Activities That Create Sustainable Motivation

by Erikson Lehman

How do you keep your students motivated to learn? Erikson cautions against relying too much on external rewards systems or opportunities for silliness. Instead, he recommends activities that teach life habits, build servanthood, and encourage lasting motivation. Erikson lists a number of practical, enjoyable, and educational activities his school uses.

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Student motivation has been on my mind for a while because one of the things I’ve noticed with students is that if you use a rewards system to try to motivate your students, what happens is it just becomes progressively worse in the sense that they just need more and more to continue to be motivated to do the same things.

I think that the rewards systems can be used to maybe begin the motivation especially for young students—and it can even for an older student, to kind of whet the appetite. But I don’t find the reward system to sustain motivation for my students.

So I try to focus on school activities to create motivation. And since our school is small a lot of those tend to be all-school activities. I try to make the activities be meaningful and make school attractive. I know school is not about having fun. But the activity does have to be something that appeals to the student.

So some of the activities that we do there at our school: We have two world awareness days every year. And my goal there with that is to create a sense of service and awareness of the world around them for my students.

So the one world awareness day which we have in the fall: We’ll have an organization come in and share the ministry that they are performing in the community around us. So one time we had a doctor come in from the hospital and he shared. Another time we had a group come in that works with disabled people in the community and trying to reintegrate them into the community and getting jobs and taking care of them.

And in the second world awareness day each year we try to get out into the community and do something. And that can really vary. One time we helped plant trees at the local park. Or we might go clean up an old person’s yard. Probably the most interesting thing we did: there was a—the local town has a historical museum and they left us come in and clean that one time.

Other all-school activities: We do a turkey-in-the-hole Thanksgiving meal each year and the boys camp out and I camp out with them and we roast a turkey in the ground. And the girls usually have a little slumber party and they make other side dishes and then the last day of school before Thanksgiving vacation we have that for lunch. So they enjoy that.

We have men’s hot lunch. And that is a very big hit at our school, where all of the men from the church come in. They plan the menu, they make the food, and they serve a hot lunch to our students. And I think that’s very meaningful for the students and for me as a principal: to see the fathers actually be involved and interested in school. And it—I think it really impacts the children to see their dads come and be interested in school like that.

We also take our students in once a month to the local nursing home. And they read stories to the residents there. And it’s always striking to me how much that means to our students; they are sad when we miss that. Even seeing a lot of my students create relationships and connections, say, with one specific resident, and then every time they come in they want to read to that resident. But also just practicing the ability to read: especially for our—you know, our elementary students—it’s very good for them and they go in. Some of the residents, you know, really like to help them read, even, or help them with words that they get stuck on.

We do a summer reading program that is for the whole school. We call it the Keener Reader. They read for fifteen minutes every day throughout the summer. They’re not allowed to read online material; it has to be books or, like, a periodical article or something. And then they get a reward of a picnic in the fall where they all come together for that.

I’ve just found that, with all-school activities, I’ve tried to steer our school away from these activities that we just do for fun and they’re crazy: You know, maybe it’s Wacky Day at school or something, you know, where it’s just, “How stupid can I be?” I think the students find those fun but it feels a little bit like it’s a losing battle with those types of activities because the next year it’s just the competition of who can outdo what they did last year. Whereas I try to steer more towards these all school activities that I feel like they have deeper meaning to them, for me as a principal of the school and also for the students.

I think it makes them feel good about just their service and they’re learning how to live as Christians—learning life habits there with that. And I feel like it’s a lot better for our school culture.

And I find those things to be—to create a more sustaining motivation for my students.

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CONTRIBUTOR: Erikson Lehman

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