I have had this book sitting on my shelf for about 6 months now and, due to it’s over-simplistic title have avoided picking it up. I’m happy I changed my mind.

Meeting Students Where They Live: Motivation in Urban Schools, by Richard L. Curwin, has turned out to be a gem.

On labeling students

Try doing substitution when you are tempted to use a label or when you hear another teacher use one. When you want to say a student is arrogant, for example, try “She defends herself” instead. Rather than calling a student a gangster, consider saying “That student has troublesome friends.” If you find yourself starting to describe a student as lazy, switch to “I’ve yet to find the key to involving her.”

 Make a list of commonly used labels–both labels that you use and ones that you’ve heard used–and find reasonable substitutions for them.

 On threats and rewards

  • Threats lead to finishing, not learning
  • Threats lead to an “I have to” mentality, not an “I want to” mentality
  • Threats satiate, requiring the use of stronger and stronger threats over time.

More on rewards and punishments

When deciding whether to use threats, punishments, and rewards, think like a physician: first, do no harm.

and my personal favorite:

I hear a variety of arguments for rewarding urban students when they do well academically or behaviorally. One argument goes thus: “So many urban kids are deprived of positive reinforcement. They never get rewarded for doing well. Often, they never get noticed. They need and deserve rewards.” …so what’s the problem? Although I agree that urban students’ lives frequently lack positive reinforcement and that offering rewards can, indeed, compel students to do their work, rewards do not necessarily result in learning.  If a reward is offered to solicit specific behavior, even desirable behavior, it is little more than a bribe, and bribes are not effective motivators. Looked at another way, bribes are simply threats in disguise. If I say to you, “If you do everything in this book, I’ll give you a sticker to put on the cover,” what I’m really saying is, “If you don’t do what I say, I will deny you a sticker.” The truth is that threats and bribes are two sides of the same coin: control.

I’m only partially through the book, but after 7 years of teaching in inner city schools, I find the advice to be well crafted, realistic, practical and while not anything completely new for me, it is a great overview of best practices and a chance to reflect on my own practices.

If you teach in an urban school, or even if you don’t, I suggest picking up a copy.

1 Comment

  1. Reply

    Mary Beth,

    Sounds like a good book for anyone who works with kids, not just in urban settings.

    I have often said to students and teachers that they should use verbs, not adjectives when telling me what happened. E.g. "Billy called-out" instead of "Billy was rude/disrespectful." Like the advice about labels, focusing on the verbs — on the action — removes some of the judgment from the conversation.

    I look forward to hearing more about this book.


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