Monday, April 14, 2008

Personal Pet Peeve: Popsicle Sticks

Don't get me wrong, I'm a complete popsicle stick advocate when it comes to classroom and home crafts, or, go figure, for making popsicles. But when these creativity-inspiring, cool-snack-enabling pieces of wood are used for classroom "discipline," I can't stand the little buggers.

Discipline: training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character; control gained by enforcing obedience or order; orderly or prescribed conduct or pattern of behavior; a rule or system of rules governing conduct or activity; a form of punishment.

Have you witnessed a student being told to go "pull a stick" in a classroom after demonstrating behavior that a teacher doesn't like? Have you heard a student be told by classmates "oooh, you're gonna have to go pull a stick!" Or "uh oh, if you lose another stick you won't get to go outside for recess!" Are you a teacher who routinely warns students about their "stick status?" Substitute the words "card" or "face card" for "stick" in any of the above examples- it's the same concept: using public humiliation as a form of behavioral control. Sadly, popsicle stick discipline pocket charts are popular "classroom management" tools.

Excerpts from "Public Humiliation" at Wikipedia: "Just like painful forms of corporal punishment, it (public humiliation) has parallels in educational and other rather private punishments (but with some audience), in school or domestic disciplinary contexts, and as a rite of passage. Physical forms include being forced to wear some sign such as... a "Dunce Cap", having to stand, kneel or bend over in a corner, or repeatedly write something on a blackboard ("I will not spread rumors" for example)." "In some cases, pain or at least discomfort is insignificant or rather secondary to the humiliation..." "Even when not strictly public, humiliation can still be a psychologically "painful" aspect of punishment because of the presence of witnessing peers, relatives, staff or other onlookers, or simply because the tormentor witnesses how self-control is broken down. This is also true for punishments in class."

In my mind, classrooms are not prisons. I am no warden. As a teacher, I am employed to educate, guide, and serve the academic, physical, and emotional needs of my students. To fulfill my job requirements successfully, I take the time at the beginning of each year to build a positive repoire with my students and work with them to establish a safe environment in my classroom. This means I observe my students at length, I interview their parents (personally and in surveys/questionnaires that are sent home), and I constantly model appropriate behaviors and reactions to most, if not all, of our classroom experiences. No yelling, no threats, just explanations, questions, and role playing appropriate reactions for "next time." Praise, praise, appreciation, and more praise.


"You must feel so good inside. You accidentally spilled the glue, but you told me and helped me clean it up. That's terrific!"

"Thank you for showing J. what a good friend you can be. You hurt his feelings, but then you apologized. I think he feels better now, I hope you do too."


" I'm so glad you remembered how to move safely during free center time! You didn't run, so you didn't get hurt/hurt others today! Good job!"


"Thank you for letting B. have a turn to talk with me. When I'm done talking with her, your turn will be next. Thank you for waiting nicely, you're being very polite."

Perhaps such phrases sound Pollyanna-ish, and I admit, I go home with a sore throat and sore face every day for the first month of school because of how much I verbally communicate and smile with each of my students. It's become apparent over time that the fact that I actually enjoy talking to and WITH my students has set me apart from some of my colleagues in the past, as have my beliefs about children in general.


~ Just-turned-five-year-olds are not experts on issues of self-control. Neither are many adults. Ever see an adult burst into tears, "vent" in a less-than-appropriate venue, or behave in publicly embarrassing ways? Of course you have. No one is perfect, though adults have years and years and YEARS of experience built from successes, mistakes, and regrets that young children can't and won't possess, no matter how many time outs, cards pulled, or whistles blown that you inflict upon them.

~ First graders tend to be a little more acclimatized to school than kindergarten students are, while second graders demonstrate a bit more familiarity with the choreography of the classroom environment than they did the previous year. No, fifth graders don't have "it" all mastered, just because they're older than kindergarten students. No, tenth graders don't have "it" all mastered just because they're in high school.

~The need to guide and respond in meaningful ways to our students is so great, but it's one of those essentials that many teachers and schools ignore because they believe "there isn't time." Popsicle sticks are faster. Embarrassing a student is faster. But it's not better.

~ Too often teachers forget that their students are children, no matter what they wear, how they behave, or what they say. While children aren't social savants, they are certainly masters of observation, and they have emotional reactions to and an elephant's memory for interactions, good and bad, with the adults in their lives. You are making an impression on your students, and your treatment of them will determine their reaction and responses to you.

~ Students are not sent to school in order to make a teacher's day brighter, more cheerful, or to feed their ego. It's amazing to me that a classroom full of children "complying" by sitting in their chairs, completely silent, demonstrating no interactive or inquiry-based behaviors is considered a successful model of classroom management, a successful model of teaching. No questions are being asked, no ideas are being explored, no communication is occurring, but teachers receive atta-boy or atta-girl praise that they enjoy from their administrators and colleages, which reminds me...

