By Zemen Marrugi, M.Ed.
A few months ago, my fourth graders were involved in another highly engaged discussion when I threw at them a very challenging question. As I waited for my students to think about the problem, I began to contemplate if the assignment was too challenging. As educators, we have all heard it many times before; a rigorous classroom will produce higher performing students, but had I gone too far this time? Had I finally delivered a lesson far beyond their capabilities?
I remained patient for a few seconds as the class pondered in silence and then a shaky hand went up a few desks back. The two-pigtailed little girl made me smile as she recited the answer I was waiting to hear. I was so proud of her for answering such a challenging question and it was at that very moment that I realized that my students’ capabilities are only limited by my expectation. Benjamin Bloom, himself, would have given her answer a standing ovation. My smile soon faded as I heard a voice in the class say, “What a nerd.” The little girl’s smile also vanished as her intelligence was discouraged by a fellow classmate.
As an adult, nothing bothers me more than when a person is discouraged by their peers for going above and beyond the call of duty. Being an “over achiever” is sometimes seen as a negative thing by some people, when it should be encouraged. This behavior is evident in a lot of people’s reactions towards other people’s success and as a society, we are so quick to bash the person who stands out in a positive way, than provide words of praise for their continuous effort to grow.
This reminds me on how excited I used to get about my Science fair projects, but nothing used to dishearten me more than when my own peers made fun of such activities. Making comments like how stupid it was to participate in such time-consuming school rituals was so unnecessary. They did not know that I was so excited about being involved in the fair that I used to start my projects at least a year in advance. Yup, total nerd alert right here.
Anyhow, I came home that night and wondered for hours on how I can change the culture in the classroom where a little girl can never get dispirited for knowing more than her peers. My frustration reached its peak when I thought of how unfair it was for that little girl in my classroom to feel the way she had and it seriously brought me to tears when I realized that since she is a regular Honor Roll student, that she had probably experienced a lot of similar situations and will continue to do so for many years to come.
So, I sat down and started to think of how I can make being called a nerd a cool thing in my classroom? How can I make it where a fourth grade student that is being challenge with seventh grade content material be proud of the fact that she got the answer right? What can I do, as an educator, to create an environment so positive that you would want to be called a nerd?
Later that evening, while grocery shopping with my Mother, I still could not help but feel frustrated at the thought of a child being teased for being smart. Going through the aisles, I came across the Valentine candy and my eye caught a bag of mini sized Nerds candy packets and it hit me! I figured out a way to make being called a nerd in my classroom a cool thing.
The next morning, when the first child answers a tough question, I looked at him and said, “Wow, I just love it when a person is a nerd and knows such a hard answer. You, my dear, deserve a Nerd.” I tossed a mini packet of Nerds candy his way.
Yes, incentives work, but my goal was not just to give out candy with this project. My goal was to turn an insult into a positive phrase. Today, I am very happy to announce that being called a nerd in my classroom is not only a cool thing, but a titled more sought after than any other award. My students are proud of being able to answer tough questions.
As educators, we will come across a lot of misbehavior over the years, but what we need to always do is get creative with how we react to certain actions. Our tone and our comeback need to be in a less authoritative voice and more of a kid friendly message that makes them understand that certain things are not appropriate. The power of turning such dissenting phrases into a positive title makes it one of the best incentive I have ever incorporated into my class. I will always have a high expectation on my students’ academic and social skills, but the expectation I have on myself for creating an environment that is safe for all of the students will remain higher.