(A 5th-grade teacher’s hobby of collecting proverbs helps him create a positive classroom community, culminating in an amazing 50-day environmental project.)
by Michael Chodroff
On December 27, 1990 at 5:01 PM (EST), I recorded the 500th proverb into my steno book of quotes. On March 16, 1991, my 1000th was inked, at least according to the records I kept in conjunction with my unusual hobby. At the age of 16, I discovered tomes filled with millennia of collective wisdoms, which advised on all of life’s categories: friendship, politics, doubt, tolerance, risk, music, education, etc. And in order to get to that thousandth quote, I read countless thoughts belonging to many great thinkers in human history. Late nights were spent perusing, pontificating, analyzing, and questioning the immortalized ideas that were glowing under the light from my desk lamp with the 60-watt bulb.
According to Buddha, “Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.” Knowing this, how could I keep all of these quotes to myself? So, during my junior year of high school, I started posting a diversity of thoughts inside my locker door. Using Crayola markers, sayings were neatly printed onto 4 x 6 index cards and were posted with clear tape. At first, the individuals who stored their belongings in nearby lockers would peak over to see what Twain, Socrates, Sitting Bull, Angelou, Milk, Beecher, Bellow, Meir, and Seuss had to offer. Then, as the school year entered May, a request came in from a friend for their very own “quote of the week.” “Sure, just give me your locker combination and I’ll take care of it,” was most likely my response.
Needless to say, by the time I graduated from high school in June of 1992, I had accumulated exactly 100 locker combinations. Over the course of my senior year, I made an effort to light the candle of anyone who requested a quotation for his or her locker. Each proverb that I posted was chosen judiciously, typically based upon the situation of each friend’s life at the time my quote books, markers, and index cards were spread out at my bedroom desk. Sometimes, on days when I posted new quotes, I could feel various waves of energy flowing through the hallways. Extra smiles, pensive nods, high fives and even questions like, “Why that quote?” were the norm on these days.
In retrospect, I view this memory as being one of my first opportunities to be an educator, though hardly any of the wisdoms I offered were my own. Yet, I still was very much a student, learning not just from my classroom teachers, but from the collective wisdoms of individuals of every gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, age, occupation, income level and time period in history. Although these words provided me with a teacher’s manual, it is the classroom of life that has given me the opportunity to see how the wisdoms of others actually apply.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did,
but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou
When I was in third grade, I got caught passing a note to a friend with very personal information on it. When my teacher intercepted it, I watched her face turn red as she skimmed it over. And although there were consequences attached to my actions, she never embarrassed me by sharing my words out loud to the class. That I will never forget. During my senior year of high school, when I struggled with math, my teacher told me so many times in the beginning of the year that I was not trying and that I was putting forth little effort. So I stopped trying and putting forth effort. I will never forget that either.
Great fortune for me came in the form of having many great teachers over the course of my years, both in K-12 and in my continuing education classes. Of course, I also had my share of instructors who were much better with their subject matter than they were with the individuals they were trying to educate. But as Auguste Rodin, sculptor of The Thinker, once said, “Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely.” The encounters I have had with other educators over the years have been neatly filed and classified into my own personal do's and do not's in the classroom.
Having worked with children for many years before even stepping into the classroom, I was able to experience the impact of my words and actions from moment to moment. The responses to my smiles, jokes, and high fives from youngsters were every bit as evident as the reactions to my headshakes, rolling eyes, and expressed disappointments. As I matured as a counselor, youth group leader and as a person, I realized that it was important to be authentic with my feelings about the behaviors of the children I was working with, but there were certainly ways to express them with respect.
During my student teaching, in September 2001, I had a phenomenal mentor teacher that encouraged me to incorporate some of my passions and hobbies into my repertoire. Two of the things that began to get included into the curriculum were my hand held VCR camera for filmmaking and my commitment to taking care of the environment. By incorporating aspects of who I was into instruction, it allowed me to loosen up and gain comfort in my new position. Together we made horror movies, wrote skits about recycling, played math games and wrote personal narratives and reflective poetry. At the end of my experience, I had to sit with the Vice-Principal of the school for an evaluation. “Mike,” she started, “I have found that over the years students participate in class not because they are excited by content, but because they want to please a teacher that they like. When I observed you teaching, all hands were in the air when you asked for volunteers. They clearly liked you.” I will never forget that either.
