The Fastest Way to Get Your Students to Clean the Room

I teach third graders and they all have desks with openings like the mouth of a whale shark. Being third graders, they cram all sorts of stuff in them. Which means all sorts of stuff falls out of them. All day long.

I can’t bring myself to care that much most of the day. We have better things to do than constantly pick up the floor. And since most of the trash is produced by about five students, I get tired of nagging those kids all day long (probably like my wife gets tired of telling me to pick up after myself).

So I wait until the end of the day. Of course, by this time, the floor is festooned with all manner of pens, markers, half-crayons, breakfast bar wrappers, pencil shavings, and God knows what else. And, impossibly, not one of those items belongs to any individual student, so most of them balk at picking them up (even after giving the ‘ole “This is our room and we this and team that and all for one and one-for-all” rah-rah speech.

And I can’t say I blame them. I don’t like picking up after slobs either.

Over the years, I’ve tried all sorts of methods for keeping the floor clean. I once had a custodian who used to write scathing critiques on my whiteboard at night for me to see in the morning.  I’d read it to my students in the hopes that it would shame them into being neater. I’ve done the whole, “We’re not leaving until it’s clean” routine, which works but has the effect of ending the day on a sour note, with me barking at or pleading with kids and them resenting me for making them pick up other people’s trash and resenting their classmates for making messes and lying about it.

No matter what I did, it was nagging and negative and no fun.

So about five years ago I decided to go positive and make a game out of the whole thing.

I bribe them. I bribe them unabashedly.

The game is called Mystery Trash and it’s played like this:

As students mill about grabbing their backpacks and ignoring all of the items they’re stepping on or around, I loudly announce, “It’s time for everyone’s favorite game…Mystery Trash! Who will be today’s lucky winner? Who will win a fabulous prize? Only the person who finds and picks up the MYSTERY TRASH!”

I then scan the room as students follow my eyes, trying to guess which item I’m going to select as the mystery trash. Once I find something, I say, “Ok, I’ve chosen the mystery trash. Go!”

Students dart around the room like human hoovers sucking up everything in about 30 seconds. I, of course, make sure to not stare the item down so as not to tip them off, and, okay, the truth is I sometimes change the item to one a favorite student grabbed. Sue me.

Once the floor is clean (and not a second before, no matter when the mystery trash item was picked up), I announce that the mystery trash has been found. I then tell students that everything in their hands has to be put where it belongs (because the mystery trash item doesn’t have to be trash but anything that isn’t where it should be) or thrown away. If not, I will not announce the winner (And at this point, they all still think they might have won).

Once students are quiet and back to their desks, I announce the winner with a flourish:

And the winner of Mystery Trash is… Oscar!

At which point Oscar makes his way to the prize box and chooses an item that cost me a few pennies.

Totally worth it. The room is cleaned quickly. We end on a fun, positive note. We go home immediately after, so no one stews for long about not winning (after all, they get to go home and that’s winning, too!) And bribery is used exactly how the science says it should be used: to motivate people to do simple, undesirable jobs.

So if your floor is a mess at the end of the day, you don’t mind bribery, you have nothing against putting cheap candy in a prize box, and you just want the room picked up quick, give Mystery Trash a try!




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