~ Children aren't adults, nor are they robots, no matter how much some teachers and administrators wish they were. Information is exchanged with students, not just dumped into their open skull caps, lips zipped.

For my initial month's worth of teaching, guidance, and constant communication, my students work in an atmosphere that frankly, throws people for a loop for the remainder of the year. Month after month, observers, parents and colleagues come in and sit at my reading table, just to watch and listen, and take it all in. They hear children, those "uncontrollable and impulsive" kindergartners talking, apologizing, encouraging, laughing, singing, and debating. They witness students approach me with questions, not interrupting, waiting until I'm done speaking to someone else. They hear explanations of feelings, expectations of how someone can help, negotiations between peers, instead of tattles and screams and cries. They hear productive noise, which many had previously felt indicated mayhem, a "lack of control," a "zoo," proof that this teacher has no "classroom management skills." Funny the things visitors hear when they stop to truly listen, what they see, when they truly observe.

Because I've listened respectfully, because I've shared without force, I've modeled and therefore taught kindness instead of humiliation. I've appreciated my students for who they are and what they do, and in turn they reciprocate when I indicate it's time to transition from one activity to another. They respond appropriately, they enable each other, they cooperate. They help me create and maintain a positive learning environment, their ownership and sense of belonging being the essential foundation upon which the rest of our learning is built.

I invest in my students, their feelings, and their potential to learn. I do not believe their first and foremost responsibility is to learn how to comply, Pavlovian in nature. If you can only "control" your students through threats and public humiliation, it's time to rethink your purpose, teaching philosophy, and moral compass. How would you feel if your principal, administrator, or spouse put you on a popsicle stick chart? Go ahead, imagine it... you talk out of turn, to your grade level partner during inservice (pull a stick!)... you arrive late to a staff meeting because your potty break could only happen as soon as the bell rang and you had bus duty (pull a stick!) accidentally forgot to stop at the store and pick up milk (pull a stick!). I'm betting it wouldn't take long before you'd categorize such behavior as emotionally abusive. How long would you tolerate it? How willing would you be to perform your best? How long could you perform your best while suffering from repeated overdoses of humiliation inducing fight-or-flight adrenalin?

Working with a staff made up of mostly popsicle-stickers can be excruciating. You see your former students squashed into compliance, their new teachers finding fault in their questions, their exuberance, their anxiety, their need to adapt- everything that demonstrates that students are children who require guidance, instruction, experience, and time to reflect on situations that might occur outside of the math or reading curriculum. Relationship-building is seen as a chore, a "touchy-feel-y" approach, instead of as the foundation to which I referred earlier, an essential "safe" zone where students can re-evaluate and recover from natural mistakes. Teachers don't invest in it because it's not a quick fix, and it isn't "done" after a particular grade, though many of them have no problem doing everything possible to ensure that public humiliation goes hand in hand with public education, year after year. Why invest in embarrassment? Invest in reasoning, invest in valuing, invest in fairness, and invest in an attainable and attractive ideal that enables the best kind of learning to take place.

In my classroom you'll find popsicle sticks in our Creative Construction Zone, math calendar counting chart, or classroom refrigerator, three places they absolutely belong.


  1. That was wonderful! I wish there were more teachers like you around. I did raise my daughter like that. Now shes my best friend, well behaved, well adjusted gal at 26. Laurie

  2. Thanks for coming by. I teach a painting class to a group of teachers. I am always listening to how they handle situations. How they handle the Parents is also interesting. When my daughter was about 4 and headstrong..someone told me about a book...about give your kids choices...I chose the choices, but she felt empowered by being able to choose...was the single best advice I ever! Laurie

  3. i stumbled onto your your this post .. what an amazing teacher you are .. my soon to be 5th grader had a fabulous first grade teacher who had the same beliefs as you..
    she holds a solid first with us as far as teachers go.. i am so thankful for those like you who set the early school years pace as exciting & positive!
    thank you!!
    ~ maggie ~

  4. Excellent article.

    In addition to disrespecting students, I've seen that these systems generally don't work. Well behaved students behave with or without the cards and when students need to learn some self control, changing a card doesn't quite do it.

  5. YES!!! Reading your blog 'charges' me up to advocate for my children. Oh how I wish other parents were awake!

  6. One of my favorite sites..

  7. Yes, I did read this when you first posted, but am just re-reading to freshen up. I wish more people could have this perspective and insight. Amazing when you think of kids as kids rather than mini-adults.


As always, thank you for your comments, tips, suggestions and questions!