Posts Tagged praise

Honouring A Student’s Strength: Story of Daniel

“We don’t know who we can be until we know what we can do.” – Sir Ken Robinson

(This was originally guest-posted as an “A-Ha Moment” on  Blogging Through the Fourth Dimension.  With all the talk about how we changed our awards ceremony to focus on ALL our students’ strengths, I felt now was an opportune time to cross post.  Thank you to Pernille Ripp for the opportunity to share Daniel’s story.)

How can we truly see the potential of our students if we fail to provide the environment to bring out their talents?

I have always wanted to be a high school teacher and I was exactly that for 7 years. You never know where your life will lead you and, while completing my Master’s Degree, I was offered the opportunity to work with an amazing principal at an elementary school. Roxanne taught me to seek out the strengths in people and bring these talents out from within and opened my eyes to the power of strength-based, rather than deficit-based, teaching and leadership. My aha moment came in my first few months of being an elementary school teacher and a new vice principal.

When I did the tour of the school I was to be a teacher/vice principal, I met Daniel (pseudonym). Daniel had a smile that was contagious but was disengaged and struggled in school; the reason I met him that day was that he was in the hall after being asked to leave class. I never asked him why he was in the hall, I just started asking him about his life outside of school; we talked about music and friendships in the few moments we shared together on that day.

The next year, I was to teach a 5/6 class (in addition to the vice principal duties) so when we were creating the classes, I requested that Daniel be placed in my class. To be honest, in the first month, I really struggled with the transition from teaching 17 year-olds to teaching 11 year-olds. Many of the students had behaviour, social, emotional, and academic challenges so I spent many hours bouncing ideas off Roxanne and other teachers trying to find out how to reach these kids. I specifically started to talk about Daniel as he was so withdrawn in class – always refusing to take part in any learning activities and that smile that drew me to him seemed to have disappeared. She asked me what I knew about him; the truth was that I knew very little about him other than he struggled in class and liked music. She encouraged me to find out more about him; find out what he loved, what he was good at and try to bring that out in him.

During the next week, I spent a recess having a snack with Dan. I found out that he lived in a nearby community in which he spent two hours on the bus each day, lived with his Grandmother because his mother was far too young, and we shared a common interest in Johnny Cash. We spent much of the recess singing a variety of Cash songs and just laughing. Later that day, I was speaking with the First Nation Support Worker (Nelson), sharing with him about the moment that had occurred, and he let me in on another strength of Daniel: First Nation drumming and singing. He said this was something that he recently witnessed in his community but maybe something that we could support. The FNSW asked me if he could take Daniel and a few others to work on this interest; I believed this was a great opportunity so for 2 weeks, Nelson spent a few mornings a week drumming with Daniel and two others. What progressed after this changed the way I teach and live my life.

I asked Daniel if I could come watch one recess. I was blown away. Daniel was so into the drumming and singing that he would actually be sweating with pride as he was doing this. A few weeks later, I asked him if he could perform for our class – he unfortunately declined. Nelson encouraged him to sing and drum with him in front of our class. He nervously agreed and blew us all away when he performed; other students cheered when he finished and then asked if they could be part of “his group”. Daniel was now not only working with his strengths but also leading others to do the same. His group added girls and grew from 3 to 6 and then 8, including 2 students from another class. They played for our class every Monday morning, to start our week, and every Friday afternoon, to finish our week. They even gave themselves a name, Sacred Connections, and began to play for other schools and community events.

The moment that brought me almost to tears was right before Christmas. Each week, 1-2 new students would join up front in the singing and drumming. We often don’t see the impact of small changes but right before Christmas, the group actually had no people to play for, because every single student was up there singing with Daniel! To create an audience, I invited Roxanne and a grade 4 class to come and see the performance. We all sat there in awe of what Daniel had done not only as a performer, but also as a leader.

The other parts of Daniel’s school and life were drastically changing too. His friendships grew, his efforts in school improved and he became very engaged in learning activities. His reputation grew as a leader in the school and community and his group was asked to play at a local pre-Olympic Games (2010) event and in the spring he was asked to perform with Pow Wow drummers at a huge event in front of our entire school and community! Daniel had gone from a disengaged, quiet student who refused to take part in the learning to a proud leader and confident learner in our school.