The following January, I found myself with a job, taking over a class of students that lost their teacher to a promotion. During the first few weeks, I ate lunch with small groups of two and three in the classroom. I wanted to find out about each pupil’s likes, dislikes, hobbies, interests, families, and friends. I was determined to create an atmosphere that celebrated what each one of us brought to our learning community. Students needed to feel that others would respect their ideas, opinions and personalities. The only way I could establish that was to lead by example. During class discussions, I listened with intent, asked many questions, and hardly raised my voice. I brought my jovial disposition into our daily routine, demonstrating how fun and learning could take place simultaneously.
Recently, on a Facebook group that I administer for my former students, I asked them to remind me of some of the things we did so that a positive classroom environment was established. Here is a sampling of some of the responses:
Hey Mr. Chodroff. I remember one time someone accused me of saying something I didn't. You handled the situation by asking me if I actually said it (which I didn't), and you believed me when I said I didn't. The way you handled this situation caused my respect and trust for you to rise. - Jon
Something that was really enjoyable and different were the Halloween video projects. At that age, none of us had ever done something like that: write our own screenplay, cast it and almost direct by ourselves. Not to mention, I don't think we had ever been exposed to learning with or using that medium. We had only been exposed to a video camera to record our family home movies on special days and holidays. And to see our creation come to life was truly spectacular. - MJ
You used to have some ventriloquist's puppet in the classroom, and when I would talk too much (which was often) you would take out the puppet and explain to me I needed to be quiet so you could "rehearse for your next show." Haha, that was great! - Emily
You should talk about the nicknames we each were given. It helped me to feel comfortable in the class immediately. It was something unique and creative, no other teacher I have had has ever done that! –Alex
I think I speak for everyone in our class, regarding the feeling of doing something special for our school and partaking in a recycling program for everyone. Each week we got together as a class, a school, and a community to help the environment. We all become more aware of our individual role we play in keeping where we live alive and healthy. –MJ
By focusing on the learning process, instead of the facts and figures, I inadvertently was helping kids to fall in love with knowledge and made them thirsty for more. As an elementary school teacher, my goal was not to produce future Jeopardy contestants. Rather, I wanted to give them the tools they needed to find information and apply it to situations in their lives. My hope was that students enjoyed learning, and fortunately it seemed that the more comfortable and safe they felt in the classroom, the better their academic products actually were.
“We are what we repeatedly do.
Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” - Aristotle
When I first started as a teacher, I thought that classroom management revolved around stickers, charts, prize boxes and awards. I had this plan in my head that the more positive reinforcement I could create with students and their behaviors, the more likely they would be to demonstrate good habits. After a lesson or an activity, I would often loudly say, “Thank you table…” creating a flurry of students putting away supplies, cleaning off desks, and sitting at attention in hopes that I would draw a star next to their group number on the board for being the first ones ready. As a new teacher, it was a wonderful sight and an even better feeling of how well I could get my students to act.
What I began to discover over time was that when I took a break from rewards, the students took a break from positive behaviors. They were still good kids, but desks became increasingly messier, children began speaking over one another during discussions, materials were haphazardly placed in all corners of the room, and classwork quality began to decline. I felt as if I was giving out constant reminders, and spending extra time waiting for the class to get ready, detracting from moments that could be used for learning opportunities A few years into my career, it occurred to me that I was not helping the students to establish good habits, rather I was incentivizing the ability to follow directions. And once the prizes disappeared, so did the habits that I thought I had helped to establish in the children.
Instead of taking the easy route, and going back to the reward system, I decided that if I was going to help students build meaningful behaviors, I needed to rethink my strategies as their instructor. So, one morning, I sat my class of fifth graders around the carpet and asked them to list out some of the many positive characteristics that successful students possessed. I asked, “How many of you would like to have these traits?” All of them raised their hands. “How many of you believe that these traits are attainable?” All of them raised their hands. “How many of you honestly think that you do these things most of the time?” Some of them raised their hands. “How many of you would do these things all of the time if I stopped giving out rewards for demonstrating these behaviors.” Two students raised their hands, followed by some giggles. And then I asked, “Why is that?”
