Posts Tagged talents

Changes to Awards System at Mt. Scopus College

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I am pleased to have a guest post by Greg Hannon, Head of the upper elementary school at Mount Scopus College in Melbourne Australia, write  a post describing how his school has decided to move away from the traditional awards ceremony structure.  One of my Twitter friends, Edna Sackson (@whatedsaid), introduced me to Greg as she is a teacher at the school.  Thank you to Greg and Edna!

This post is part of the series “Recognizing ALL Students: The Movement”.  If you know of other schools that have altered the way they honour their students, please contact me to join the movement.

CHANGES TO AWARDS SYSTEM AT MOUNT SCOPUS COLLEGE

This year I decided to tackle a protocol that has taken place over many, many years at our College, a protocol I never believed in but one in honesty, never had the courage to confront – the giving of awards at our Year 6 Graduation Evening.

Past families and students have left endowments to be awarded on an annual basis for high achieving students in Literacy, Numeracy, Hebrew and all the major sports. These awards grew over the years, now numbering 24 separate awards, that would be presented during the graduating ceremony.

So, after four years as Head of the Primary School, I now have the confidence and conviction to not only question, but make changes to programs that have operated within the College for many years that possibly didn’t get reflected upon as rigorously as perhaps they should have. My first target was the Year 6 Awards!

I knew to successfully end the tradition I had to firstly record the reasons as to why I didn’t believe in them.

  • Graduation is a celebration for every student associated with the cohort, not just the select few with specific abilities and talents.
  • Some families pressure their children and in fact teachers that their child is worthy of an award.
  • Some children have left the evening in the past feeling upset and in fact in tears at not receiving an award that they thought they deserved.
  • Some awards are very subjective.
  • The evening becomes more of an awards night instead of a celebration of learning and collective achievement.
  • I question whether or not our Year 6 children need to be subjected to potential disappointment in relation to not receiving awards. That will occur as they grow older.
  • What are we standing for as a College? A school that celebrates only the talented few or a school that recognises the achievements of all.

Once I had recorded my beliefs, I met my year 6 staff individually, to explain my aspirations. Pleasingly, most were very supportive of my intentions. I then canvassed senior staff and all agreed that the policy of awards was out dated and needed attention.

 Now, having the confidence to make the necessary changes I made a meeting with the College Principal and College President. This was a particularly pleasing meeting and once I had articulated my reasons for making the changes they were both overwhelmingly supportive of the change.

 It was decided at that meeting to convey the changes to the parents in a ‘drip feed’ manner. I met with all Year 6 students and explained to them the reasons as to why I was removing all awards from the primary school and making the Graduation Evening a celebration of every students achievements, not just the naturally talented or bright!  This information went home and to my surprise, not one complaint. Just the opposite actually with two parents commenting on how it was a positive step forward.

 As a College, we recognise special achievements at our weekly assembly. We don’t give out certificates or prizes, we just verbally acknowledge and celebrate the achievement.

 Moving forward, our Graduation Evenings will now be a positive experience for ALL students and hopefully the entire cohort leave the evening feeling recognised, special and happy.

Greg Hannon
Head  Mount Scopus College, Melbourne Australia

For more thoughts from other educators on awards, please go to “Rethinking Awards Ceremonies“.

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Recognizing ALL Students: St. Gregory College Prep School

EVERY child has a strength inside them; it is our job, as educators, to bring this out.  “Recognizing ALL Students” is a page designed to showcase the success stories of schools that have moved away from the traditional awards ceremonies and monthly assemblies that only focus on a select few students to a place where ALL students are recognized for their unique talents and interests.

Through many conversations I have had over the past year, I have heard “That is great that your elementary school has ended the awards ceremony… but good luck doing that at the secondary/high school level!”.  I recently came across Jonathan Martin‘s post at his 21K12 site that describes in great detail the decision that his school, a high school in Tuscon, made to move away from the traditional awards ceremony.  I  thought their story would be a great addition to the conversation here so I asked if I could re-post his blog on the Wejr Board as part of the “Recognizing ALL Students: The Movement” series.

