One of the best ways to keep students engaged is to acknowledge their work. Give a star for that accomplished volcano diorama. Leave a comment of praise on that fairy tale turned in days before the deadline. You want to build a culture of continuous improvement in your class, so you celebrate their hard work the right way. Believe it or not, there is such a thing as a wrong way of acknowledging your pupils’ efforts. You don’t want to be on that side of things when you’re trying to build a positive culture.
Beyond the Star Students
When it comes to praising members of the class, it’s usually the ones performing well academically, hitting the As and raising their hands the fastest, who get it. Most teachers only think of star students in terms of exam scores and class rankings. But if you celebrate the work of these pupils only, you’re sending the wrong message to the rest of the class: that their work doesn’t matter. Over time, this only creates envy, self-pity, and unhealthy competition.
What you need to do then is to change your perspective and expand your definition of “star students.” Find opportunities to praise students beyond academics. If you look closely, you’ll realize that the “forgotten majority,” although not gifted academically, do well in tinkering with musical instruments, playing soccer or basketball, or filling out writing worksheets. If you create various opportunities to expose the different strengths of your pupils, like introducing songs in your lessons or using online book-publishing platforms, you can bring out the best in everyone. Everyone feels valued. No one gets left behind. It’s a win-win situation for all.
The Power of Failure
Most teachers think of celebrations of hard work in the context of success. But the reality is that volcano dioramas don’t always look like mighty, fiery mountains and writing assignments don’t always make sense. So if you’re only focused on the perfect, neat versions of your students’ output, you’re not teaching your students to prepare for failure. Rather than be comfortable with this reality of life, they’re going to be afraid of it. They’re going to pity themselves over shortcomings. Over time, they’re going to have an aversion to risk-taking.
So as much as you cherish successes, let them embrace failures, too. Allow them to be comfortable with the mess of self-improvement. How do you do this exactly in real life? Start by acknowledging their drafts, the first outputs of their work. Your goal is to make them see that there’s a redeeming factor to failure. Display that clumped paper-mache that’s supposed to be a volcano diorama in your art and discovery zone. Let them read aloud their fairy tale assignments in groups. Include them in your portfolio later. In the spirit of self-improvement, provide feedback on their output. Help them see how they’re growing bit by bit at each session.
Everybody agrees that praising the work of students is necessary for class motivation. But ask yourself, am I doing it right? Do I acknowledge only a selected few? Do I dismiss the value of progress in the work? Am I building a positive culture of celebration in the classroom? From there, you can make the required changes.