The 45-minute conversation that ensued was one of those “Ah-ha” moments for the entire class, teacher included. Students talked about getting allowance for chores, winning trophies and ribbons for simply participating in sports, and getting complimented by adults on just about everything that they did. They talked about high paying jobs, organized competitions and contests, and even grades and prestigious colleges. In this white-collar school district in which I was employed, there was a social construct that was growing inside of each of these students that I had not stopped to think about before. They believed that the more you have, the bigger your social status became, and the more that people would like them. “People admire you if you have money,” was the comment that made me realize I had my work cut out for me.
Knowing that I could not change their perceptions or their incentive-based performances overnight, I spent the weekend brainstorming for ways to make the students look at the world through a different lens. I knew that I needed to create partnerships with them and give them some ownership over a meaningful project and experience. So I decided that we would take pieces of what we had been working on for a good chunk of the year and wrapped them up into something big.
On Monday morning, after announcements, we gathered back onto the community carpet. “Boys and girls, I’d like to end the school year with a bang, so I have decided that we are going to do a citizenship project. We are going to combine our study of the environment, our expertise as filmmakers, our modest fundraising efforts for The Rainforest Alliance, and our focus on having good character into one, big night. We are going to wow everyone!”
“Sounds like a lot of work,” Matt commented.
“Of course it will be a lot of work! You need to earn your summer vacations.”
“When can we start?” questioned Andrew.
“We already have!” I improvised. “Everything we have been doing so far this year has been getting us to this point. You just didn’t realize it.”
“Mr. C, you are so sneaky like that. So what do we do next?”
“Well, we are going to set quantifiable goals for ourselves today.”
“What are quantifiable goals?” questioned Anna.
“They are personal quests that we want to accomplish that we can also keep track of.”
“I don’t get it.”
“For example. I can set a goal of being a better reader. I can read more, but it would be hard for me to determine exactly when I became a good reader. However, I can set a goal of reading for 30 minutes a night. Either I do it or I don’t. That is quantifiable,” I responded.
“Oh, I get it. So, like, I can set the table for dinner every night so my parents don’t have to yell at me to do it,” commented Julia.
“Exactly!” So we discussed what made for good goals academically, socially, athletically, and so on. With some careful facilitation, I got the students to agree that the two personal goals they were required to formulate, had to be rooted in our list of characteristics that successful students possessed. Fortunately, words like determination, responsibility, perseverance, honesty and neatness were all represented.
Back at their desks they thought, conferenced with peers, bounced ideas off of me, and came up with goals. Already, they were getting were getting introspection into the habits and behaviors that they needed to improve themselves. Some of the students’ goals included: writing down assignments in the homework pad, tutoring a younger sibling, walking the family dog, having television free nights, exercising, and organizing school and home materials.
After everyone took turns reading their goals, and making adjustments based upon friendly suggestions, I got the infamous student question, “Now what?”
As if on cue, I responded, “Now we look for sponsors!”
“What do you mean? What is a sponsor?”
As I replied, I began to hand out the pledge forms that I created over the weekend. “From the time this project starts on April 21, to when everything will be due on June 9, you will have 50 days to work on these goals. Your job this week, is to find family and friends that will give you a small donation for each time you accomplish your goal. Go home, and call Uncle Tommy and convince him to give you twenty-five cents every time you read for 20 minute.”
“Awesome!” responded Mac, my fast mathematician. “I can earn a lot of money for this!”
Lizzie chimed in, “Wait a second. I thought you said we shouldn’t be working for rewards anymore. We talked about how money was the only motivation for people and now you are showing us how to make more? I don’t get it.”
“Wise Lizzie, how right are you,” I responded in my best Yoda voice. [Yoda is a character in Star Wars.] “What was I thinking? I guess, maybe, well, let’s give it all away then. If you look at the bottom of your sponsor sheet, someone tell me where this money is going?”
“The Rainforest Alliance!” three-fourths of the class screamed in unison.
Over the course of the next seven weeks, the students immersed themselves in our Citizenship Project. Collectively, they helped me work out the rest of the details of the project and decided that we would do an Environmental Awareness Night. The students broke into groups focusing on rainforests, recycling, alternative energy, global warming and endangered species. They wrote essays and poems, created models and artwork, directed short films, and even sponsored a recycling and poster contest throughout the entire school.