Jonathan is a colleague of mine from the Connected Principals site and a valued part of my PLN.  He continually challenges my thinking and is a great example of a progressive, informed educator who puts his learning into practice.  Thank you, Jonathan, for allowing me to post your words here:.  If you are interested in highlighting your school’s decision to recognize all students, please email me.

St. Gregory

Awards at St. Gregory: Changes We Are Making To Recognize All Students

Dear members of the St. Gregory community:

Recognizing our students for their unique talents as outstanding individuals, creative and compassionate community contributors, and extraordinary intellects is something important to us all.

Important also is that we make choices which strengthen and enhance the quality of our supportive and collaborative learning community.  We know that students thrive most and learn most when they believe that the growth and the contributions of each of them are valued deeply, greatly, and equitably by their teachers.

As each school year ends, it is especially important that we take strong strides to value every learner and enhance our learning community.   Traditionally, in the middle school, each and every 8th grade student is individually recognized, appreciated, and honored by a teacher at the lovely promotional ceremony.

In the past, our high school graduation ceremonies have only included the naming of each graduate as he or she is welcomed to the stage and awarded a diploma.   This year, for the first time, we will initiate a new tradition at graduation in which each and every graduate is personally introduced by a faculty member with thoughtful remarks valuing the graduate’s qualities and contributions. It is my expectation that this ceremony will be warmer, more personal, more affirming, and more uplifting as we put our attention on our fine students, celebrate their accomplishments, and honor their character, scholarship, leadership, and innovation.

Last spring was the first time in my 21 year career in which I had the opportunity to observe a school awards assembly or awards process.   Neither of the two previous schools at which I taught and served as Head had any awards tradition.   I thought our ceremonies, both middle school and upper school, were each lovely in the way our teachers spoke about students and their accomplishments.   But it was not evident to me that these ceremonies were affirming and uplifting to the learning of all our students.

In the days after the ceremonies, I felt a bit besieged by the disgruntlement the ceremonies created.   Parents called to say their children were demoralized, disappointed, or disillusioned by the process.  Often expressed was that the process seemed arbitrary or prejudicial, a matter of playing favorites.

One graduating senior wrote me a compelling and articulate letter, excerpted below, which I did not feel should be ignored.

Today’s awards ceremony was a huge letdown. I understand the goal is to highlight the students that succeed in our school, but instead it ended up making the rest of us feel inadequate and ignored.

The awards ceremony made me feel like my accomplishments are trivial. Essentially, today took the wind out of my sails.

Graduation is about the ENTIRE senior class and our accomplishments. I don’t want to attend a graduation where my friends and I go unnoticed once again.

Please make the rest of us feel like we matter too.

I make a habit of reading widely in the contemporary literature of motivation and the psychology of success; to my observation, there is very little reason to believe that awards are motivating for achievement.  Research has repeatedly demonstrated that intrinsic motivation is far more effective for life-long passion and purpose than is extrinsic motivation.   I highly recommend Dan Pink’s new book: Drive: the Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, in which he very powerfully explains the evidence that external awards actually can reduce success in higher order thinking skills: offering someone the carrot of a reward to motivate them actually reduces his or her effectiveness and success in completing a higher order thinking, complex task.  (Conversely, for very low level, effectively mindless tasks, rewards or awards can motivate in a small way).

“An incentive designed to clarify thinking and sharpen creativity ended up clouding thinking and dulling creativity. Why? Rewards, by their very nature, narrow our focus.”

“Goals may cause systematic problems for organizations due to narrowed focus, unethical behavior, increased risk taking, decreased cooperation, and decreased intrinsic motivation. Use care when applying goals in your organization.”

By offering a reward, a principal signals to the agent that the task is undesirable. (If the task were desirable, the agent wouldn’t need a prod.)”

