The idea of having ‘best of’ in elementary schools is particularly concerning to me at this stage in my career. As we begin at Boyne Public School it is important to develop our view of awards, not just for graduation but awards throughout the school as well. As the staff that begins our school we have the important task of developing a philosophy that we hope will last well into the future. After having a School Directions meeting early in June and listening to those in attendance it is time to capture what some of you were saying and what I have been thinking for quite a while now.
I don’t want to come across as hypocritical, because in every school where I have taught and every school where I have been an administrator there has been school awards. I have played a role in handing out honours awards after each reporting period, recognized excellence in Learning Skills, gave awards for attendance and have participated in close to thirty graduations where awards were presented at a special evening at the end of the year for students and families. So while I write about what some schools do, keep in mind that those schools include locations where I was Principal. Once established, traditions and ‘the way we do things around here’ are difficult to change. This is why I believe here at Boyne Public School we have the opportunity to do better, to be different and create something that is more reflective of our beliefs and values.
I struggle with the ‘ranking and sorting’ of students based on academic achievement, athletic performance, artistic ability and concepts such as citizenship. In each and every school I have been a part of discussions that create tensions, concerns and worries year after year. The staff discussions go something like this: we start by handing out awards for academic achievement (honours, numbers of A’s and B’s on reports, highest mark) and find we have to add to the number of awards being offered because there is inherent discomfort in having ‘just academic awards’. People understand that there is something wrong in having only awards for school marks because students are more than their report cards. We teach the whole child. Why recognize academic achievement at all, if people agree that marks are meaningful but not the most important aspect of a student? So they create additional awards that honour effort, or improvement. This leads to more discussion. What will be the criteria to measure effort and/or improvement? Schools end up with many awards, in many areas in order to cover all the bases.
With report card grades as awards, the adults in a school generally believe that all the academic areas should be recognized. We would need to have an award for every subject area. If you have an award for every academic subject you then get pushed into the discussion on whether there should be a male and female recipient for that award. This can lead to a discussion about female students in STEM subject areas, males in the arts, and this does not even take into account our evolving understanding and acceptance of the term “gender” for awards. What a mess? This happens each and every year.
Leaving academics for a while, let’s discuss our Learning Skills. In situations where staffs are asked to honour students with Learning Skills Awards I have witnessed two different scenarios. In one, students receive a certificate, or an award of some kind based on the number of ‘G’s’ and ‘E’s’ on the report. How do students and families feel when they are one area short of recognition? Do teachers manufacture results in order to have students not miss out? Shouldn’t an award be created because it is earned by student effort and hard work, not due to the sole judgment of the teacher when faced with the decision of who will receive recognition and who will miss out? I have personally witnessed assemblies where all but 2-3 children, as young as grade one, from an entire class, would receive a Learning Skills certificate. Something is broken in a process that would allow those children to feel what they must have felt. In the second example of Learning Skills recognition, I have seen schools divide the Learning Skills into groups, in order to focus on a small select group of the skills, for example, three in a term. At the end of a set time, usually monthly assemblies, students are recognized for the Learning Skill(s) being highlighted. Since there are so many Learning Skills schools ensure that every child will receive some recognition during the school year for at least one of the Learning Skills. What must teachers be thinking when they look at their class list and see the names of the students that have not received recognition and they are running out of Learning Skills to award? It is the final Learning Skills assembly coming up and certain students have to have their turn, because it is the right thing to do, it is what is expected of me and understood in the school. There may be numerous students that should receive recognition for the highlighted Learning Skill but it is not their turn, or they already did win an award at the previous assembly. Based on Learning Skill criteria, some students should be awarded for every one of the Learning Skills.
This argument does not even take into account the whole assessment and evaluation criteria used for grading Learning Skills! Self-regulation looks different for different people. I know that I have been fortunate to work with amazing staff, who are kind and thoughtful people. But I also know that teachers do not always evaluate Learning Skills as they were intended, which is giving students multiple opportunities to demonstrate, receive feedback and improve upon each and every Learning Skill, like we would for an academic expectation!!! Across the grades, and across classrooms are we using the same criteria for the distribution of these kinds of awards? Do teachers use the same rigor and evidence for Learning Skills to determine a level of achievement as they do for the academic subjects? It would seem to me that we should have pretty stringent criteria for the grades used for Learning Skills if we are going to go to all the time and trouble to award students for their achievement in those skills. We have students that achieve excellence in Learning Skills without ever having to give any thought or effort into receiving their level. We have other students that are working extremely hard to improve their Learning Skills never to achieve the standard expected, and we have teachers who struggle with the assessment of Learning Skills. Like academic achievement in subject areas, I think there has to be a better way.
