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Section Three: Redefining School Award Assemblies What do my students define as award worthy?

Year after year I witnessed the same children receive the same school awards and the same group watch the selected few on stage get applauded, hear speeches about them, and see family members take pictures of their child. Ideally, awards motivate students to work harder and behave better so that they too may earn an award. This reminded me of how Kohn states that schooling is typically about doing things to children, not working with them (1993). School awards perpetuate this relationship. Awards create an unjust system in schools disguised as fairness for those who deserve it. I felt uncomfortable subjecting my students to this system, but didn t feel that I could take myself completely out it. My students families perceived awards as a gauge to measure how their children are performing in school. An absence of awards and punishments is seen as chaos. I had already stopped using table points and colored behavior cards. Going cold turkey and taking my students out of the awards assembly would have been too drastic for my school community. I thought about how my students and I were transforming our class routines. Why not empower my students to change school routines too by participating in them differently? One morning, two weeks before the awards assembly, I approached my students during our morning meeting announcing the coming awards assembly. I told them our school awards were intended to motivate them to work harder and behave in kinder ways. But I didnt see that happening in our school because it was the same students that received awards and the same students who didnt. I questioned my ability to recognize which of my students were exhibiting award worthy behaviors. I told my students teachers typically chose who received awards. But students continue to not understand why they never got an award because we never included them in the process. I told them I saw something in all of them that was award worthy. If I could change our awards assemblies I would either stop having them or recognize something in all of them on that stage where everyone was celebrated instead of left out. I shared with them that I felt sad because I could not change the way we did assemblies as a school but we could change how our class gives awards. I told them they would declare which qualities were award-worthy to them. Then, they could nominate a student in our class that exhibited those traits. I asked my students to think about things that they or other students did that were award worthy. Then they wrote on a piece of paper a quality they felt was award worthy. I collected and read their responses aloud to the class and wrote them on a chart for us to refer to throughout the year. They came up with the following:

Awards should be given to students who

Listen to the Speaker Share Say Kind Words Helps Others Never Gives Up Improves in Something

It was fascinating that no one put being a smart student. They were all qualities that everyone either already did or could develop. According to Dweck in Mindset Research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things that you can cultivate through your effortseveryone can change and grow through application and experience. Stretching yourself, and sticking to it, even (or especially) when its not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives. (2008, p. 6-7)

Although the awards assemblies were intended to spark a growth mindset, they have done the opposite because students perceive awards as a measure of their competence and worth. Their efforts seemed worthless because if were honest, awards are given to students who master academic and behavior expectations not for mere effort. I noticed that four out of the six qualities my students listed as award worthy had to do with effort and how they treated the class community. My students wanted to be praised for their effort and development, not mastery. I wondered who my first graders would nominate. Who did they see that I did not? The students then wrote on a paper one student in class that had one of these qualities. They wrote the corresponding number of one of the qualities from the chart underneath the name of the student they nominated. I asked the students to write their nominees name on the paper to make sure they voted for someone other than themselves. I tallied the votes. After looking at the students who were nominated, I noticed there wasnt an overwhelming amount of votes for students whod appear to be the immediate choice for teachers. My students nominated students who showed effort and growth, not mastery. These were characteristics that were award worthy to my students because they were attainable. These were the qualities my students wanted me to recognize in them. My former procedure of assigning awards made my other students invisible to me. I kept my sights on students who mastered expectations consistently. Maybe its because I, selfishly, felt like a better teacher when one of my star students would get the answer right or sit quietly. I thought this gave me permission to look at my other students and think the problem was not myself, it was their lack of attention or unwillingness to work hard. My students defined the award nomination process to help me recognize the efforts among the invisible students and see my star students had needs too. Charlie was a typical star student. Charlie did his work right away, turned in his homework every day, and performed above grade level in all content areas. He was a no brainer for other teachers to choose him for an award. When Ive observed Charlie among his peers in class, I noticed he tended to do his own work and hesitated in helping others unless its for his twin brother. Is that why the students didnt give him more votes? He received three votes in the first round of voting, but during the tie breaker, he received four votes while the other two students received six and seven votes. I hoped that this community decision-making for awards would affect how he reached out and participated more in the community. When I interviewed Charlie about how he felt about the voting, he said it was fair. He liked that the voting was private. He said he would rather have students choose than teachers. Charlies reaction surprised me because he wouldve been the first to be

given an award from teachers. I had thought he would feel the vote was unfair because he felt he deserved it. But he didnt. He changed during the weeks that followed the award nomination. He initiated helping other students within his project team. They researched the volcano together. In the past, Charlie would get his work done on his own and share his work with me without interacting with any of the other students. This time, I noticed that he brought books to the other four boys in his team and helped them read the information. He became more vocal and expressed his feelings during times when his team wasnt helping each other or were off track. In the beginning of the year he remained silent and didnt share at all during project debriefs. When I gave my first grade students choice with awards, it enabled Charlie to be reflective of how he contributed to the community, not just his individual academic performance. The students recognized Deon as having the quality of improving in something because of how his vulnerability contributed to the community. He frequently asked us to slow down or to re-teach concepts that were tricky for him. One morning while counting by twos on the one hundred chart, I noticed that Deon wasnt doing it with the class. When I asked him why, he said that he had a hard time skip counting past sixteen. He asked us to go slower because that made it easier for him to read the numbers on the one hundred chart while skip counting. After Deon asked us to help him make skip counting more comfortable, a few students came forward and said, I need that too. Deons courage to share what was difficult and say what he needed inspired the other students. He was award-worthy to them because of what he did for them. Would Andy and those hardest to reach in our school, want to participate in this new awards system? Andy is the kind of student that teachers think would be motivated to behave better when he looked longingly at others getting an award. The problem is that this did not motivate him to behave better. His defiance towards teachers and other classmates escalated in kindergarten. Andy had voted for Deon. When the awards assembly came, Andy sat with us the whole time and clapped. Last year, he couldnt sit still through an assembly and had at one time needed to be restrained from other students in the middle of it. When I asked him how he felt about being able to decide the qualities for an award and choose a student who had those qualities, he said, Its fair. I havent hit nobody. Friends should choose because if teachers choose, you dont see. Hes right. I dont see everything. I suspect that students like Andy arent motivated to behave or work harder from these awards because they are being subjected to a merit system they know they dont have control over. I still feel uncomfortable with our awards assemblies but since it is part of our school culture, I want my students to feel a sense of choice in this process. Our classrooms system of defining award worthy qualities allowed my students to frame what was most important and align them to the values we cultivated in our room.

Only then will these award assemblies begin to motivate my students to have the growth mindset where their efforts, even in failure, enabled them to continue the passion to learn because effort is celebrated and recognized.