Stanford Psychology Professor Dr. Carol Dweck, in her terrific book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, explains how students can be potentially derailed from their growth mindset and into a problematic fixed mindset in school settings where some students are regularly rewarded and others are not.   The psychology of all this, not all of which is entirely conscious, is very powerful according to Dweck.  Some students may take away from their award exclusion that they are simply not capable of such achievement, and discontinue their efforts.  Other students, when winning awards, come to think this is the result of their innate, fixed abilities.   In this scenario, these award-winning students can become quite conservative in their learning, choosing not to take risks or try new things in areas in which they might not be successful, because in doing so they will jeopardize their self-identity as an award winner.

The most compelling reason to continue awards as they have been, I believe, is because we do know that many of our students have exerted themselves enormously, with great diligence and efforts, and they have accomplished extraordinary things.  Indeed.   Granting these students awards is a way of recognizing, acknowledging, and honoring these fine students.

However, these are often decisions difficult to make, and inevitably there is some ill-will generated in the process, ill-will which does not strengthen our school’s learning community.  Parents and students sometimes view the awards as having been decided in arbitrary ways, or by “favoritism.”  This concern was particularly prominent in the conversation I had with parents attending the November Family Association meeting.  That some deserving students are honored by awards misses the reality that other deserving students are hurt and by their perception their effort is devalued by not winning an award.

The good news is that in our new format, each and every student completing our programs, in the middle school and in the school as a whole, as 12th grade graduates, will have their hard work and extraordinary accomplishments acknowledged as is appropriate, in remarks which speak to the unique attributes of each.   Graduates will be spoken about, commended and congratulated twice: once in the “senior dinner” at which each graduate is paid tribute to by a pair of teachers, and then at graduation, as they are being awarded a diploma.

Some have asked about the importance of awards for our students’ college applications.   In the past, 70-80% of all awards have gone to graduating seniors, for whom these awards come too late to have any impact on a college application.  Furthermore, our very experienced and knowledgeable College Counselor, Malika Johnson, reports to us that internal school awards like this are not seen by most college admissions officers as significant in their decision-making process (awards granted to students from outside our school community do, in contrast, have significance in the process).

Motivated by the many disappointed and dissenting voices I heard last spring, I have conducted a review of our awards tradition over the past several months.   I enjoyed extended conversations with the upper school faculty (twice) and the middle school faculty (once); with the Family Association in an open meeting in advance of which we advertised we’d be discussing awards; and with a group of students who joined me for a conversation which I openly announced.

In all these conversations, there was very strong support for the changes we are making to the graduation ceremony.  At each discussion, many widely varying opinions were offered about awards, but in none of the conversations, by the end, did there continue to be very strong advocacy for continuing the status quo, and in both the faculty and the parent conversations, there was by the end instead a clear majority support for ending our awards process.

Two surveys were conducted.  One went to parents, announced two times in the e-View, it received very little participation—well under 5% of parents responded.   Of those that did, a majority expressed strong support for our awards tradition.   Our St. Gregory faculty members also completed a survey, for which we received nearly 100% participation; of the 35 members of our faculty in the survey, only 4 teachers, 11%, expressed a wish that we continue with the status quo tradition of past year (15% of those expressing a preference).   23% expressed no preference, and a clear majority of our faculty members, nearly two/thirds, expressed a preference to end the status quo (85% of those expressing a preference).

With such an overwhelming proportion of our faculty in support of a change; with the strong support for such a change I received from the family association conversation; with respect for the student views that while awards are valued by some it is also understood perhaps they do diminish the sense of student community; and after discussion with the executive committee of the Board of Trustees; I have decided we will no longer have awards at St. Gregory in the way we have in the past.

To clarify further, we will not host end-of-year awards assemblies in the middle and upper school, and we will not distribute in any venue a large number of departmental and general student awards.

We are not deciding at this juncture to never offer any awards.  In our faculty poll, the plurality selection (40%) (and the majority (54%)of those who expressed an opinion) was for the option “end the status quo but allow some flexibility for some award giving.”

