Like most kids, my son and daughter can’t wait to get home from school on Fridays! Yes, they look forward to staying up later on Friday nights, sleeping in on Saturdays, and spending time with their family and friends on Sundays. BUT…do you want to know what my kids REALLY look forward to on Fridays? My kids bust through the door of our house every Friday afternoon and run straight for the fridge…not to grab a snack, but to hang up one thing from their week that they are the MOST PROUD of. This item can be anything – literally anything – that they feel best represents their success and growth over the course of the week. Although both of my children are A students, they rarely choose an assignment or test on which they earned an A to display. More often than not, they choose a piece of their artwork or something that they created (they call them their “inventions”) to display for all to see. Then, throughout the week, we talk about the item on the fridge and we praise each other’s work. This artifact stays up on the fridge all week…until the next Friday. We take this one step further by taking pictures of our work and sending them to our friends and family via Facebook and text messages (the grandparents love it!). Sometimes, I even post a picture of their work on Instagram!
It wasn’t always this way though. Once upon a time, I was a middle school social studies teacher. As a new teacher, I started off recognizing achievement in traditional ways in my classroom…grades, standardized test scores, quiet/attentive behavior, etc. However, what I learned throughout my tenure as a classroom teacher was that I was ignoring the achievements, talents, and abilities of many of my students because my definition of success was too narrowly defined. When I think about this topic, one child stands out to me – Shania. You see, Shania wasn’t considered a particularly good student by the majority of her teachers. She was loud, had a strong personality, was very opinionated, and frequently did the minimum amount of work in her classes to pass. Shania did not receive the praise and attention that many of her classmates received. In fact, Shania seemed to resent the attention that other students received and often stated that she “didn’t care about school”. One day at lunch, the art teacher commented that he was really impressed with a drawing that Shania had completed on her own time (and brought into school). The next day in class, I asked Shania about her drawing. Reluctantly, she said she would come in during recess and show it to me – if I was REALLY interested in seeing it. Of course, I said that I would love it if she would share it with me. Long story short, Shania showed me the drawing, and I was blown away by her talent. I recognized her attention to detail and the time, effort, and patience that was evident in her work. I then asked her why she didn’t put this much effort into her classwork…and her answer caught me off guard. She told me that she would never be the BEST at anything in her classes, so she didn’t feel the need to try. She told me that most of the time, teachers only recognized the really smart kids – the kids for whom school comes easy. She shared with me that this was frustrating and that she wished that her teachers realized how hard she would try…if only her effort and her progress were celebrated as much as the student who earned an A with little to no effort.
This particular conversation changed me and my teaching in a radical way (and my parenting as well). It is because of Shania that I created a wall in my classroom where students hung a piece of work every 2-3 weeks that best demonstrated their personal success in my classroom. Much like my refrigerator example, the students could hang anything up, as long as it demonstrated what they had learned in my class. I then committed to call or send a note home about their progress once every 2-3 weeks and share their successes with their parents. I had parents CRY on the phone and THANK ME for saying something positive about their child and what he/she was accomplishing during our time together. I experienced parents who were excited about what their middle school-aged child was learning at school and who began partnering with me to set individual goals with their child for work in my class. Most importantly, my classroom climate changed. Students were more motivated and were more engaged in the learning activities in my classroom. In short, they actually began to TRY to produce high-quality, original work.
So, I share all of this to encourage you to take a look at how you currently celebrate success in your classroom. Is your celebration of student achievement limited to data walls filled with standardized test scores or “WOW” walls that display only the work of students who earned an A+? Are you willing to expand your traditional view of success to allow students to set and achieve their own goals? How can you make sure that all of your students are able to experience success? I certainly don’t have all of the answers, but I suspect that we might learn a lot from more conversations with our students like Shania.