Turning our attention to academic achievement, I have heard of schools that will set up a system that awards students for the number of ‘A’s’ or ‘B’s’ on their report. Staff members will get together to develop a system. Of course they want all the subject areas to be weighted equally, because they would not want to suggest to anyone that some subjects are more important than others! Do students and families value the subject areas the same way? Imagine how it would feel to win “musician of the year” (insert any other academic area) in an environment where the arts is not held in the same regard as other subject areas on the report, by the adults in the school, the adults in the audience, or the students’ own peers? Someone may come up with a formula that incorporates the amount of time spent in subject area disciplines, because with so little time spent in drama/dance, although it is important for well-rounded students, it does not take up the number of minutes in a week that other ‘core’ subjects use. I have heard these kinds of discussions in the past!
Schools determine the number of ‘A’s’ required for ‘honour’s certification’ and then struggle with the students that fall just short. They argue about the number of honour students in one class, or the grades in one class compared to others. They grow concerned with the students that work incredibly hard and still do miss out on being able to achieve ‘A’s’. They debate the concept of ‘A’ in our reporting system based on criterion referenced standards, which indicate that the provincial standard is a ‘B’. They try to define what they all mean by Level 4 work. Most importantly they struggle with how students feel when they rank and sort them based on their grades. Someone in the group suggests that they should not be doing that to their students and families because there is an overemphasis on grades and performance, and the emphasis on grades begins too early in school. Finally as a school they decide they will not award any student for academic achievement below a certain age because that is not what they are about. It certainly doesn’t make sense in primary! But how does it make sense in junior and intermediate then?
But then a school decides that for the graduation of their grade eights they will hand out medals. Families, staff and students walk in the hallways of the school and see plaques indicating the names of the students in the past that have the highest graduating academic average in each subject area! Or they see the award for the two students (cause you have to do male and female) that won the citizenship award, athlete of the year, musician of the year, dancer, artist, etc. These awards hang near the front entrance of the school as a visual reminder, a first impression because as a school they are about academic achievement and indicating who the best is. We could be a school where those plagues are hanging. We could be a school that hands out the highest graduating mark award for all the subject areas, and have a time in the ceremony where we call out the names of our winners and they come to the stage to receive their award. We could be that school!
The arguments against becoming a school like this and using numerical grades to rank and sort students are starting to gain momentum. Yes, Universities and Colleges are still using grades for entry into programs. But they are also increasingly looking at experiences, profiles, volunteer hours and other factors to determine who gains entry to their institutions. They are not using grade eight marks!
Grade eight awards in some schools recognize one year of achievement or effort. Is there a difference if a child has been at the school for 10 years and therefore the school could take credit for their impressive performance on the report card, or the child that has just come to the school in grade eight? Who deserves the credit for the child’s impressive academic growth? Was there academic growth? What if the best math student arrived the summer prior to grade eight? Considering the child has no control if they attend our school or the one down the street it seems like highlighting one year is incorrect, yet that is what some schools do.
Don’t we want our students to achieve and be wonderful human beings, life-long learners, collaborative, curious, inquisitive and wonderful representatives of our school and beliefs? Do awards support us in this direction?
In secondary school is there a difference between a 78% and a 79%? (most likely you would not see a 79%, as a teacher would, out of compassion move the grade to an 80%) Go ahead, try to convince me that there is a difference between a 72 % and a 75%! This is why Elementary schools use a 15-16 point scale in grade 7 and 8. Teachers should be assessing based on criteria against a norm. Teachers then record grades based on Level 1,2,3,4 performance not a raw numerical score and then calculate an average. We are past the days of determining an average from a mark book, yet on the report card we are still required to place a numerical value, hence the need for the point scale. If we truly believe in highest, most consistent, most recent then we may have classes where many students perform at a Level 4 plus. If Level 4 plus equates to 95%, because we need grades on a report card, who gets the science award when multiple students have done this? In a large elementary school, with numerous graduating classes, does a 95% in one class equal a 95% in another? Some subject areas may have one teacher for all the students, but many students will have different teachers for subjects in a grade eight home room model. So now the debate begins, because my 95% students should get the award over your 95% students. Or, we give the award to 6,7,8 different students who all earned the 95%, all the names on the plaque, all get medals. Or, worse, we pick one from the students that all achieved the same grade!!!! Take any subject area in any primary or junior grade. The highest grade possible is an A plus. How many students could that be in a year? Imagine taking all the grade four social studies A plus students and picking just one to win an award? Yet, schools do it for a graduation award.