Hence, we are reserving the option on an ad-hoc basis to grant selectively and in small numbers awards at all-school or division meetings, perhaps at graduation or promotion ceremonies, or perhaps at all-school academic pep rallies and learning celebrations.

We are also continuing our development of a program of special diplomas for students who commit to and complete a course of study and activity to develop certain skills.   These will not be awards decided by teachers and granted to only a few, but will be distinctions students attain by their choice to pursue and their success at accomplishing them.

Finally, we will also continue to encourage and support our students in seeking external awards, individually and as part of teams.  We recognize that there is great value in our students having opportunity to participate and compete in larger arenas, and although there are still potentially problematic issues of appropriate motivation entailed in such external awards programs, there are not at all the same issues of compromising the learning community that internal awards create.

Some in our community will be disappointed about this decision, certainly.  Awards are part of our tradition, and awards offer value to highlighting the things most important to a school program, academic accomplishment.  Those community members who disagree with this decision are welcome to give feedback or share their contrasting points of view: I value greatly a learning community marked by active, civil discourse and dissent.

For me, the paramount values for an educational program are that we seek to motivate students in the best, most well research-supported ways, and that we strive to create a genuinely strong  learning community where all feel valued and all feel eager to support one another in learning.  Awards, to the best of my understanding and perception, simply do not serve these values.

Sincerely,

Jonathan Martin

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No Future in the Arts?

STORY 1: There is no future in dance.

“There’s no future in dance”.  This horrible statement was made to my wife, Tonya, in her grade 11 year of high school.  Here is her story:

For as long as Tonya can remember, she has been a dancer.    ballet_shoesThis girl knew her passion at a very young age; her life was spent in the studio and on the stage.  At 7 years of age, she performed in the motion picture, Housekeeping.  She taught dance in her early teens to help pay for her dance fees (her mother also helped clean the studio).  She thrived at dance and was a provincial rep for a number of years which provided her the opportunity to showcase her talents alongside some of the best artists in British Columbia each year.  Along with dance, Tonya loved musical theatre; she was involved in musicals each year up until she graduated high school.

A few years ago, I asked my wife how often she was able to bring her passion and strength in dance into her schooling; she only remembered the one time in elementary school where she was encouraged to perform in front her peers.  Growing up, dance was all she knew; school was far from dance.  She did ‘well enough’ in school, struggled in certain areas, but excelled in the arts.

In grade 11, Tonya met with the school counselor to go over possible career paths.  All she had ever thought about was dance – teaching, choreographing, and performing.  The counselor was very blunt and told her that she should probably consider other options because a career in dance was likely not to happen.  She walked out of that office thinking that her best option would be in the field of secretarial/office management.  However, being the person she was, her thoughts shifted back to dance and she did not pay much attention to the counselor and thus, continued to perform and teach.  She soon realized that her dream also included owning and directing her own dance studio.

Let me catch you up on what she has done since then:

Following graduation, she worked as a teacher and began to audition for certain dance roles.  She landed roles in music videos, a major motion picture Center Stage: Turn it Up, as well as a place in the top 100 of So You Think You Can Dance Canada.  (She also taught hip hop classes at a certain high school which caught the eye of a certain high school PE teacher who may or may not have written this blog).

Tonya Wejr on So You Think You Can Dance Canada

Tonya Wejr on So You Think You Can Dance Canada

She spent 2 years going to school to complete her Royal Academy of Dance teaching program.  Tonya worked at a few different dance studios and in the summer of 2007, reached her dream goal and opened Kick It Up A Notch Academy of Dance.  Her philosophy as a teacher is much more than just teaching dance; she is a coach, a mentor, a friend, and a leader; she has inspired many dancers with her creative choreography and passionate teaching style.   With over 100 students at her studio along with passionate teachers, Tonya’s love for dance is spreading to young students every year.  I get emotional every year at the Year End Performance when her dancers showcase their unreal talents and love for their art.

