Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Commendations and Celebrations

Post-Film Festival commendations are rolled around a treat for each student

My all-time favorite faculty meeting activity: all of us draw the name of one of our colleagues and spend a few minutes writing that person a note.  We either describe what we appreciate about them, or perhaps give them one "wish" (anything from a painless, successful completion of report cards to a weekend in the Caribbean).  I think we do this twice a year, and I still have most of the notes I've received through the years, stuffed into a folder that I take out once in while if I'm feeling low.

I've noticed that it's easy to hold in our minds the negative stories we tell ourselves, or the inklings of criticism that others have shared with us.  Or maybe that's just me.  In my experience, it's harder to hold on to the complements I've received and the successes I've enjoyed.  In the same way, I think students tend to experience school (partially) as a place to receive criticism, and I wonder how this impacts their learning.  I think teachers--in our desire to see improvements in our students--tend to forget to call students out on their achievements.  Yes, schools have annual award ceremonies where the "successful students" are publicly recognized for good grades or sports, but I'm talking about the smaller, equally important moments of success--perhaps when a student stayed after class and helped you clean your white board, or the time a quiet student raised his hand in class.  Or, maybe a student (finally) mastered the use of the semi-colon.

Do you remember getting a paper back from a teacher that highlighted only the positive aspects of your writing?  I wonder how that would have changed your writing practice. I remember reading in graduate school about a study that found that specific positive feedback on student writing was just as effective as marking errors. Seems counterintuitive, I know.  In any case, it's clear to me that students think of teachers as the judges, the critics--not the cheerleaders.  Yes, it's our job to help students improve and to learn from their mistakes, so of course, we need to point out weaknesses and errors.  But what if we spent as much time calling attention to the positive as we did the negative?

I call for more commendations and celebrations.

Here's some specific ideas:

1. After the recent film festival at school, which also marks the end of a challenging 6-week course (see my last post), I wanted to highlight a positive from each student's work in class.  I typed up brief, but specific messages and rolled them around a couple tootsie pops (I know, sugar is bad), placing each one on a program that the students could use for their portfolios. The students were excited to see a little prize after their hard work on their films, and even though they'll get a report card for the class, those messages highlighted something very specific, with no hint of constructive criticism. I also have them write a lengthy reflection, and I feel certain that this initial boost gave some of them a place to start, or helped put them in a mindset to look closely at their performance.

2. If your school has all-school meetings, use part of that time to commend.  Allow students and teachers to commend each other for a minor (or major) academic accomplishment or a moment of generosity. We've been doing commendations at all-school meetings at Compass School for years, and students have become good at appreciating not only each other but their teachers as well.  This could be done in a school newsletter or assembly, but works best in a setting where students feel comfortable enough speaking up.

3. And finally, you could spend a few moments each week e-mailing a couple parents (and cc'ing the  students' themselves) about a positive moment from class.  Maybe their child aced a vocabulary quiz, helped a peer with a math problem, or just exhibited a positive attitude all week. Especially at the high school level, parents often don't hear very much about what's going on at school, so I find that these notes are much appreciated.  I tend to do this when I've had a hard week, and I am in whine mode.  Counter intuitive again, perhaps, but I find that it makes all the difference on a Friday afternoon if I commend rather than criticize.

So, I commend you all for reading this post and for considering who you'd like to celebrate.  Well done.