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Showcasing Dotti Etzler and the "Mystery Activity"

"At about four weeks into the school year, after several assignments had been completed, I noticed that my 18 students in a low-achieving, high school business class had 41 zeroes!" recalled Dotti Etzler. "No wonder they weren't doing very well -- they simply were not doing the work. Only 28 percent of my students had turned in all their assignments, which meant 62 percent of my students had at least one zero. What a performance!"

Business teacher Dotti Etzler has adopted a No Zeroes Policy.

One day, at the beginning of class, Etzler, a business teacher at Francis Scott Key High School in Union Bridge, Maryland, instructed her students to get into teams for a "mystery activity." When they had formed groups of 4-5 best buddies, she asked each new team to select a leader. Etzler then handed each student a colored square of paper with his name and a number and had them add up the numbers for their teams. Before it was even announced, one student realized that the numbers represented the zeroes the students had earned.

The goal of the teams was to encourage students to make up their delinquent assignments, going back to the beginning of the school year. Some assignments were so late students knew they would receive no credit for them. Etzler told them, however, that she would check in with the teams approximately every two weeks, and teams with no zeroes would receive prizes -- of zero-shaped cookies, doughnuts, and other treats.

At that point, some students had seven or more assignments to complete -- so their work was cut out for them, but they had teammates who didn't want to miss out on something to eat. So, the positive peer pressure was on, and the "No Zeroes Policy" took effect!

"The percentage of work turned in went from the initial low of 28 percent to 61 percent at the first team check, then to 72 percent, and then to 81 percent at the end of the quarter," reported Etzler. "At the first check of the second quarter, the class was one assignment away from having 100 percent of its work turned in."

Etzler added, "It was especially amusing to watch the dynamics of one team, which ended up with six very tall guys, all hungry during this lunchtime class. They encouraged one another well, and they had the best record in the class for finished work!"

Nearly all Etzler's students were in favor of her No Zeroes Policy and they enjoyed receiving their rewards in a team setting. Even the few who stated that they didn't like it admitted they turned in more work because of it. Parents were not involved in the program except to encourage completion of multiple missed assignments, an illustration of the positive impact of students working together. Etzler appreciated that she didn't have to nag students to hand in their work.

"The comments and actions of my students surprised me," Etzler told Education World. "At the end of the semester, one student said it was the first time he had ever done 100 percent of his work for any class. Another student, a continually unmotivated young man, gave an enthusiastic 'Yes!' when he completed several missing assignments. For most students, the positive reinforcement got rid of the carelessness about handing in assignments. Once students got 100 percent of assignments turned in, they wanted to keep it that way; and they knew their teammates were depending on them."

Some added benefits noted by Etzler included increased self-esteem based on a high level of accomplishment in the class, better morale among students and teacher, a higher grade for many students, and a higher class average. Several students said they had a more positive attitude about the class, even if they had already been turning in all their work. The program built teamwork and functioned so well in her unmotivated classes that Etzler plans to use it every semester.

"We did have two hard cases," Etzler explained. "One student let his team down multiple times despite their encouragement and offers of help. After four weeks of continually going downhill, he finally transferred to another class. A second student withdrew from school after more than 30 absences. The other 16 students were on board with the plan, not perfectly and with some ups and downs, but when the team check date came along, almost all their work was turned in."

The culminating prize for Etzler's policy came at the end of the semester, when classes with all their work submitted got to enjoy another zero-shaped reward -- pizza! She offset the cost of the incentives with opportunities for the students to contribute through donations of treats.

"Just before Thanksgiving, I passed around a sign-up sheet for apple, pumpkin, or cherry pie for the team check-up day," said Etzler. "Pie would be available only for those with no zeroes. Students volunteered to bring soda, their own pie, and cups. It was neat to see them take ownership in this project. It works!"

Photos courtesy of Dotti Etzler.

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If you're a teacher who has completed an interesting or unusual activity with your class -- or if you know of a teacher who has -- please let us know about it. E-mail a brief description of the activity, along with your contact information, to [email protected]

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
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