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Virginia Journal of Education

Living in ‘Big Kid World’

A Henrico middle school teacher describes the tally mark system she uses to promote positive behavior.

By Deborah A. Gilfillan

A quick surf through Pinterest washes up a number of token economies that can be used to help promote positive behavior in the classroom. These strategies have the dual benefit of teaching students something about income and expenses, while also providing incentives for good behavior. Like shells on a beach, there are lots of options.
Middle school, especially with sixth-graders, is a little esoteric. The students get a bit frazzled after the first four weeks and, I swear, even regress a bit through the fall semester. Everything is so new to them. They have eight teachers, eight different subjects, and a lot more homework than they faced in elementary school. Exam week is also new. In our school district, students also get their own laptops.  When implemented properly, laptops can be very effective and do a great deal to narrow the achievement gap, but there is no denying that it requires sixth-graders to tackle more than they’ve ever done before in school. I start reeling out instructions, and sometimes even with the best planning my students’ heads start reeling. It’s almost like they have cartoon birdies flying over their heads, the way Sebastian did in Looney Tunes whenever he got knocked out.

Sometimes, students struggle, become overwhelmed, and mentally check out. Sometimes they’re just distracted or bored; sometimes they discover computer games. These kids are used to being bombarded by sensory stimulation. I need them to focus.

I was looking for a system that would help middle-schoolers learn better and still encourage them to participate. My associate principal suggested table points, and while I thought this was a great idea, I wasn’t sure where to start.

The suggestion of table points gave me an idea, but I needed to do some research. I found a ton of information online, including a great article on how a teacher used credit cards that she made for students. I asked people for ideas. My mother has a good friend with young children and Sarah, a fourth-grader, had a teacher who gave them Sharkbucks, charged them rent, and allowed students to buy classroom desks. My idea was developing, but I needed to be sure I set it up for success from the beginning: We’ve all had great ideas that have just bombed in class.

I needed my system to be easy to implement and easy to keep track of. I also wanted it to be consistent and fair and, finally, I wanted it to be fun. My students needed to buy into it, or it wouldn’t be effective at encouraging and rewarding positive participation.

Taking the Plunge
I implemented the Tally Mark Game on a Monday morning after the first round of exams. My sixth-graders were relieved to have those behind them and less than interested in jumping into a whole lot of work, but that’s what we needed to do.
I gave each table an index card, and told students to write their names on it. They would earn points cooperatively. I could write five tally marks on the card, saying, “Everyone at this table is following directions and participating,” or I could instruct students to award their own points with, “If everyone at your table has closed their computer and has eyes on me, award your table five points.” 

It’s amazing how well this worked. Transition time between activities decreased dramatically, and if you’ve never seen how adept a middle school student can be at wasting time, well, you should jump into a class as some point. But tell them, “Ten tally marks to every table whose students have downloaded and read this document aloud with each other by the time the timer goes off,” and wow, it’s amazing what they can get done. 

The key is to keep it positive, and to be as specific as possible. Focus on rewarding students with tally marks if they’re following directions. Make sure they know the exact behavior for which they’re receiving tally marks. Students enjoy earning the points.

Tally marks can also be removed for negative behaviors. “Sam, you were talking when I was talking, so please mark out five tally marks,” can be gently said, or I can come over and mark them off myself. Often, just the warning of tally marks being removed can be effective.

Keep the removing of tally marks to a minimum. The key is to get students to work for points as a reward and to use removing points only as a warning. Students can get as many points as you want to award them, and the more the better, especially at early stages in the game. 

Students can see how many points they’re earning each class, and can compare points with other tables. I keep the index cards in ziploc bags with the block number on each one. They’re easy to distribute at the beginning of class and easy to collect at the end. This is stage one of the Tally Mark Game, and this stage could be effective on its own. However, I went on to develop stage two.

On to Stage Two
Stage two included surveying students to see what sort of rewards they would like to earn with their tally marks, developing a plan of costs based upon this survey, and designing a credit card for each student.

Apparently, my students love cupcakes: they ranked in the top five rewards. Now, one of my catchphrases when everyone is focused and engaged is “it’s metaphorically raining cupcakes right now!”  I couldn’t actually give them cupcakes, but I did make the credit cards, and I called them CakeCards. The cards feature our school mascot, the Hawk, along with a unique number on each one. Making them was a bit tedious, and at the time I wondered if it was really necessary. But when I distributed them, the students’ thrilled expressions made every bit of the time I took to create the cards worthwhile.

