Occasionally when I feel like a insignificant speck in an infinite universe, I give myself a big power trip by messing with my students.
Take, for example, my longest-running scam experiment to date, an innocent history-illustration-turned-behavior-manipulation management strategy. When we started to study the American Revolution, I issued all of my students 16 dry beans. Every Monday I pay them one additional bean for every day we were in school the previous week. Throughout the week, I arbitrarily exact bean penalties for various offenses, such as forgetting pencils, making irrelevant comments, talking in line, and, on a really cruel day, for wearing a yellow shirt.
Now I don’t come out and say it, but usually the kids pick up on the fact that we are doing a little role-playing, and I am the bullying King George and that they are the poor persecuted colonists who are suddenly being taxed for behaviors that had been previously tolerated. (It is exceedingly convenient for me that this unit falls at the beginning of January, when the kids need a little extra incentive to behave.)
Usually I keep adding taxable offenses until the system is so complicated that I would have to set up a little little mini-IRS to keep up with it. At this point, I give a reward to the student with the most beans and call the game quits.
But this year it has been working so brilliantly that I may keep up the game for another couple of months. The kids completely understand the historical analogy, but they go along with the game with surprising goodwill. They gamble and loan beans between themselves (with interest), and they turn each other in for violating the rules. I have a few who are stingy hoarders and some who have to bum off of friends every day.
The behavior transformation has been inspiring. Instead of nagging, I can just assign a bean penalty for a certain habit that I’m particularly annoyed by. I take beans for tardies, for “untucked” chairs, and school supplies out of place. Now all I have to do is raise my eyebrows and count down from three and instantly the room will transform as if Mary Poppins has swooped through.
But as I said, the historical objectives have also been met by my little project. The other day my students proudly charmed me with a parody of the famous speech by Patrick Henry that we had studied…”Gentlemen may cry ‘Beans, beans!’, but there are no beans! The war is actually begun!…As for us, give us beans or give us death!”
Moments like that are what I come to work for.