Mystery Student


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My algebra one teaching partner, Kelsey Russell, comes up with some genius ideas.  Both of us have struggled this year with some of our students and since it is crunch time (a.k.a. State Testing is less than two weeks away), we need them to pay attention and stay engaged now more than ever.  Last Tuesday Kelsey said to me, “I have an idea.  When I taught fourth grade I used to have a ‘Mystery Walker.’  When we walked to lunch or activity, I would pick someone out and watch how they were walking.  If that person walked well, then the whole class would get a little treat.  I tried it with my algebra class last period calling this person the ‘Mystery Worker’ and it worked great.  They worked so hard on their review problems!”

I loved the idea immediately, but decided to up the ante.  Here’s how it went the first time I tried it:

Me:  Today before work on the review problems, I will pull one of your names from this cup and place it face down on my podium.  Then I will pull a second name and put it face down on the podium.  Towards the end of the class period, I will turn over the second name and this person will come up to my podium and call out the name of the Mystery Student.  Everyone who is present today will get bonus points on Friday’s quiz if the Mystery Student has been on task and working hard on the review problems all period.

Student Alpha:  Are you going to tell us who the Mystery Student is?

Student Beta:  No!  Then it’s not a mystery.

Student Alpha:  Well can we at least know if it’s a boy or a girl?

Me:  No way.  Everyone in here has to think that I am watching them most closely of all.

For about ten minutes, everyone dug in and was on task.  Kids were helping each other, coming up to me asking questions, and in general being model students.  [As an aside, I looked up the word origin and student comes to us from Latin via Middle English and it means “applying oneself to” and “painstaking application”.]  Then, human nature gave way and the students began to surreptitiously socialize, check their phones, draw on each other, etc.  I began to write a list on the board of who was doing what.  At first they got mad, but I said, “Hopefully none of you on the board is the Mystery Student today, but if you are the Mystery Student in the future, I want you to realize that these behaviors will make you unable to earn bonus points for your class.”

I continued with a Mystery Student for both of my algebra one classes for the remainder of the week and they were able to earn bonus points for Friday’s quiz (some of them definitely need them!).  Unfortunately, I have several students who habitually miss on quiz day and so I will change the rules for next week — You have to take your quiz on Friday to use the accrued Mystery Student bonus points.  I will definitely keep using this technique, especially when the class is working cooperatively on problem solving, which they do at least two days per week.  A couple of things to note:  Everyone’s name is in the cup every day, i.e. it is possible to be the Mystery Student two days in a row.  If I pull a name of someone who is absent, then I will pull a different name.  If a student is absent on a Mystery Student day (for any reason), then that student will be ineligible for any bonus points earned that day.  And, as I already noted…  You have to take your quiz on Friday to use the accrued Mystery Student bonus points from that week.  The only exception would be if you were at a school sponsored trip such as a band competition or a journalism convention.

Adventures in teaching — Year 27 — Just keep learning!

P.S. They were working on the Ultimate Algebra Review Circuit!