I believe in the Jolly Rancher. As a relatively new middle school teacher of Special Education students, I discover new truths about adolescent nature every day. Sometimes maddening, usually adorable, always exciting, my 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students like to emphasize how well they can control their world.
Last year, I was teaching math to a group of 7th graders with reading disabilities whom I had first met the year before when I started at their school mid-term. We had a continuing problem of students, always the same ones, neglecting to come to class prepared. This resulted in many minutes wasted while they borrowed pencil and paper from friends or from me as well as exasperation from me and from their classmates. Out of frustration and, more than that, a desire to show the prepared students that I appreciated their efforts, I began class a new way one Monday. I brought a bag of Jolly Rancher hard candies to school and hid them in my tote bag. I announced to the class that everyone who brought their own pencils and paper should raise their hands. Then I went around the class distributing a couple of pieces of candy to those students.
Wild scrambling ensued. A few students who had not raised their hands because they couldn’t be bothered searching their backpacks for the required supplies miraculously produced them, but it was too little too late. The next day I did the same thing. Amazingly, I had near complete compliance. Then I stopped for a few days and did it again when it appeared that being prepared was falling off. In the end, while there have always been one or two students who don’t come prepared, it’s never the same student and is no longer of epidemic proportions.
What on earth is so important about a little piece of candy to students who already have a backpack containing Hot Cheetohs, sports drinks and gum? I don’t think it’s the candy. Even though these are young people entering their teen years, they still need tangible evidence of my love and approval. They know in their minds that I respect them and enjoy them because I tell them so by words and by expecting them to do their very, very best and showing them that not giving up brings success. But that little bit of candy represents something much sweeter than the sugar from which it is made. It is solid evidence of my love for them, a little colored chunk of approval from a trusted adult, approval that they still desperately need despite their being near-adult-sized themselves. For many students, that proof makes all the difference.
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