Introducing the Marble Jars

Trying to keep my kids engaged during remote learning.

Image created via Midjourney

Right before Thanksgiving, I had parent-teacher conferences via Zoom. Grades came out the Friday prior and I was beyond thrilled with A’s and B’s. Sure, we’d had some mishaps with missed assignments and internet connectivity, but we were making it happen, right?


I’ve never cried during parent-teacher conferences, and my oldest child is 11. Parent-teacher conferences with me are usually “glowing with pride” moments. Not this year.

Throughout three conferences with three teachers, the feedback was the same: your kids are not engaged. Cameras are sometimes turned off. Not participating.

The teachers were very kind and came from a place of caring. I would have been remiss if I said that I hadn’t noticed slouching in their desks or caught them doing things other than classwork during their remote learning days. But I’d brushed it off in the “doing the best we can” mentality.

I was tempted to take the info and dismiss it. After all, this was not a permanent situation (I keep telling myself), and kids are resilient. Their grades meant that there was some semblance of learning going on. Why not say “good enough” and try to survive the remainder of the school year?

Yet, I left parent-teacher conferences feeling like a failure — a feeling I am very much not used to as a parent. Amidst endless days of no break, ongoing exhaustion, and a low-level constant state of anxiety, surely there was something I could do to encourage my kids to engage more.

Enter: The Marble Jars.

I have never really rewarded my kids for school work. I’ve always taken the approach that school is just Something You Do. But nothing else about this year has been normal, so I was willing to try something different.

I bought a large quantity of marbles on Amazon and placed two jars in their remote learning area. I wrote up a cheat-sheet for them and placed it above the jars, outlining how they can earn marbles.

  1. One marble for participating in class.
  2. One marble for Chromebook on the desk, camera on
  3. Two marbles for a compliment from a teacher

Here’s the catch: marble distribution is random. The kids never know when I will walk by. The way the room is angled, sometimes they can’t even see me. I’ll walk up and listen for participation and then drop a marble in their jars.

We are a few weeks in, and so far, the kids have responded positively. Marbles can be exchanged for rewards like extra screen time, up to the big reward, which is ordering lunch of choice from UberEats (25 marbles).

At the top of the Marble Guidelines, I wrote the following reminder:

We can do hard things.

It was a reminder as much for myself as the kids. We have been home for 276 days, and at times it is unbearably hard. I don’t want to put more effort into my kids’ education, but I have to substitute for the teachers at times since the teachers can’t see them in the same way I can. My job as a parent is to support my kids in the best way I can — even when I feel some days like I’m the one who needs support.

And if my best had been “I have nothing else to give right now” — that would have been ok too. This situation is not about thriving, but merely surviving. But the marble jars seemed like a small experiment and a way to remind my kids that we all need to just get through this.