Simultaneously, each individual in the class was working on specific goals, unconsciously formulating the good habits they selected on their own. The excitement and enthusiasm each day brought was electric, as they shared stories about their experiences and tried to figure out how much money they would be raising for the rainforest. Their energy was contagious and suddenly I was hearing from other teachers about changes they could see in certain students and in the class as a whole. I would receive random e-mails from parents thanking me for making things a little more peaceful at home. Heck, there were times when I could walk around the room for half an hour without having to open my mouth. The students owned their learning and I began to understand the true power of an intrinsic reward system.
On Tuesday, June 12th, 2007 from 7-9pm, my students transformed the school gymnasium into a symposium on environmental education. Posters collected from our contest decorated the walls. In their groups, the students assembled table displays with all of their work related to their topic. Relatives, friends, and community members were indeed “wowed” by the depth of the students’ knowledge and the sincere joy they had in sharing their work. Unbeknownst to the students, I had also sent out scores of e-mails to local and national leaders regarding this project. An excerpt from that note reads:
I would like the students to know that they are part of a larger community that applauds their efforts to not only become better individuals, but to become activists in our world. If you could take a moment and send the students a short letter of praise for their efforts, it would be very much appreciated!
We heard from a variety of individuals and organizations congratulating the class on their efforts. I had several displays that highlighted all of the notes we received. Collectively, our favorite letter was as follows:
I want to take a moment to commend all of you for your hard work and your dedication to making a difference in your community.
It is so essential that everyone understand, that what we are facing is nothing short of planetary emergency and that the very habitability of our planet is what is at stake.
As more and more people recognize the truth of our circumstances, I am confident that we will rise to meet this challenge together. Young people like yourselves will play the most important role.
I look forward to following your continued efforts and congratulations on all of your accomplishments.
After about 45-minutes of tabling, everyone assembled to watch the movies that the groups created, after which I presented a check to The Rainforest Alliance in the amount of $1,200. More so, I was able to look at a group of students who had shown an incredible desire to make a difference in their own lives, without receiving an extrinsic reward. At the end of year, they walked away understanding that making a conscious change in ourselves and in our world requires time and effort. There is no sticker or ten-cent prize I could have given them that would have taught them this lasting lesson.
“We must be the change we wish to see in the world.” – Gandhi
Over the year, I have learned that the scope and sequence of the skills that need to be covered in class can be done so without having to depend upon textbooks and pre-packaged teaching materials. Being a teacher means constantly being a student. Keeping up with the pedagogical and psychological components of teaching is just as important as staying up to date with the topics being taught. Establishing security, trust, open dialogue, connections… those are just some of the ingredients to creating a true learning environment. Speaking about issues of social and environmental justice should be done with a journalistic approach. Asking more questions, representing all sides, and not force-feeding opinions is challenging, but essential. And teaching about good character, means having and practicing good character. We must lead by example.
The life of a teacher involves creating partnerships with students, parents, administrators, other teachers and community members because ultimately, we are trying to mold global citizens. It is a very challenging and demanding line of work. In order to this, we must accept that fact that we will sometimes work nights, and weekends, and even during vacations. We will be exhausted, overwhelmed, and sometimes baffled. We also must realize that mistakes will be made, and how we handle them will speak volumes.
There is a great proverb that states, “A beautiful thing is never perfect.” I often tell my students that I don’t believe in the word perfect in regards to people and nature because it is too subjective. It is this unattainable concept that has individuals often focused on the wrong goals. Instead, we need to focus on improvement and trying to be consistent with our work ethics, our compassion and our good habits. I accept my strengths and weaknesses and I share them with my students, as I hope they will embrace their own. Thus, together we strive to live up to a very conscious set of standards that will make our experiences meaningful and enjoyable. As a learning community, out ultimate goal is to bring each other up, as we would hope to do in a world that extends beyond the classroom walls. To help orchestrate this year after year, I must continually grow and learn as a thinker. And most importantly, I must always believe and hope that young and old want to make a positive difference in their lives and the lives of others.
My goal, although perhaps not quantifiable, is that one day in the future, an education student will be flipping
through a book of proverbs. Tucked away, amongst all the great thinkers of our time, will be some thoughts
by an individual known for his passion about education and the environment.
Maybe, hanging on an index card in someone’s locker, you will read the following:
Being a teacher is a job. Being an educator is a way of life. – Mike Chodroff