Thomas A. Edison High School teacher brings reward-for-effort system to the classroom

As she saw children struggling to pay attention and stay on track in class due to the hardships of the pandemic, Fairfax County Public Schools Math Teacher Kelly Cornell created new systems to help students in the classroom. 

Cornell is a teacher at Thomas A. Edison High School in Alexandria, and when she noticed that students’ grades were declining, she decided to think of innovative ways to keep them organized and working.

As the pandemic has taken a toll on mental health across the U.S., Cornell noted that she saw a higher level of anxiety in many of her students. To combat this, she created a desk-light system for when students have questions, which “helps ease social anxiety of being thrust back into a room full of peers after two years of online learning.” 

“Basically, I’ve attached little red LED lights to each desk that can be switched on when students have a question. It’s a much more casual way for a student to let me know they’re struggling, without drawing the attention of the entire class to them. It also helps with establishing organized procedures for students who are used to having less routine with distance learning,” Cornell explained. 

In addition to helping to ease anxiety through the LED light system, Cornell also created a prize-for-effort reward system to keep students motivated. While she is still working on it to ensure an objective and equitable implementation, it is something that has been motivating. 

“Kids will earn a pretend currency for displays of effort/perseverance irrespective of grade performance. The currency can be exchanged for prizes/privileges. For example, a student can earn anything from snacks, to flexible retakes, a personal calculator, or even a note-taking tablet. It’s been a community effort, as neighbors have pitched in items towards this endeavor,” she said.

Cornell also noted that she is planning on incorporating “real-world elements that mirror life outside of high school.”

“Kids will be given the chance to vote on a tax rate, which will supply classroom bulk items (which will also be voted on) such as pencils/erasers. I also plan to allow kids to deposit their currency into a pretend interest-accruing bank account (aka a Google Doc), once they earn the minimum amount required to open one,” she said as examples of these real-world elements.

Just like in the real world, Cornell has considered incorporating some sort of fine for disruptive or off-take behaviors.

“Students can incur debt, just like in the real world. Unpaid debt can increase through late fees. Once they hit a certain negative balance, they receive a phone-call home,” Cornell said.

She also explained that high-performing students are able to earn currency through helping and tutoring others.

For specific mathematical concepts, Cornell is bringing more hands-on activities to the classroom, including “using concepts learned in geometry to create architecture” and leading models in which students create their own 3D coordinate plan using foam and push pins.  

 “Kids are really struggling with organization this year. To combat this, I made a bunch of new visual tutorials for organized studying and note-taking,” Cornell explained.

 When not spending her time teaching and creating innovative new ways for her students to be engaged with the curriculum, Cornell can probably be found spending time with animals. Cornell has fostered 45 dogs within the past two years. 

“Kelly Cornell is our resident foster dog mom. She’s also an incredible artist and has offered — Kelly’s done a lot of work as a volunteer, a lot. She is one of the most selfless people I’ve ever met, ever. She will offer her time so freely ... she’s an incredible, incredible resource to the rescue,” said Sarah Yuhas-Schiltz, who owns The Little Black Dog Rescue, where Cornell volunteers.

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