Leadership and Strength

Daniel leading the "Welcome Song" to start our week.

That year was one that changed my life. It was not just one aha moment but a series of moments that shaped me as a person. I want to thank Roxanne, Nelson, and most importantly Daniel for teaching me that, as educators, the most important thing we can do is provide the optimal conditions for people to grow, bring out their strengths, and truly flourish.

Rather than only recognize those select few award winners at the end of the year, we need to honour every student every day.  Every child has a strength and passion within him/her; we need to help EVERY student to find this and excel in his/her own way.

Here are the comments that the person who taught me the most about this, Dominic (Daniel).

Dom 1Dom2

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Good Luck, Thank You, Farewell

I have been asked by a few parents to post my Farewell Speech to the Grade 6′s that was said at our Grade 6 Year-End Honouring Ceremony June 24th, 2010:

When principals come up and give farewell speeches to classes leaving their school, they often talk about moving on and getting a step closer to the ‘real world’.  Lately, I have been pondering this idea and I have come to the realization that to our students, school is the real world.  This is not some fantasy fake world that exists in some other level or continuum – this IS the real world.  We have to be careful about ‘warning’ our students about entering the real world because as I have grown to know these amazing students, I have realized that their present real worlds may actually be more difficult than the world in which they will enter after high school.  Many of the kids in front of you are determined, supportive individuals who have overcome an unbelievable number of challenges and obstacles just to get to this point in their education.  This needs to be recognized.

EACH student needs to be recognized for all their strengths and talents that they have; they also need to be recognized for the contributions they make to our school and community.  As you are well aware, the Kent Staff has made a monumental step to change the way we honour our students.  In the past, we would be here and watch a select few students get recognized; we still want to recognize those athletes and academic students, but what about the students who spend every lunch hour working with younger students?  How do we recognize them?  They do not do this for any award, they just do this because it is the right thing to do – and this needs to be recognized.  I will never forget last year when I overheard a student say that they “lost the athletic award”.  This student has a strength in athletics yet he viewed not getting the award as a loss.  This is exactly why the First Nation program at our school puts on an honouring ceremony that recognizes the strengths of every FN student in the school and why we have expanded our year end ceremony to include all members of our grade 6 class.  The recognition of all our students is so important and so very well deserved.

In the next few minutes you will hear teachers talk about their students’ strengths and qualities.  It is our hope that these students are already aware of these amazing qualities and will leave our school and continue to focus on these talents.  It is our hope that these strengths are, in fact, passions and that they spend their time doing something in which they are passionate about.  So grade 6’s, you know what you are good at – do it!  Really challenge yourself in these areas.  Push yourselves and encourage each other in these areas of strengths.

When you push yourself you might actually go outside of your comfort zone and take a risk.  When you do this, you WILL make mistakes – please remember mistakes are made because you are pushing yourself and that is a great thing.  That is how we learn and move forward in life.  My wife, Tonya, is a dance teacher and there is a saying that she uses in dance:  “if you fall, make it part of the dance”.  That is what we want you to do – push yourselves, take risks, fall, get up – and make it part of the dance, make it part of your plan.  Times when you fall is when the best learning takes place.

Although, there are many teachers in this school that have put in significant amounts of time to help you to learn, I just wanted to take some time to thank you for some things YOU have taught ME:

  • Thank you for teaching me that field hockey can be played with lacrosse sticks and can involve teamwork of players in grades 1 through 6
  • Thank you for teaching me the importance of buddy reading and the power of having an older literacy mentor
  • Thank you for teaching me that it is ok to show emotions and that growing up can be one of the most difficult times in our lives – and that we need each other so much during this time
  • Thank you for showing me that kids do NOT need to do things for a reward – the volunteer time you have put in to help supervise our primary students at lunch time, run our gym equipment room every single day, go out every lunch and help students in our strong start centre, preparing lunches for gatherings of our families and elders, helping to ref mini-hockey games in the primary end, for giving back to our community by giving up your Saturday to accompany two of our valued elderly adults as you pushed them in their wheelchairs to attend the Highway of Heroes event a few weeks ago.

These are just a few of the things that you have taught me.  You have not participated in these important activities for any reason other than ‘because it was the right thing to do’.  We need to recognize and honour all of you for not only your accomplishments and strengths but also what you have taught us during your time here in your ‘real world’ at Kent.

