When the Star-Belly children went out to play ball,
Could a Plain-Belly get in the game? Not at all.
You only could play if your bellies had stars,
And the Plain-Belly children had none upon thars.
In The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss, it doesn’t take long for the reader to figure out that the Star-Belly Sneetches are privileged. Thanks to a small star upon their bellies, these Sneetches have all the fun. Unfortunately for the Plain-Belly Sneetches, no star equates to no fun.
Is it possible that in education, we sometimes unknowingly create a “Sneetch situation”? I believe it is. An unintended consequence of rewards for academic performance or participation in extracurricular activities can be a group of students feeling “less than,” much like Dr. Seuss’s Plain-Belly Sneetches.
Recently, I walked into a school as a teacher colleague, Dan, a 15-year veteran, was walking out. “Aren’t you headed in the wrong direction?” I laughingly asked. It was late in the morning, an unlikely time for a classroom teacher to be leaving.
“On my way to pick up ice cream!” he exclaimed. “Join us if you have time!”
When asked what his students had done to deserve ice cream, Dan explained that the school science fair had been the day before. At his school, science fair participation is optional, and he’d decided to surprise students who entered the fair with an ice cream party. Some of his students were feeling pretty excited, he said, whereas others were not.
As a guest in his building, I smiled and nodded, trying hard to reflect the friendliness being directed at me, remarking that those lucky students must be looking forward to the ice cream. On the inside, I was connecting with those who were not. I wondered at their reasons for not participating in the science fair. Did their parents have the time and resources to help facilitate such a project? Were they students who have the supports necessary to engage in that type of work outside of school? Did they want to participate? Did those students have control over their choice to participate?
For a variety of reasons, some students are unable to participate in extracurricular activities, or struggle to excel at academic competition. Lack of parent support, financial limitations, and learning disabilities or struggles are just a few of the reasons that limit participation. As a parent of two boys, ages 7 and 10, I certainly understand the challenge of getting it all done. I am a parent who sits down to do homework each night with my sons, and reads every email, newsletter, and flier that comes home. Yet the science fair at my sons’ school had proved to be too much for our family this year. My boys did not participate. One reason I felt such empathy for the students not being rewarded was that my own children would have been excluded in this celebration, through no fault of their own.
Carole Dweck, widely recognized for her work around a “growth mindset,” tells us that “People nearly always perform better if they focus on things they can control, such as effort, rather than things they cannot.” The intention of the type of reward described above is to congratulate those who participated. The less transparent intention is to convey a message of disappointment to those who did not, in hopes that exclusion from the reward will result in future participation or compliance. Commonly, however, the groups of kids who reap those rewards and those who do not remain unchanged. If we hope to foster growth and participation, then we must ask ourselves if we are celebrating those things our students do, in fact, control.
I love to celebrate. In my classroom, celebrations are intended to do just that. Students and teacher joyfully come together to honor the efforts of the classroom. In my classroom, celebrations occur when we all have cause to celebrate, Star-Belly and Plain-Belly Sneetches alike.
If you also love to celebrate, here are some questions you might consider:
- What is my true reason for providing a celebration? Am I genuinely celebrating the success of all my students?
- Am I offering a reward/celebration for something my students have direct control over?
- Do my students know what is expected of them in order to receive the reward? Surprises are fun, but if rewards are kept a secret, it’s possible we are unintentionally setting kids up to feel our disappointment, or to feel punished.