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This is my Prize Bucket.

As you can see, it's not one of your fancy-shmancy, la-dee-dah buckets; it's an old Charles potato chips canister. (Please note the battered lid, which I've dented over the years by beating with my forehead in moments of frustration.)((I'm totally serious.))

As the name implies, it's full of prizes.

As much as I'd like all my students to be engaged in their educational experience with laser-like focus and to be motivated by the pure, ephemeral joy of learning, over the years, I've discovered that bribery is pretty useful, too.

Here's the deal:
  • The Prize Bucket is full of little, cheap, mostly plastic toys that I award to students in class for answering hard questions, making excellent points, asking really good questions, or doing something deserving of minor, public recognition and reward. 
  • No food. No candy. Only little toys.
  • The prizes are awarded incredibly randomly - students never know when they might earn a prize. The idea is -in theory - to keep them on their toes. Hopefully the prizes will give them a little push toward engagement in class, which might eventually become a habit.
  • If a student asks for a prize, he or she has immediately disqualified him/herself from getting one.
  • The prizes are a secret. Nobody gets to look in the Prize Bucket but me. I am the sole arbiter of who gets which prize. (I like them to be surprised.)
  • Q - "But wait! Aren't you the one who's always talking about giving students more choices, whenever possible?"
  • A - Yes, I am.
  • Q - "Well, how does this fit in with that philosophy?"
  • A - "I'm complicated."
So, does it work? Does it improve student engagement?

Interestingly enough, yes - often it does. Not every student is motivated by a little plastic farm animal or ninja, but a surprising number of them are. One otherwise tough and taciturn boy a few years ago would surround his tests that he took for me with the animals he had won in class as little good-luck mascots.

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I've learned over the years that the most effective prizes tend to be the cheapest. Little plastic dinosaurs or farm animals (the ones sold by the bag in the cheapskate part of the toy aisle at Walmart or Target) are really popular.

[On the left - finger puppets, a rubber chicken, a pencil sharpener shaped like a human nose and tiny plastic babies.]

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Where Do These Come From?

Several places.
  • The dollar section at Target is a good place. I tend to look for bags of toys, although I wasn't able to resist the giant insects pictured here.

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  • The "Swap Shop" at my town's dump. (Where I found this SpongeBob doll, teddy bear cheerleader and dinosaur hand-puppet. These will be huge, enormous, status-conferring coups to the students who win these. I'm saving them for something special.)

  • Yard sales. A lot of times, there will be a giant bin of crappy, HappyMeal-type toys. When I explain to the parent who's selling them what I want them for, they'll usually give me all I can carry for a dollar or so.
  • My own son's toy box. He's six. He has too many tiny plastic toys that I step on in bare feet in the middle of the night. Every now and then, I need to thin the herd. (My motto - If I shout "F*@% It", it goes in the bucket.)
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  • The dollar store. Many of the prizes come from the toy aisle, but don't overlook the party-supply aisle; there are often bags of party favors that make great prizes.


[By the way, be aware that any figurines like this wrestler and these ninjas will be instantly dismembered by any boy you give them to. This used to bother me, until I realized that I would TOTALLY do the same thing.]

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Also from the dollar store, art supplies, like this discount, generic Play Doh, are very popular.

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Because so many of the disengaged students I need help in reaching are boys, I have a bias towards buying stereotypically masculine prizes - ninjas, soldiers, etc... Recently, I've made more of an effort to include less testosterone-drenched prizes.

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What can I say? At the end of the day, I'm still a Social Studies teacher.

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At a dollar apiece, these statuettes are a little more expensive than I'd like, but seriously - who could resist a kitty cat, a rhinoceros trophy and a freakin' pink FAIRY?!

3/10/2011 10:57:37

Excellent post. And I also happen to know that your love of plastic toys runs deeper then your teaching social studies!

I remember a trip to Burlington... you took us to a toy store. I think you got walking teeth and I got a helicopter. Or visa versa. :-)

Will

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