What would have happened if she had listened to her counselor and her school’s recommendation?  Has Tonya excelled because of the education system or in spite of the education system?  How many students are pushed away from the arts and directed to focus on something that is a “real world skill” or “practical” skill?  Many of Tonya’s students give up their love of dance to ‘focus on their academics’ in school; university may be a great option for some but I often wonder how many great artists are leaving the field to enter one in which they may not have that same passion.

STORY 2: A Photographer Is Born… 25 years later.

I met Sarah Funk this past year on Twitter (we actually went to preschool together).  Since then, we have hired her a few times for professional photography sessions for my family.  Sarah is amazing at what she does and through our conversations, I realized that she has not always been provided with the opportunity to focus on her art. Here is her story:

Sarah’s interest in the arts started in dance when she began Highland Dancing at the age of 4.  Music was also a large part of her life growing up; she loved it and excelled at from age 8.   Her father always had a camera around; in fact, his camera from when she was a child is sitting in her home today.  She remembers picking up that camera on and off throughout growing up but did not take it seriously until after high school when something drove her to learn more about the art of photography.  At that time it was mostly just flowers and nature,  nothing serious.  Having children only fueled this passion for photography and she began to want to translate images in her head into a photograph.  From there, her passion has grown into a successful business based on one of the top photographers in the Fraser Valley, Silver Lamb Studios.

Thinking back, she can’t even recall what her school offered in terms of photography.  She does recall, that with art programs, they fell to electives and because you only had so many electives that sometimes, your art had to be left behind to pursue the academic courses.  It was made very clear to her by her school that she needed to complete and do well in academic classes to get into a University. She remembers it being a very pro-University environment.  In Grade 12, she actually took a music class, even though she did not get a credit for it (because she already had a “different art credit”); she took it because she loved it.

She went to University, because that’s what she was told you had to do after high school to get anywhere or get a good job.  It wasn’t pushed on her by her  parents but more from the education system.  At the time, she thought the RCMP was the career path for her and she was told a post-secondary education would give her an edge in the field.  She studied Criminology and although she enjoyed it, none of the possible career areas excited her.  So after receiving her Criminology diploma and leaving university, she worked in various retail jobs until she became a mother and stopped working outside of the home.  Only then was she provided with the opportunity to explore her interest in photography.  She began taking photos of her children and family; at that point she knew her

A photos of one of my daughters - taken from Sarah Funk

A photos of one of my daughters - taken from Sarah Funk

purpose, her passion – her love of photography had returned and has since grown into a key part of her life.

I am thankful for her love of photography, her art fills our homes with beautiful captured memories.

When I asked Sarah what advice she would give to a student interested in photography, she responded “I think I would tell the child to follow their passion.  Both my husband and I are prime examples of going to school for one thing and ended up in a totally different field.  I really believe that you can make a living from anything.  It makes a tremendous difference working when you are doing something you love.  I never ever thought that I would be able to say that.”

Sarah was directed into a field, away from her passion of the arts, by a system.  I am so thankful that she returned to her passions later in life but I often wonder how many people do not get this opportunity?  How many people disregard their passions for the arts because of a system that pushes people into a certain direction?  Is a university education the ideal option?  Why does “keeping your doors open” often mean focusing on academics?

In a system that is continually trying to just survive with shrinking budgets, how many arts courses are being cut?  If a child is in a small community and has a passion and talent for theatre but there are not enough students to run a program, what happens to this child’s strength?

Reading and listening to people like Sarah, my wife Tonya, as well as renown speaker Sir Ken Robinson makes me reflect on the academic hierarchy that is present in our education system.  Numeracy and literacy are very important skills for our students but at what point do we put too much emphasis on academics and lose sight of what is important for all our students?

I want my children and students to have the opportunity to be part of an education system that encourages them to follow their passions and lead a flourishing life and not one that directs them into a path determined by system hierarchy.

Thank you to Sarah Funk and Tonya Wejr for their stories.

If you have not seen this TED Talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”, by Sir Ken Robinson, it is well worth the 18 minutes.

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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

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Is Learning A Sport?

Awards: One winner, many losers.

