Celebrating Growth and Progress in the Classroom

In the third grade, my teacher gave us weekly spelling tests.  Those students who received a perfect score of a 100% found a special sticker, usually a scratch-and-sniff one, at the top of their paper when it was returned the next week.  That was a huge highlight for me.  I put forth great effort on a weekly basis to receive one of those stickers.  It wasn’t about learning how to spell words, it was all about the celebration and sticker.  My teacher did very little else in the classroom to celebrate growth and progress.  Those stickers were one of the only ways I was able to feel as though I had accomplished something.  I felt good about myself as a student because of those stickers.  In retrospect, it seems quite silly that I found such happiness in those smelly pieces of sticker paper, but I did.

As a teacher, I want my students to feel celebrated and supported in their learning process throughout the year.  I don’t want them to long for stickers or silly rewards.  I want them to be able to see their growth as students and be pleased and proud of themselves.  I want them to continue to work and develop their habits of learning throughout the year because they want to grow as students and not because they earn special prizes or stickers.  I try to consistently provide my students with relevant and meaningful feedback and praise on their learning process and effort throughout the year.  I want the boys to see themselves as I do, growing and developing students.

Today in Humanities class, the boys participated in various small group discussions regarding current events.  The students shared the news worthy events they had read about for homework with their table partner.  They explained the big ideas regarding their self-chosen articles and events.  My co-teacher then shared one relevant current event topic with the class to provide them with fodder for the small group discussion they would be participating in towards the end of class.  The boys learned about how Cam Newton, quarterback for the Carolina Panthers, wants the media and others to stop making a big deal of the fact that he is a black quarterback.  He wants to be referred to as just a quarterback as he feels race is not a factor in his ability to play at the quarterback position.  After the students understood the who, what, when, where, and why of the issue, the boys were placed into small groups with four other students to discuss the issue using a guiding question to focus the discussion: Does the race of an athlete impact his or her ability to play a sport or position on a team?  The boys did a tremendous job exploring how race is used to judge athletes and the negative outcomes of doing so.  I’m constantly amazed by the critical thinking our students put forth to discuss the issue of the day in an insightful and meaningful manner.  They build upon each other’s comments and questions, use support from the text studied or referenced, and include others in the conversation.  It’s quite an amazing sight to behold.

However, the big win for me today was in celebrating one particular student’s growth and progress.  Prior to today’s conversation, this one specific student struggled to effectively participate in group discussions of any kind.  He generally hogged the conversation, not allowing others to contribute or participate.  He sometimes had trouble compassionately arguing with his peers.  Rather than citing evidence or support to make his claim or argument, he sometimes used words that lacked forethought or respect.  He had not been able to meet this one objective all year, until today.  He was focused and deliberate in his actions and participation.  He made sure to only participate in the discussion when appropriate, allowing his peers to also be included in the discussion.  What he did add to the discussion moved it forward in interesting directions.  His body language sent positive messages to his group members and showed respect and compassion.  He was like a different student in class today.  I made sure to take him aside after the discussion and praise his effort and actions.  He nicely demonstrated his ability to meet the objective and did so with grace and glory.  He added fine insight to the discussion in meaningful ways.  He was an active and appropriate discussion participant today because of his effort and restraint.  I made sure to tell him how proud of him I was.  He smiled and seemed to really hear the words I was saying.  It was amazing.  It’s moments like these that make those other more difficult classroom experiences all worth it.

While we certainly don’t want to over praise students or celebrate them for just being students, it’s also important to remember the value in specific and meaningful praise.  Students who are able to grow and develop in order to overcome challenges in the classroom need to be recognized and celebrated.  Not with a sticker or big fan fare in front of the class, but with personal and private conversations and words of praise.  When these students reap the benefits of their hard work, they will see the value in utilizing feedback provided by their teachers and peers in order to mature and grow.  This is crucial to the learning process.  Students need to see that their effort has positive consequences so that they will want to keep trying and working hard.  Recognizing and celebrating the successes of our students breeds more success, happiness, and a sense of well-being within them.  The more we can take notice of their growth and progress in and out of the classroom, the more they will want to grow and progress as students and learners.

A Little Praise Goes a Long Way

In school, I was labeled The Nerd or Outcast.  Teachers called on me because they knew I would know the answer.  They also paired me up with the students who needed a lot of support.  I hated that.  I hated being known as the teachers’ pet or the go-to guy for the teacher.  I just wanted to be me, but I wasn’t allowed the opportunity to do so because of how the teachers pigeonholed me.  As a teacher, I try hard not to do that.  I look for the best in every student and try to help them bring out the other parts that don’t shine as brightly.  I call on the students who aren’t raising their hand.  I pair up students randomly.  I don’t want to judge my students based on any one characteristic.

However, every once in awhile I get stuck in a rut and tend to view kids through one lense.  Since the beginning of Academic Orientation at my school, which began on Monday, I was only able to see one side of one particular student.  He was the rambunctious one filled with high energy.  He was the student distracting his peers and not focusing on the task at hand.  Now, he was doing other things as well, but all I could see were those attention deficit qualities.  I focused on the negative rather than looking for any positives.  So, for the past two days, I saw a wild child.

Today started the same for me.  I saw this one student distracting his peers, rocking back so far in his chair that he almost tipped over, and shouting out without raising a hand.  I was growing frustrated with him.  Why was he misbehaving so much?  The problem was, it wasn’t him.  It was me.  I was looking at everything he did in one way while ignoring all the other perspectives.  That needed to change or else I would struggle to connect with this student.

Then it happened.  I happened to notice that he was working with a another student to organize the messed up carpet squares in our reading nook area.  I didn’t ask him to do it and he didn’t tell me that he was doing it.  He was just doing it because that’s what kind and compassionate students do.  Luckily, I saw this and reacted appropriately.  I walked over to the two students and praised them immensely for helping out.  I explained to them how anxious I am about the carpet squares being out of whack on a daily basis.  I then gave them each an edible treat to enjoy while reading silently during Reader’s Workshop.  The one student I’ve been having trouble connecting with smiled and seemed to really appreciate the praise.  For the rest of the academic day, I only saw all the great things he was doing.  He was a role model for his peers and offered to help any time it was needed.  He worked diligently throughout the other classes.  He seemed to be a completely different student.  Or was he?  Perhaps I had only seen him negatively because that was the only way I chose to view him.  He was probably always helping out and I just never noticed.

Wow, what an awakening.  Sometimes we need a jolt like this to help us change our perspective and line of thinking.  There are no bad students, there are just poor choices.  Sometimes, as teachers, we get stuck only seeing the bad choices students make despite all the good they may be doing.  We need to stop and reassess the way we interact and see our students from time to time.  Pigeonholing a student is never the way to go.  We need to help our students grow and develop in every way possible.  Only seeing one side of a tree prevents you from noticing all the beautiful woodpecker holes, squirrel nests, and sunsets.  Today’s experience made me realize the importance of always paying attention and praising those other things our students are doing when they think no one’s watching.