validation of its own–I love my school, colleagues, and students!)  However, I did make it back in time, only to have this teacher offer to sit in with my class anyways.  I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and set aside my plans for the day in order to talk one-on-one with each of my students.  It was a great experience.  I let the students know upfront that the conversation was not because I had any particular issues to discuss, but rather that I wanted to give them each a private forum to voice their concerns and opinions about the course so far.  These conversations reminded me that each of my students is an individual:  I had varying comments on different issues, ranging across the spectrum of possibilities.  For instance, workload was a hot topic for some, feeling that I expected too much, while others were content with the expectations, and some felt like they could certainly handle more.  This was a great reminder of one of my goals for this term, which was to bring a deeper individualization to my courses.  It was also validating to hear that my students were unanimously appreciating the “book club” feel that I am attempting to bring to the course, where we are much more conversation oriented as we study texts.  They enjoy the critical thinking inherent in this framework, and many of the students mentioned they were much more engage despite harbouring a distinct disliking of ELA in general.  It also deeply moved me that each student willingly shared their ideas and opinions with me, something I was a little wary about when I decided to hijack these 84 minutes today.  (By the way, when they weren’t talking with me, students appreciated the time to work on a couple of the tasks we have on the go.)

Finally, I had my junior high drama option for the last two periods of the day.  I’ve decided to take a different approach to this course this year, bringing a “short film” focus to the term.  I’ve done this for a variety of reasons and have heard a variety of opinions from students and parents about the decision to do so.  But this isn’t the point.  Suffice it to say, the goal is that each student will create a short film on a topic of their choice, in a genre of their choice, by the end of the term, and we will present these in our own film festival.  Over the past couple of classes students have been creating the plot and point of their short film.  Last class we began to peer review the stories they’ve written.  Today I wanted to introduce them to the notion of critique.  We talked about the differences between critique and criticize.  We talked about the life applications of learning how to provide critique to others, as well as accept the critique of others.  I began the critiquing session by sharing my own ideas for my own short film.  And the students amazed me.  They asked smart questions for clarification, mentioned positives in my ideas, but more importantly they offered polite suggestions for how I might go about improving my idea.  It was validating to hear them interacting as I had hoped, but feared to expect.  This continued beautifully through student volunteers who shared their project ideas with the class, faltering only slightly as a grade 7 boy decided to persistently question his older sister.  All in all it was a great end to a great day.

Sometimes we teachers can get so caught up in all the responsibilities of teaching that we forget our number one priority needs to be our students.  Luckily, we can’t ever escape these same students, and it won’t be long before they  remind us that we do make a difference in their lives.  At that point it’s up to us to decide whether we will have a negative or a positive difference.  That’s certainly an easy decision to make; we wouldn’t be doing what we are doing if we weren’t always striving to better the lives of the kids we love.