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Movies, Motivation, and Missing Assignments

Kimberly Johnson, a recent graduate of the University of North Dakota, is a first-year English teacher at Valley Middle School in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Kimberly and and her mentor, Laurie Stenehjem, share their journal entries with Education World readers in alternating weeks.

Last fall, you may recall, I missed the opportunity to see the film Harry Potter with the students on our team because many of my kids had not completed all their assignments for the quarter. (See How Late Is Too Late?.) This spring, I missed the opportunity to watch the movie Jurassic Park 3 for the same reason.

Most of the kids who couldn't see last Wednesday's movie were held out because they hadn't finished their English assignments. It's not that my world shatters if I don't get to see a movie; it's the idea that students didn't get assignments done for my class -- again! Somebody tell me how students can fail to complete just six assignments -- four of which we did in class.

This past week was also mid-term reporting time, and I thought I would be reporting 20 or 30 failing grades, partly due to missed assignments. Surprisingly, I had only seven F's. That's a record for me this year. In fact, it's a third of the number I usually report. Part of the reason was due to the fact that some students had two extra hours to finish missing work while their classmates enjoyed a movie.

I've grown to despise movie days -- for two reasons:

  1. I'm always one of the teachers left behind with students who didn't get their work done on time
  2. When I was a student, I always turned my schoolwork in on time and I never needed to be bribed with a movie day.

As I drove home Friday evening, I thought about motivation and grades. What really motivates students to get good grades? I started to think about the grades I reported for the mid-term. For the first time this year, I had fewer than ten students failing. Am I proud of this? I should be, but I'm not. I feel I've had to lower my standards in order for my students to get higher grades. I have given them only six assignments, and most of those are done in class. Which is better -- setting high standards and expecting students to meet them -- even if it means they might get lower grades -- or setting lower standards so students can see high grades on their report cards?

Middle schoolers, with their fragile self-esteem, need to experience some success. I think if my students really reached to meet my expectations, however, they would experience a greater sense of satisfaction than they would if they were given a good grade without too much effort.

I remember my undergraduate days when students discussed which classes to take. Many of my college classmates were content with taking classes from the professors who they knew would give them easy A's. I couldn't do that because I never felt I really earned those grades. I appreciated most the professors and teachers who expected their students to work hard and earn their grades.

Why should I expect less from my seventh graders? Why do we have to dangle movie days like a carrot in front of them to get them to complete their assignments? I can promise one thing for the rest of this school year. I am raising my standards again. I may never enjoy a movie reward, but at least I'll know that I didn't compromise my standards.

Click here for biographical information and previous entries.

Article by Kimberly Johnson
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Updated 8/10/2004