Change of direction here. At graduation let’s have an award called, “Teacher of the Year”, also let’s do Educational Assistant of the year, and cap off the evening with Parent of the Year. Sounds a little ridiculous, but how would that change the feel and mood of the graduation evening? Every day you place your heart and soul in this school. You put in so many extra hours while still committing time and energy to family, friends, outside interests etc (just like our students and their busy lives) You come every day and do a fabulous job, and ‘others’ get to decide who will receive this prestigious award. In front of your peers, families and other staff we will bring a select few on stage to be recognized. You are adults, you understand! You will not feel slighted, or feel you are not appreciated. Oh, and after not receiving the award, you leave the school and go to another school the following year, without the chance to be recognized the following year. You get one chance.
We talk a lot about collaboration, how can we discuss community, inclusion, and acceptance and then provide individual awards?
The argument for giving out awards often sounds like this. Our grade eights will understand. Their families will understand. That’s life! And, life is hard. These are not my thoughts but I have heard it said, we are not preparing students for the world in which they currently live, we are preparing students for the world that is ahead of them. In a very short time, we will have students leave us that have been here numerous, numerous years. In a decade, we will have our first graduating class of our original Kindergartens. They would have been with us for ten years. Ten years is longer than they will be in any other institution of learning. Ten years is longer than some of them will be in a career, before switching to another. Ten years is longer than some of their future relationships. We have a ten year relationship!! Ten years they have heard ‘Work Hard, Be Nice, Make a Difference’ and on their special evening, when they say goodbye to us and we wish them well, we award some of them. We have to do better. We will do better.
While I knew we had the first year to really consider these kinds of decisions, I knew the time would come with a full group graduation in the second year. I understood we would have a very special graduation in the first year with three students from our Life Skills class. They were deserving of a celebration and we would not be setting any precedent because a graduation of three students would look different than a graduation of sixty students. It was an example of ‘going slow in order to go fast’. Once the decision is made to create awards, purchase plaques, and develop criteria for those awards your graduation ceremony and process is pretty well set for all those that come after you, with probably only minor changes. And while it is impressive to visit a school and see the ‘Wall of Fame’, I question who it serves. Do awards start to lose their luster for those that have achieved success early and often. How many athletic awards does the athlete of the year have in their bedroom prior to winning the grade eight award and what does this recognition do to the self-esteem of the other students? Does it inspire the current students to Work Hard, Be Nice and Make a Difference in order to get their names on the wall? Is there a better way to motivate and inspire? What impact does a child’s background, families, socioeconomics, home environment and current teachers have on the winners of awards?
There is currently lots of debate about intrinsic and extrinsic rewards within the research. Providing a prize versus the internal drive of doing the right thing is a key debate at this time. The work of Alfie Kohn, The Risk of Rewards tells us that when safe, inclusive learning environments are provided rewards and punishments are unnecessary and are actually destructive to children. Daniel Pink’s, Drive shares lots of research about motivation and the detrimental impact of rewards on critical thinking. He believes that award ceremonies are for the adults, not the students. Would Carol Dweck’s work on Mindsets see awards for achievement as fostering a fixed or growth mindset? John Hattie’s Visible Learning, confirms these beliefs. Tangible rewards undermine motivation, engagement and regulation. Imagine how those students, who understand early in the year that they will not receive an achievement award, look forward to their ending school months and graduation? They know who the winners will be!
For those fortunate enough to witness our Life Skills graduation this past year you would have been extremely happy and proud about how the school was represented and the message we gave families and students about what the adults in the building believe and do. Our students were proud, our students were happy, and our students were recognized for their accomplishments. None of them received an award. They all were given a moment in the spotlight and no family member or child left that day believing that some students were more talented, blessed or more loved. This is what graduation should be. This is the message that should be received about Boyne Public School and the people within its walls. How can every graduating student leave our school proud, loved and ready for the next stage in their education?
We have a school mantra. Tom Hierck’s new book, Starting a Movement explains
Develop a mantra that captures the essence of your school’s mission in a concise
and repeatable way…A mantra is a statement repeated frequently to aid in
concentration of thought. In Sanskrit, mantra literally mean ‘instrument of
thought’. It can be a short, energy-infused statement around which your
school organizes, it defines what you are and guides all internal decisions.
