The Sticker Revolution
Several years ago, I had a sub who went a bit above and beyond. She not only took up whatever assignment I’d left for that day – she organized the papers and completion-graded them. In other words, she noted who’d finished and seemed to have taken the work seriously. She didn’t give them a number or a letter grade, of course – that would have been bold. But she did give each paper meeting her requirements a sticker.
I chuckled when I saw the papers the next day. Clearly this was someone more comfortable with elementary, maybe middle school. Nothing wrong with any of that, of course, but these were high school students. Pre-AP Freshmen. They were practically people. They weren’t going to be motivated by…
Holy Moses in a leaky basket, how they lost their minds when they saw the stickers. There was squealing from many of the girls, and almost genuine protest from some of the boys whose papers lacked the adhesive trolls or monkeys or whatever they were. I couldn’t believe it.
“Mr. Cereal! How come you never give us stickers? Don’t you love us? Do you not care if we do well?!?”
OK, they were partly kidding, but not entirely. Not even mostly. Many of them responded more powerfully than I could have ever imagined to the freakin’ stickers. Still… surely it was a fluke, right? A one-time thing? Kids are weird – you never know what’s gonna trigger them one day and mean nothing the next. I dismissed it as quickly as I had pet rocks and disco back in the day.
A week or two later I was at one of those Everything’s A Dollar So Stop Asking places with my wife, looking for who-knows-what, and I noticed several packages of the most obnoxious rainbow and puppy stickers. I grabbed them. Then some generic superheroes – not Marvel, not even DC, but some cheap knock-off assortment of colorful caped stereotypes. I spent less than ten dollars total, purely on a whim – what they heck, right?
The next reading quiz, students who scored a natural 100% (getting all the multiple choice questions right, not factoring in bonus points available from the more-involved short answer questions) received a sticker on their quiz next to the grade.
They loved it. It was almost embarrassing how quickly it escalated.
Students previously satisfied with 88% actually put in extra time to get stickers on their quizzes. A few kids who weren’t going to be getting 100% on their best day received them periodically for the largest jump in scores between quizzes or other nonsense. In short, it became a thing. I did it for years just because I found it amusing. Sometimes it seemed to actually change behavior, but over time it was mostly just stupid fun. The stickers weren’t driving the curriculum or anything – I wasn’t gamifying my flipped project-based #edtech lesson. They were a fluke that found traction.
I may have gotten a bit too excited and purchased way too many random, quirky packs of adhesive approval throughout the years. There were a few times I almost gave assignments just to use my cool new stickers! (Almost, I said. Stop judging me!)
Why am I telling you this?
We can professionally develop ourselves silly and memorize every Marzano text available-at-this-sponsored-link-please-buy-everything-I-get-a-percentage, and still sometimes it’s gonna be the weirdest, most random things that work – or at least work with some kids, in some situations, for some teachers, some of the time. When I’ve shared this with other educators, no one is surprised. Kids are weird like that, but of course teachers aren’t the most normal people in the world, either.
I suspect it was a type of unexpected approval, or a relationship-builder, maybe. I don’t really know for sure. And honestly, I didn’t entirely care – it was just something that worked for me, so I share it. Other teachers share what they do, also, and together we figure out what works most of the time. Some of us also lead workshops sharing ideas and strategies, much based on research and sound pedagogy, and some just based on experience and time. We can explain why some of it works, while some things just… do.
And then one day it didn’t.
I was bouncing through an introductory discussion with a new group of kids and someone shared a particularly pithy comment (I have no recollection what). I reacted with great approval and announced that THAT deserves a STICKER! as I marched back to my desk where I’d tucked them away for just such a joyous…
There was nothing.
I mean, I gave her the sticker. She said thanks, and looked a little confused. We kept going, and eventually I reacted to another thoughtful response with a second sticker. Then a third. Because when something’s not working, you have to do it more, faster, and with greater emphasis.
They were polite enough. The discussion went fine. The stickers just made no sense to them. Maybe it was my timing, or the context, or just a different group in a different state coming from different backgrounds. No biggie – we’ve found other ways to connect and learn and for me to push them to give a little more. I don’t need to understand what changed, precisely – although in hindsight I do wonder if I went a bit Bill Murray throwing snowballs in Groundhog Day and killed it. If I’m being honest, it had stopped working in conferences a couple of years earlier, but I’d kept doing it out of sheer momentum (and teachers tend to be overly polite about such things).
So, mild embarrassment I hadn’t caught on a bit more quickly, but no real harm and no lasting foul.
It never occurred to me to write a book about it, do a video series, start upping my lecture fee, or smother social media in derisive comments about teachers who don’t use stickers. I suppose I could have at least hit up Pearson or TEDx, but like I said, I’m just… slow that way. Plus, while the most casual perusal of my Twitter feed will easily dismiss any suspicions I might be carefully building a brand over here, I do have some shame. I may not get edu-famous (and yeah, I want to – who doesn’t?), it’s more important I be able to sleep at night.
Still, I could have shared it more vocally, I guess. There’s nothing more rewarding when you’re a relatively new teacher than stumbling across something that works – a lesson, a classroom management technique, even a book of stickers. And you should rejoice in those moments; they’re largely why we signed up. And I’m always happy to share. I have entire sections on each of my websites hoping there are folks who find them useful from time to time.
And one day they won’t work, or at least they won’t work the same way. That doesn’t mean I’ve failed, or that you’re doing it wrong. It just means that things change. The kids are different. You’re different. The context is ever-evolving and the exact dynamics maddeningly elusive. So we’ll find something else. You’ll try it another way. I’ll screw up a few times, feel like an idiot, then stumble into pedagogical brilliance once again.
Keep sharing those ideas. Keep going to those trainings – if you wish, I mean. Take in all useful ideas and figure out how to make them your own.
But don’t be afraid to follow your gut and do the illogical or unexpected thing, as long as it’s not unfair or in some way detrimental to your overall goals. And don’t be too proud to borrow from that irritating lady down the hall, or that coach who you won’t admit you feel smugly superior to in the classroom, or even from that weird sub who organized all of the papers and wrote completion grades on them.
It’s a tough enough gig even when it all works – no need to invent it all yourself or go it completely alone. Try stuff. Who knows what might happen?
And if you take a few risks and they turn out particularly well, I’ll even give you a sticker.
I have plenty left, believe me.
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