Today is your day, enjoy the moment and we wish you nothing but the best in the next phase of your education.

Thank you.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

A New Era of Ceremonies

If you read a previous post, “Death of an Awards Ceremony“, you are well aware of the change that Kent Elementary School made this past month.  The staff decided to abolish all the awards and honour roll recognition and replace this with an honouring/recognition ceremony for ALL our grade 6 students.

Although the conversation started about 3 years ago (with the previous principal), I continued the conversation and happened to be principal when the decision was made; due to this, I kind of took the weight of the ceremony on my shoulders as I wanted it to be so successful that people would wonder why we ever did the awards ceremonies in the first place.

So how did it go?

Rather than trying to summarize the entire afternoon event, I will discuss a few key bits of information as well as the moments that stood out to me.

  • We have 4 grade 6 teachers at our school this year (with splits and shared teaching loads).  Each teacher spoke about the student in their class for about 30 seconds and the best part was that they spoke in their unique style.  One teacher listed off the many positive qualities and key moments she had observed throughout the year, two other teachers (who shared a class) shared a short and entertaining poem about each student, and one teacher entertained the students and audience with his wit as he spoke of how he pictures his students using their strengths in the future.
  • In past years, we normally had an Awards Ceremony for students in grades 4 through 6 which  included about 175 students. We set up 100 chairs and that usually sufficed.  This year we were recognizing 55 grade 6 students so I figured 100 chairs would be plenty.  By the time the ceremony started we had added another 40 chairs and by the time students were recognized, there was a wall of people standing at the back.  I did a scan of the audience and as far as I could tell, every single student had someone there to observe he/she get honoured by their teacher.  In the days leading up to the event, I even had some parents ask if their child was going to get an award because they wanted to know if they should take work off; I loved responding to these questions (yet another reason why this format worked well) and saying that each child would be recongnized.
  • I taught half of this grade 6 class last year so there were many great moments for me; however there were two that summed it all up. A student, Andrew (pseudonym), was called up to be recognized.  The process was for the student to stand, listen to the comments from the teacher and then shake hands with a few people and receive their certificate (which stated their strengths and interests).  While the teacher was speaking, a slide would show with pictures of the student and a list of their strengths.  Now Andrew is an extremely quiet child that is not the best athlete nor is he the most academic; he is, however, a great kid.  As he was called up, he checked at the slide to see the picture of him and read his strengths.  At this point he was trying to hold back a slight grin.  When the teacher said that he was a gentle guy, he tried to bite his lip to stop him from smiling.  When the teacher commented on his skills in technology, he could not hold back the grin much longer.  When the teacher said he is the “man with the swagger” and a “true gamer” and one who will be working for EA Sports (video game designer and producer), Andrew let out a grin and a laugh that I will never forget.  I taught this child for an entire year and I have never seen him beam with pride like that.  The other moment happened the day following the ceremony.  A girl, Tanya (pseudonym), was recognized the day before and one of her strengths was that she was ‘quiet, clever’.  The next day, this individual was helping me to clean the gym and out of nowhere, this quiet girl asked, “Mr. Wejr, do you think I am clever?”  I smiled and stopped for a moment and said, “Tanya, the greatest thing about you is that because you do not speak often, when you do speak up, people listen.  They know that what you have to say must be important and that what you say is, in fact, clever”.  She responded with a quiet appreciative grin with a glimmer in her eye and continued on helping me stack chairs.

Although there were many proud and emotional moments in which parents, staff, and students held back their tears, the moments with Andrew and Tanya completely summed it up for me.  Had we carried on with the traditional awards ceremony, Andrew would have sat up there and watched as a few of his classmates received awards.  He would probably not even have cracked a smile.    This year, Andrew grinned from ear to ear and even leaned back and laughed as the cameras of his family took photos to help cherish the moment of recognition.  The conversation I had with Tanya would have never taken place and I would not have shared a memorable moment with a ‘quiet,clever’ student.

There has been an overwhelming response to the previous post on the decision to change the ceremony (once Alfie Kohn tweeted it, people from around the world stopped by to read it).  There is obviously a huge interest out there around this topic.  So my question is: why are we still having huge ceremonies that award a select few and fail to recognize so many strengths, talents, and interest of our students?