Further, it’s a powerful chant that everyone inside your school can instantly
Understand, recognize, and repeat-a constant reminder of what you can expect
from each other. (p.62)
Work Hard, Be Nice and Make a Difference. If we examine the work we do with this lens, because that is why a mission statement is created, do we really live it if we rank and sort students and provide awards for a few? When we created our common expectations for classrooms, hallways, outside, at assemblies etc using the slogan Work Hard, Be Nice and Make a Difference we asked ourselves what it would look like and sound like if students and adults were doing those things. If we included awards, recognitions and graduation as a topic, and created how this looks using Work Hard, Be Nice and Make a Difference, do you believe we would come up with the current practice that is happening in many schools, or as a staff would we create something different. And just not for the sake of creating something different, but because we know something just isn’t right about it, it doesn’t reflect our mission statement and we have the chance, right now at the beginning of our school to do something about it.
I am not advocating that we are lowering our standards or that every student gets some top award but I do have a suggestion that aligns our beliefs with what I think should be our practice going forward. If we honour all student achievement during the year, and continually share with families how our students work hard, show they are nice and make a difference and also provide opportunities for students to shine in front of peers and families, do we still need a singular event at the end of the year to recognize a few? Instead of a yearend assembly to recognize a few students from each class why not end the year the way the year begins? We work hard during ‘Significant 72’ to build community, inclusion and safety. The ideas behind ‘Significant 72’ mean we continue to connect with our classes 72 minutes a month and individual students 72 seconds every day. Each class at the end of the year holds a celebration in their final ‘Significant 72’ where each student is recognized. Each student at Boyne PS leaves for the school year with a beautiful certificate and a story to tell.
I ask you to think of a student you worked with last year. Now consider our school mantra of ‘Work Hard, Be Nice, Make a Difference’. To which of these three statements do you most associate with this student? Do they have a high academic standing because they ‘Work Hard’? Are they kind, each and every day, to every student in your class, so ‘Be Nice’ comes to mind? Were they a part of a club, or group in our school that made the lives of someone better and therefore ‘Make a Difference’ is their banner? When I asked the same question to some of you during a School Directions’ Meeting this past year two things happened. Each adult at the table was able to tell a lengthy story about a student and they told the story while their face lit up, so proud of the student they were describing. When we did a second round of storytelling, this time with a student that requires a bit more love and care, they were still able to connect how hard they had worked, how much they have improved, how they show up each day with a smile on their face ready to learn. Even our hardest to serve students can be seen to Work Hard, Be Nice and Make a Difference during the course of the year. Every student can be recognized within our mantra.
At the end of next school year, I imagine some classes getting together in grade teams. I can see the presentation of certificates being recorded so students can share with their families at home. I can see staff writing out a paragraph on the child and sending it home with the certificate so families can share in the moment. The possibilities are endless, but the bottom line remains the same. If we learn about our students’ DNA (desires, needs, assets) and work during the year on the aspects of our School Effectiveness Plan (S.E.F. 2.5) that we say we are going to highlight, mainly promoting and sustaining student well-being and positive student behavior in a safe, accepting, inclusive and healthy learning environment then we will not be at a loss on how to recognize each and every student. And, we don’t need individual awards at a year-end assembly. Students begin the year in the comfort of their home room format and end the year the same way. We still have a year-end assembly to say goodbye, laugh, sing and dance but it is community building not individual promoting.
Grade 8 Graduation runs the same way. Each and every student has accomplished the same goal, the completion of their elementary schooling. We often ask parents to hold their applause until all the students in a class are introduced, we even did that in Kindergarten this year (yes, come to think about it we didn’t give any individual awards in Kindergarten! So again, why do we give them in grade eight?). We ask parents to hold applause because we don’t want to take anything away from any other student. We don’t want a student to walk across the stage and receive a huge round of applause to have the next student walk across in silence, but later in the evening schools provide individual awards???? How about all students have their story told. Each individual can walk across the stage and the audience can hear what they did to show that they ‘Work Hard’ (maybe it is the highest grade in music?), or that they are ‘Nice’ or ‘Make a Difference’. Is one any more important than the other?
We have designed some beautiful certificates that can be individualized to indicate which part of the school mantra is being used and some lines for us to write in the reason why it is presented. We will work on the details, but I am definitely leaning toward recognizing the accomplishments of all students in a manner that maintains positive feelings about themselves, and their views of the school.
Will some think this is too nice? Yes, there will be criticism about how there is now a shift to “everyone gets a trophy”! Given the choice, I would much rather have a student or parent ‘or staff’ question why we do not have awards, than have hurt, angry, sad students and families on the final days of their elementary school career because they did not receive an award. If we are going to stay on course with “work hard, be nice, make a difference” and frame all we do around this statement we have to align our beliefs. If we have spent years working with students with this saying in order to have each believe that every single one of them is important, I do not see how providing individual awards is consistent with this. WE have the chance to do something better? Don’t you agree?