Last year, I stumbled across a frighteningly effective tool for classroom management: Bribery.
I try to avoid discipline problems by managing my classes well. Every class presents new challenges, though. So, as a disciplinarian, I arm myself with a chart of escalating consequences. It begins with simple teaching steps like "If a student isn't ready, she will lose a turn."
It goes on to remind me when to hold a student after class, when to contact parents, and when to involve the administration. The students seldom see this chart but it helps me to maintain a systematic and relatively effective approach to discipline.
Last winter, though, the enthusiasm of my first and second grade students broke the boundary between fun and danger. According to my disciplinary procedures, it was time to involve the school principal. I would not have hesitated with my older students but it seemed like overkill for these young kids. So, I concocted the Art Room Auction.
Introducing the Art Room Auction
Like most art teachers, I have collected a lot of neat tchochkes: vending machine toys, papier maché animals, kid-made jewelry. And I have a lot of tricks up my sleeves. I put these assets together and I announced an end of the year auction for each of my classes.
I showed my students a Sotheby's catalog, and I explained how art is frequently sold in auctions. Thanks to eBay, most of the children knew what an auction was, and they were excited to demonstrate one to their classmates. So, I hung a print by Rembrandt and I let the kids bid on it with imaginary money. When they all understood what I was proposing, I revealed my Art Bucks.
Art Bucks are my own version of Monopoly money. I made them as an accessory to an aesthetics lesson for my older students. Their design includes images from famous art throughout history. From cave paintings and hieroglyphs to Van Gogh's face on a Jasper Johns fiver. My students love this fake money. Even outside of class, it sparks conversations about art.
My students would need Art Bucks to bid in the Art Room Auction. They could earn the fake money by listening carefully, following instructions, and being my helpers at the end of each class. To drive the idea home, I taught the students how to make simple art wallets for the colorful art cash that they would soon be carrying.
I hoped this idea would be effective, but I was honestly shocked by how well it worked. Previously unruly students were suddenly sitting at look-at-me attention. At the end of each class, I was delighted by a multitude of children who asked, "How can I help? How can I be your helper?"
Kids continued to be kids of course. They got frustrated with each other. They became distracted and overexcited. But the auction gave me an easy, almost silent way to refocus their attention. I held my own art wallet in my hand. A quick hush fell over the room. Students went demonstrably back to work. At the end of each class, I gave out Art Bucks the way another teacher might hand out stickers.
There was a downside: The idea caught on too well. It overshadowed some very fun projects. Outside of class, a few students were even bullied for their art money. I was disturbed that some naturally helpful students suddenly expected compensation. I was actually kind of happy when one student attempted to forge the money on a color copier. It sparked a great conversation about plagiarism, forgery, and artists including J.S.G. Boggs.
This year, I made a few adjustments to the experiment. To prevent bullying, I created a public ledger called the "Art Bank." By referring to it, I could keep track of how much money each student had or had not earned. The Art Bank even allowed the students' to compare their savings with their classmates.
I also adjusted how and when the students could earn art bucks. Every student who respected the rules of the art room received a token Art Buck at the end of each class. I made it clear that helping and cleaning were expectations. Not bonuses.
The Art Room Auctions were the culmination of all this hard work. Each grade had its own auction scheduled for their final art class of the year. The students saved excitedly for these events. Parents commented about it frequently. Some parents even called me in a panic when they misplaced their kids' money or accidentally laundered it. Fortunately, the Art Bank solved these problems too.
Prizes for the auctions were made by me, plucked from other school projects, donated by friends and artists, purchased from the 99 cent store, or collected over the years by myself and other teachers. I posted a "catalog" of the items a month before the events. Between classes, I frequently found students lingering in front of the bulletin board, planning their bids!
One of my coworkers worried that the auctions would get out of hand. Preparation paid off, though. The rules of the auction were explained before each event began. Students enjoyed a practice auction to see how it would work, and how they might win an item or be disqualified. After the practice round, the rules were very easy to follow. No talking at all.
I announced each bid amount. Students raised their hands silently when they wanted to bid. Students could not bid more money than they actually had. If a student became disruptive during the auction, she could have her money or her winnings revoked. That never happened, though, because there were additional art activities available at each table.
Every auction was a success. They were a festive end to the art year, and there were many last-minute learning opportunities. Thanks to the art prints that were up for auction, I got to remind the class about the artists we had studied. Thanks to the art supplies up for auction, I got to remind them how to use a wide variety of art materials.
I consider the Art Auctions and the Art Bucks to be good ideas with great potential. They solved a majority of my discipline problems. They generated a school wide interest in our art classes. They helped students focus on their artwork. They motivated the students to study art history. They encouraged helpfulness in other classrooms. They even helped my younger students practice their math skills.
Unfortunately, the Auctions also introduced an element of greed into our classes. I was disappointed by how the Art Bucks eclipsed some other, genuinely wonderful projects. I will continue to hone their use for years to come. I would love to know how other teachers would improve upon it and what experiments they have tried in their own classes.
Rama Hughes is an art teacher and illustrator who lives in Glendale, California.