Parents of students at our school, I would love for you to leave your feedback about the 2010 Kent Year-End Ceremony.

To read my Farewell Speech to the Grade 6′s, please click here.

I look forward to witnessing the growth of this event and Kent School in the coming years.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Lessons From My Father

Seeing how Father’s Day is nearing, I felt that I would take this time to reflect on some of the key lessons that I learned from my dad, Glenn Wejr.  My dad has spent his life bouncing from career to career but this was not because he fared poorly in that specific career but because he wanted to try something different; he has worked as a retail clerk, teacher, coach, business owner, school board trustee, realtor, and real estate developer.  Through all of these ventures, he learned some key lessons; the following is a list of lessons that he shared with me that have impacted the way I lead my life:

Father and son and our wives.

Father and son and our wonderful wives.

  1. Keep your head up when you cross the blue line, head down when you are teeing off; keep your elbow in when making a jump shot and you elbow out when swinging at the pitch. My dad was my coach in almost every sport.  He was the official coach for many and the behind-the-scenes-late-at-night coach for others sports.  As an athlete he excelled in basketball, baseball, and curling and for sports like hockey, he learned the sport and volunteered his time to coach the teams in which I was involved.
  2. Pick your team based on their personality and character, not based on their present ability. Every year that my dad came home from the meetings where they place players on teams, I would always be upset because I would say, “they have all the best players, why didn’t you pick any of them?”  Every year he would respond in the same way , “the players on our team are coachable, you wait and see.”  Every year we would start out losing to the other teams but by the end of the year, because of the focus on effort and attitude, we would end up being victorious and proud as a team.
  3. Praise effort, not ability – don’t praise too often, don’t be afraid to offer feedback on improvement.  As a child I was always frustrated because my dad never told me I was a good athlete or I was smart.  He just talked about working hard and spending time practicing.  I could go out and score a hat trick and on the ride home he would say, “you played really well, you worked hard, now make sure you don’t stop back checking once you get to the neutral zone.”  Sometimes I just wanted him to tell me I was the best hockey player; now that I know the importance of praising effort (through my experience as well as listening to experts such as Carol Dweck), I am thankful for the way he praised me.
  4. Give back to your community. My dad has been heavily involved in volunteering to coach and organize endless leagues as well as giving his time to things like the volunteer fire department and the International Order of Canadian Foresters.  Through his modeling, I became involved in coaching in high school and this carried right through until recently.  I still take opportunities to work with kids at lunch and after school and these ‘coaching’ moments are often the best part of my day.
  5. See people for who they are.  As a very young child, I remember being afraid of people who appeared to be different.  A man named Alan always used to come into my dad’s sporting good store and visit with him.  Alan had a mental disability and appeared very different to me.  In order to help me understand, my dad often invited me to come along and do things with the two of them; by doing this he showed me that yes, Alan was different – but he was also an amazing person.  Another example involves a man named Franco.  Franco also had a mental disability and, too, spent many hours just visiting with people in my dad’s store.  Franco ended up being almost a part of our family; he played ball with us, watched my hockey games, and ended up curling on my dad’s curling team.  Unfortunately, both Alan and Franco left us far too early but the lessons they taught me will remain with me forever.  To see the tears from my dad as he gave the eulogy at Franco’s memorial service made me not only proud to call him my dad but so thankful that he introduced me to Franco.
  6. Tell people you love… that you love them. My grandfather never told my dad he loved them until he was 75 years old and in his final years.  My dad has never been afraid to let us (my sister, Lindsay, and I) know how important we are to him and although we probably already knew it, it sure is nice to hear it.
  7. Some lighter lessons: Snakes are the scariest things on earth and it is ok for kids to see you protecting yourself with a lawnmower, Canucks will win the cup… eventually, you will learn not to stick a key in an electrical outlet after only one attempt, eat your vegetables (except onions), consumer debt is bad, have your money work for you, and a sense of humour can get you through a lot of challenging times.

By no means is my dad perfect.  He has made many mistakes just like everyone else; what he has taught me through this is that it is ok to take risks, make mistakes, learn from them and use these to become a better person.  My dad and I are now closer than we have ever been and it is because of all these experiences and lessons that our relationship has become so strong.  As I move closer to fatherhood (this winter!), I truly hope that my kids can have a father like I had.