One student said, “Yeah, but they all have the same number.” 

“Oh no,” I assured him, “look at each card. Every one of those numbers is different.” He checked a few other cards before glancing at me, and his expression said it all. After printing the cards on normal paper, I cut them out and students glued them onto small white index cards. Students could add their group tally marks to the back of their cards, and they could now earn individual points, as well. I distribute these at the beginning of the class and collect them at the end, but a number of students asked if they could keep them. 

“Of course,” I said, “but you’ll have to pay a fine if you lose it.”

After the credit cards, I introduced Big Kid World, or stage three. Using survey responses, I came up with a plan of costs and rewards. Tally marks equaled a certain number of dollars. Students were now required to pay rent, but they could also save up and buy their seats. They could even buy each other’s seats! Other items available for purchase included listening to music while you work and being allowed to pack up five minutes early, which were also on students’ survey responses.

“This is just like Monopoly!” was one excited response, and my first block class wanted to know if they could save up to buy my teacher chair. I did get a few anxious glances, but I reassured the class that this was just a game, and only for fun. When students asked what would happen if they went into debt, I just said, “Well, you would try to work hard to save up more money to get out of debt.” I did get into a discussion with one class about jail, bankruptcy, and loans at very high rates, but that’s only because they were really excited about the idea and initiated the conversation. 

The launching of The Tally Mark Game met with different responses from each class, with my first block being the most captivated by the possibilities. All the responses were positive—until I came to sixth block. Just as I had with my other classes, I posted the chart of costs and rewards, held up index cards and explained, only to face the stony stares of several very grumpy children. I was baffled. 

“This is just like the macaroni game,” Suzanne practically growled.
“We did this macaroni thing last year,” Misha explained.

“Okay,” I said, not getting why they were so against it.

“We got fined for everything,” Kalia said. Their response was so dramatically different from my other classes that I held off on the game. I wish I’d known beforehand, but even though this class had filled out the survey about the tally mark rewards, no one had said anything about the macaroni economy system. It wasn’t until I posted costs, which they saw as fines, that they objected. I quickly transitioned to our lesson, just mentioning that the document would be shared with them on GoogleDocs, as I had done for my other classes, in case they wanted to add comments or suggestions.  That was a 45-minute Monday class, and when I next saw sixth block for their Wednesday 90-minute class, I didn’t even pull out the tally mark cards. Halfway into the class, though, participation was way down, and off-task behaviors had definitely increased.

“OK, guys,” I said, starting to get frustrated, “I’m handing out the table index cards, and you are going to start earning tally mark points again starting now. We won’t worry about rent or fines, but if you want to earn rewards, you have to earn points.” Five minutes later table index cards were distributed, points were being earned, and order in the form of engaged students was re-established. 

Has the Tally Mark Game always worked perfectly? Of course not. I had to intervene at one table where a boy started to cover up the mouth of another extremely talkative boy because table points were being lost. An easy solution was to remove individual points from the talkative boy’s credit card and not from the accumulated table points.

Another problem came up when I first charged rent. I wanted an amount high enough that students really had to work to earn it, and it had seemed reasonable. But soon over half the class was in debt! We just laughed about it, and I asked them to help me find solutions. We decided to make the rent only a once-an-interim payment and not a once-a-month payment, which helped the situation tremendously. After saving up more money, a couple of students bought their seats, and I wrote out deeds on sticky notes, but then half the class wanted to buy their seats and I would have spent the whole class organizing the sales. So I elected the first student to buy her seat as the person in charge of deeds, and she organized the purchase of seats during our study hall block. Other problems occasionally arise, but we figure out solutions because, after all, it’s a game. 

The students report that it’s a fun way to earn points for participating and for completing their work. As a teacher, I love having two-thirds of the class raise their hand and participate. I love not having to raise my voice or fuss, because I can use the reward of tally marks as an incentive. I love seeing my students actively engaged in lessons and projects.

There are other messages to be learned, and even though they aren’t ones that I seek to specifically teach in English class, I see the value of them.

“I’m going to save up all my money,” one student told me, “so I can buy my seat. Then I can buy the fun things.”  
“Sounds like a good plan to me,” I said with a smile.

Gilfillan, a member of the Henrico Education Association, teaches English at Pocahontas Middle School.


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