Awards: One winner, many losers.

“Schools are not about awarding the best and brightest, but developing the best and brightest.  Awards take away from this.  We can not let our own bias of our own school experience or beliefs get in the way of what research has told us about effective pedagogy.” — George Couros

“Recognizing every student is no more an exercise in mediocrity than believing all children should graduate from high school.” — Joe Bower

This week the topic of awards surfaced again on Twitter.  As a result, Vancouver Sun reporter Janet Steffenhagen posted part of my blog “Death of An Awards Ceremony” that described the decision parents and staff made to significantly alter the way we recognize kids.  Instead of our year-end awards ceremony, we decided to have a year-end honouring ceremony along with recognizing individuals throughout the year for their individual strengths and passions.  Awards ceremonies are zero-sum, meaning that although they create a few winners, they create many losers. Some great conversations are happening on Janet’s post so please chime in with your views here.

Through twitter and Janet’s post, a common opposing argument to ending awards is that if we get rid of awards we:

“should end all games in a tie”

“might as well get rid of championships”

“might as well eliminate sports teams too”

“are not preparing our kids for the competitive environment that is the ‘real world’”

Sport is huge in my life.  My friends, players and teammates will tell you: I am one of the most competitive players and coaches in the rink and on the court.  I have spent the majority of my adult life coaching volleyball, basketball, and track.  During this time, although the main goal was never to just win but more about the journey and process, I was involved in sports that resulted in a winner and a loser.  I am not against competition (there are still fun, healthy competitive games in schools and classrooms); I am against awards ceremonies and events that place emphasis on the result rather than on the learning.

The key difference between sport and learning is that you CHOOSE to play sports and you go in with the knowledge that there is a winner and a loser.  Students should not go to school to win; students should go to school to learn.  Students should not go to school to compete for some award at the end of the year; students should go to school to collaborate and learn from teachers and peers.  We rob our children of intrinsic motivation by continually offering extrinsic motivators.

Also, for those who say, “if we get rid of awards, we might as well get rid of test scores and grades and entrance exams”; I say: ABSOLUTELY, these also do not promote learning.  I will, however, leave this conversation for another post.

To many people, unfortunately, learning does seem to be a sport.  For those people who believe this, here are some questions to consider:

  • When/why did learning in school become this zero-sum activity that creates winners and losers?
  • Are certain areas of school favoured over others?
  • How do you award the top learner?  How is one learner better than another?
  • How much do politics play into awards in schools?
  • When did learning in school become a place where “some students need that competition to excel”?
  • Is it more about the parents wanting their kids to have awards or is it about the kids needing awards?
  • Who has taught these kids that awards are important?
  • What stays with you for life – the intrinsic motivation of knowing that one can learn or the extrinsic motivation of trophies, certificates and prizes?
  • Do we give out awards for top academic child in the family?  If an argument is that we “need to prepare students for the competitive real world”, why do most not do this within their own families?  (I am still awaiting for me to get to this “competitive real-world” that people keep telling me about – please see my post “School IS the real world for our students”)

Obviously, I am being a little cynical with these questions but hopefully it makes people reflect on the flaws in having learning viewed as a sport with winners and losers determined at awards ceremonies.

If all students can excel in something and all students can learn, how can there be losers?  The answer: hand out awards for learning and make learning a sport.

We need to work to see the value and strength in EVERY child, EVERY day.  If we resort to recognizing only a select few at the end of the year, we are failing the majority of our students.  Let’s tap into our students’ interests and work to honour our students for the strengths and passions within each one of them.

Learning is NOT a sport, it is a journey; an enjoyable journey that never ends.

UPDATE: PLEASE WATCH THIS VIDEO (added from Sue Downey’s comment.. perfect!)

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Bring Forth What Is Within

Bring Out Your Strengths

Educate: …from the root word Educe – to bring forth what is within      (Aimee Mullins)

Our school goal: For each student to master basic skills, recognize and develop his/her unique talents and interests, and to become a confident learner.