This may be the first and last blog my dad ever reads (he still does not believe in using bank cards) but I just wanted to let him know how much I appreciate all that he has taught me.

Happy Father’s Day Dad.  Love ya!

Tags: , , , , ,

Death of an Awards Ceremony

This is the time of the year that most schools are meeting and arguing over who is the top student in a variety of categories; high schools have selected their valedictorian (mostly based on who has the highest grades) and majority of schools are gearing up for their annual awards ceremony.

Yesterday, at our staff meeting, a decision was made that will change the way we end the year at Kent.

If you are a person who believes school is all about grades and awards, I am afraid that you will not like the decision made by our school yesterday; if you are a person who loves the idea of the “proud parent of an honour roll student” bumper sticker, you may be frustrated by our school.

June 1, 2010 marked the end of a tradition at our school – a tradition that awarded top students not for their efforts and learning but for their grades and achievements. The staff at Kent School decided to abolish the “awards” part of the year end ceremony.

Academic award winners? No more.  Athletic award winners? Nope.  Honour roll ? Nuh uh.

Part of our school goal is “for each student in our school to recognize and develop his/her unique talents and interests…”.  The key words in this are “each student”.  We do not want to just recognize those that excel in specific areas, we want to recognize EACH student for the areas in which he/she excels.

As a school, we need to move away from the traditional educational hierarchy that says those students who excel in language arts and maths are more important than those who excel in fine arts. We need to move away from recognizing only those students who have figured out the “game of school” and know how to “do” school well.

What motivates students? Grades (and honour rolls) or learning? There are many students that are unfortunately only motivated by grades.  This is not their fault, it is what has been taught to them.  The comments such as “if you want an A, you must do this…” or “if you do this, you will lose marks” have taught students that grades and achievement is more of a priority than learning.  Grades are extrinsic motivators while learning results in more intrinsic motivation.  So, do we want students to motivated by grades or learning?  Learning!

When I ask our grade 4 students what the honour roll is, they have not a clue, nor do they care. Yet, in the past we have awarded certain students for getting good grades by giving them a certificate and telling them that they made this esteemed club called the honour roll. By doing this, what are we teaching kids? Are we not teaching them that it is not so much the process of learning that is important but it is the resulting grades and report card marks?

Carol Dweck, in her book Mindset, talks about the difference between praising students for their effort and ability. If we praise students for “being smart” or “being athletic”, research says that we create students who are afraid to take risks and usually shy away from challenges. What kind of students do we want – those that rise to the challenge and take risks or those that believe that what they can or cannot do is ‘fixed’ and based on how ‘smart’ they are.

Alfie Kohn (referenced in the “For the Love of Learning” blog by Joe Bower) sums it up nicely when he writes this about awards:

“…researchers have found that children who are frequently rewarded — or, in another study, children who receive positive reinforcement for caring, sharing, and helping — are less likely than other children to keep doing those things.

In short, it makes no sense to dangle goodies in front of children for being virtuous. But even worse than rewards are awards — certificates, plaques, trophies, and other tokens of recognition whose numbers have been artificially limited so only a few can get them. When some children are singled out as “winners,” the central message that every child learns is this: “Other people are potential obstacles to my success.”Thus the likely result of making students beat out their peers for the distinction of being the most virtuous is not only less intrinsic commitment to virtue but also a disruption of relationships and, ironically, of the experience of community that is so vital to the development of children’s character.”

So what will our year-end ceremony look like?  Each grade 6 student will be honoured and recognized for their strengths, talents, and/or interests.  There will be no honour roll, no academic winners (and losers), no athletic award winners (and losers) and no recognition that one student’s talents are better than another.  The focus will be on EACH student and not just CERTAIN students.

In schools we always need to question and reflect on why we do things.  Why do we present awards to certain students?  What does this do to help learning in schools?  Why do we state that proficiency in math is more important than excelling in theatre?  How do we motivate our kids?  When our answers to these questions do not place student learning at the forefront, we need to change the way we do things.   At Kent School, we have by no means solved all that is concerning with education, but we have made a step forward.

For another blog on thoughts on the idea of “valedictorian”, please read Eric Sheninger’s blog “Recognizing the Valedictorian in All”

Thank you to Roxanne Watson (my previous principal & one of my mentors) for helping to fuel the passion in this area and starting the conversation with our staff.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,