The Best Behavior That Money Can Buy

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. 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.

Like most art teachers, I have collected a lot of neat tchotchkes: vending machine toys, papier mache animals, kid-made jewelry. I have received lots of thoughtful presents that I will never really use: an ornate sketchbook, a fancy box of conte crayons, a single set of rapidographs. 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 already knew what an auction was, and they were excited to demonstrate for their classmates. 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 for a middle school aesthetics lesson. 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.

I included some of my coworkers in the idea. I gave each of my teaching assistants their own art money to give away. They used it at their own time in their own way. After a few weeks, they all thanked me or congratulated me for the idea's effectiveness.

If any other teachers would like to use Art Bucks in their class, be warned. 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 impressed when one student attempted to forge the money on a color copier. His crime 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 kept 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. Extra art bucks could be earned though by getting a perfect score on a pop-quiz. Extra art bucks could be earned during educational art games like Art Room Jeopardy. Extra art bucks could also be earned by students whose helpfulness was recognized by other teachers outside of the art room.

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. The loot ranged in value from one dollar art supplies to three hundred dollar works of art. 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. To verify how much money each student had; I gave them each a check from the Art Bank, and I kept the ledger at my desk. 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. Many students were vocal about using their winnings to make art over the summer. Unfortunately, there were not enough prizes for every student to win something. That was an important lesson too though; It was an incentive for good behavior in the future.

Three extra special items were saved for a whole-school raffle. So, students with leftover art money still had a chance to win something. The raffle tickets were very effective for curbing any disappointment that a student might have felt at the end of an auction.

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 them to study art history. They encouraged helpfulness in other class rooms. 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 in 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.

I wrote and illustrated this article for the March 2011 issue of SchoolArts magazine. You can read the printed version and see a photo of the art bucks on the magazine's website.

© 2011 rama hughes