There’s a yellow M&M in stairwell six

yellow M&M“There’s a yellow M&M in stairwell six, on the second floor,” I said to a staff member.  “Could you find a student to clean it up?”

He smiled at me, but nodded.  I could tell he was thinking, “An M&M? Only an M&M?”  We’ve had much worse in our stairwells: milk cartons, used napkins, and my personal un-favorite: ketchup smeared on the banisters.

“Only” an M & M is progress: it means my staff is enlisting students to clean the stairwells throughout the day, which is exactly what I want them to do.

The other day in the cafeteria, I saw a half-eaten apple and some crumpled napkins on a table.  Two twelfth grade boys were studying on the other side of the table, ignoring the trash.  I asked them to clean it up.

They looked at me with a long-suffering look: “But Ms. Na-ri-maaan, it’s not ours.”

I was about to respond, but I was interrupted by a loud “BEEP BEEP!”

A small ninth grade boy wheeled a large trash can to the table, almost crashing into it, and eagerly scooped up the trash.  The two boys laughed, partly relieved that they didn’t have to touch the apple, and partly because the boy was enjoying the task so much.  The twelfth graders, who are great students, are simply a product of what we used to be: a school where adults told students to clean up, but then picked up after them when they didn’t.  The ninth grader is a product of what we are now*: a school where students are learning to take responsibility for their environment. We’ve taken care to enlist those students with the highest energy and leadership.

What does this have to do with learning?  Everything.  Taking care of your environment is a form of selective attention, which is the ability to focus on one thing, while ignoring other things that are happening at the time time.  When they clean, students have to focus on the thing they are cleaning ,and tune out other distractions.  The more students experience selective attention, the more they will learn.  The more students take responsibility, the more they will learn.  It might start with an M&M, but it will transfer to math, history, science, writing, college, career, parenting, money, leadership, and everything else they encounter in their lives.

So let’s keep picking up those M & Ms.

* One of our school-wide goals this year is “Students will organize learning materials, use them effectively, and care for the school space.”

Photo credit: Julie Nariman

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