Mystery Prize Game

This simple game is fun on many levels. I play it a few times a year and it’s a hit every time. And, after reading this, if someone can give me a catchy name for it, thank you in advance.

I give every student a set of 8-10 problems. Usually review and stuff that can completed somewhat quickly. Most recently, it was using the discriminant to determine the nature of the roots of a quadratic equation. The kids are in groups of 2-4 and, since class is 43 minutes, I give them 20-25 minutes to complete the problems. I foreshadow and mention that their group may earn an awesome prize based on correct answers.

Here’s where the fun comes in, especially the first time we play it. After working out the problems, I reveal three prizes. They are written on index cards and sealed with staples inside a folded piece of paper; a poor man’s envelope.

For each round of the game, I use a random name picker to select a student. The selected student’s group gets an opportunity to answer a question from the handout. I usually go in sequential order. Correct answer = choice of prize. When choosing their prize, they have the right to any prize, even if that means stealing one from another group. We repeat this process for the remaining problems. To keep it fun for everyone, I limit the number of prizes per group to one, but groups can swap prizes with another group if they already have a prize. If a group gets a question wrong, we spin again to find another group. 

The game gets heated. I, of course, totally encourage stealing prizes from other groups. It’s fun and I love the instant rivalry that’s created when a prize is heartlessly taken. From a teacher’s point of view, this also provides high levels of motivation to earn correct answers!

With a few minutes left, we stop and the three sealed envelopes are opened by the groups that possess them. After a hard-fought game earning prizes, the anticipation behind opening them up is palpable. You would think it was Christmas morning. 

Here they are from the most recent game:


The kids always go crazy. 

I suppose you could play this with “real” prizes like candy or bonus points, but the kids always get an extra special kick out of these types of prizes – especially after competing for it throughout the game. They are just as motivated the next time we play. It’s all about good-natured competition and the mystery behind the prizes that make it fun. 

The prizes are different every game, but I usually stick with the Smile & Handshake each time we play. It’s become my trademark. 

Reward systems? Grades? I’m not sure anymore.

I’ve started to critically reflect on all the rewards systems I’ve ever used. Including every single grade my students have ever earned.

I am currently reading Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn. The basic premise that Kohn makes is that “rewards” as we know them (token economies, grades, etc.) are not only ineffective, but can even be detrimental to the growth of students. Often times, teachers, including myself, use these systems because they “work” and rarely question them. (In fact, this is true for many things that we take for granted.) I have been relating this reading directly to my classroom economy that I have instituted in my class for several years, along with the many other positive reinforcement strategies that I have come across through the years. But even more drastically, I have begun to question every grade that I have ever assigned to an assignment or report card. Grades are essentially rewards for the work that students complete.

Instead of focusing on reinforcement strategies, which only focus on what students do, I could allow systems and feedback to drive my classroom practices. Instead, this would focus on who students are and what they actually understand.


Classroom Economy

I have been meaning to write about a rewards/management system that I use in my classroom for the last couple of years. It’s math money. I have heard of other teachers that use fictitious money in their classroom, but mine has interesting and meaningful twist: students pay taxes and file tax returns for all the money they earn. I cannot remember who I got the idea from, but I remember it was an elementary or middle school teacher. If I can find who it was, I will post the link.

A few years ago, I had one of my (now) former students create some $1, $5, and $10 math money “bills” that I use for currency. He created it in Photoshop (they’re somewhat elaborate) and gave me the files. The little I actually know about Photoshop allows me to update them from year to year.

The students earn money for lots of things. It’s all about positive reinforcement. I especially prize participating in class and collaboration – and will usually pay students for these things. Attendance, homework, hard work, Student of the Week, exam scores, etc….these are also things that will earn a student some dinero. We also have various paid positions that students must be elected to (attendance taker, runner, etc.), each of which receive a weekly salary.

Students spend their money during auctions every two weeks. I auction off candy, dollar store items, homework passes, positive calls home, among other things. We even have 50/50 raffles every now and then. The possibilities here are endless, plus its where all the fun is! It’s crazy, students love to compete to be the highest bidder and spend their money.

As students earn their money, I keep a simple tally of how much they earn. Other than Student of the Week payments, all income is taxed. Students can choose to withhold income as they earn it – they simply give it back to me (i.e. the government). Each class elects a treasurer that will take my tallies and enter them into our class database (Google spreadsheet), which sums all taxed and untaxed money each student earns. At the end each marking period I take this spreadsheet and mail merge it into individual W-2’s for each student, which I print and give to them.

I have created a tax form that students complete on tax day. We literally spend an entire day doing taxes. They ask questions, get confused, and eventually learn (like most people who do their own taxes). Students itemize their deductions and compute their taxes using our tax rate table. I used to have adjustable tax rates, but it got too complicated. Deductions include high exam scores, donating to a class pencil fund, seeing me for extra help after school, and other “good” deeds. After they submit their income tax forms, the treasurer examines them to ensure there are no discrepancies. Some students will receive a tax refund while most others will owe taxes.

The whole process really does mock the tax-filing process. I like to think that after students take part in this process six times every year, they have a pretty good understanding of how the IRS does its thing. It’s also an effective way to promote positive behavior in my class. Using money in my classroom has afforded me loads of flexibility in terms of classroom management and allowed me to mimic the real world in countless ways. Plus, its just plain fun.


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