Embedded in this goal is a mission to help students find an area in which they have a strength or passion.  Too often we, as educators, focus on the deficits of students and develop strategies on how to help create more success in these areas.  What we often miss is the fact that students are already successful, they DO have a strength but it may be in an area not recognized by our education system.  As a staff, through recognizing each student for who they are and not what they do, as well as offering students opportunities to explore areas outside the curriculum, we are trying to help students to find and develop an area of strength or passion.

This TED Talk by Aimee Mullins, The Opportunity of Adversity (see video below), further emphasized to me the importance of bringing out the strengths from within. Although this is a truly inspiring lecture, the direct links to education are mentioned by Mullins in the second half (about 13:20 onward).  She speaks about how we need to be opening doors to students and not putting lids on them; “All you need is one person to show you the epiphany of your power”.  Who was that one person for you?  Have you been that one person to any of your students?

How often do we, as educators, take away a student’s strength to focus on their weakness (see Sir Ken Robinson)?  I am not saying we ignore the struggles of our students but how often do we see areas like the arts or physical education, which could be an area of strength, missed so that students can complete their unfinished reading or math.  How often are athletes prevented from playing their sport because their marks have slid (please see Brian’s post on this here); would we ever ban a student from Biology class because they received a yellow card in the soccer game the evening before?  During budget cuts, what are the first programs to go – arts, athletics, outdoor ed, field trips, etc.  We really need to reflect on what doors we are opening and what lids we are closing for our students.  The learning outcomes need to be lessened and the academic hierarchy needs to be flattened so students are provided with more opportunities to showcase their talents.

Environment is key to providing students with the mindset that they can bring out their strengths.  Mullins references a 1960′s case study in which the A-level students were told that they were D-level students and D-level students were told they were A-level students.  Teachers were also told the same thing about the students.  After 3 months, the students that were originally A-level students became D-level students.  They were taught differently and expectations were lowered because of the perception that they “could not”; conversely, the struggling students who were perceived to have A-level ability rose to those expectations.  How much harm occurs when we focus on the perceived educational deficits of students, rather than focusing on their strengths?

As educators, we need to begin to truly educate students by bringing forth what is within; we need to celebrate the strengths and passions of our students and support their individual needs in a way that instills confidence in their learning.  Only then will we know the true capability of our students.

Please join the movement to recognize ALL students.


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Reforming Through Our Strengths

Our Strengths

In the recent past, I have been reading endless blogs and seeing news headlines (and Oprah shows) that focus on all the problems with the current education system (much of these focus on the US system but there is a relation to the Canadian system).  We are bombarded with examples of educators that have been fired, test scores that are too low, and students who cannot read.

We often look at our students in this same way – through deficit thinking, the idea to try to bring up the weaknesses. Lately, a lot of schools and teachers are doing not only this but focusing more on the opposite; instead of bringing up the weaknesses, they are focusing on the strengths.

After reading Pernille Ripp’s post today, I thought: what if, instead of focusing on the weaknesses and problems with our current system, if we started to highlight the great things that are happening in schools every day throughout Canada and the world?

By walking through our school, being on Twitter and reading blogs from some fantastic educators, I see and read about amazing things that happen in schools every day – blogs that don’t focus on test scores, data, violence, or punishments.  These educators are writing about Identity Days, encouraging students to be proud of who they are, amazing things grade 1 students do in their first week, seeing students for who they truly are, and tapping into the leadership of our students.  What would happen if stories like this dominated the media?  Would we see a more positive education reform by showcasing examples of deeper learning and strength-based education?

I realize that we cannot ignore the problems that are embedded in the education systems of Canada and the US but we cannot forget the endless wonderful things that happen each and every day in our schools.  Many students ARE learning and participating in engaging lessons that focus on the learner.  Many teachers ARE looking beyond the external behaviours and forming relationship to show how much they deeply care for their students.  Schools ARE transforming from factory-models to learner-centred environments that put the students first.

So instead of slamming the deficits, why not reform through focusing on our strengths?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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