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A Celebration of Learning

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Back in December, on the long drive from Texas to Utah, I had some time to reflect on many things. I considered the reasons why we look forward to the holidays. They are full of celebration, we find out what's going on in the lives of relatives and friends, and we simply enjoy the time together. For some strange reason, that got me thinking about reading Harry Wong's seminal book, The First Days of School, and I remembered being profoundly impressed by his concept of starting school off with a bang by throwing a party on the first day.

So there I was, traveling thousands of miles, through iffy roads and weather to attend several parties and festivities with my family; what celebrations have I had in my own classroom? Even when the students were leaving for winter break, and asked for a celebration, "Bah humbug. We have learning to do!" was my answer.

When I reflect even further, I think I started the year off with enthusiasm and energy. We dove right into learning on the first day, but I would not call it a celebration of learning. Yes, there were micro-celebrations that occurred with individual students as they mastered what I was teaching; "Good job! Way to go! You got it!" but I did not once identify what has been learned, nor did I take the time to celebrate how far the students had come in their learning. Why not?

I feel that in many cases, my students are falling short of where I want them to be in their academic progress. I feel a constant pressure to get them caught up so wrack my brain and I try strategy after strategy to find ways to reach them. I constantly examine their shortcomings; they are struggling with verb tenses, pronunciation, and vocabulary retention. I easily berate their poor behavior and underdeveloped work ethic as the cause of their less than stellar performance.

I accept my role in their lack of superstar achievement and I think of different ways that I can help them, but ultimately I think it is their fault for not being as enthusiastic and interested in learning Spanish as I am. Hmm, maybe there is the key. What have I given them to be enthusiastic about? (Is that a twinge of remorse?)

I know how poorly the students are doing, and the messages that I consciously give them (and subliminally give them) and the attitude I project are that they are not learning well enough. I give them their test results and their homework scores so they should know how well they are doing, but then I tell them, "Let's look at what you did wrong." Why don't I celebrate what they did right? Well, I know why. I feel that if I don't spend the time to correct their mistakes, they will keep making them. That is perfectly logical thinking, right? Can I really say that is an effective strategy? Nope... (I'm feeling really uncomfortable now.)

What if I turn things around? It's not too late! Can't I first celebrate the gains they made, or the answers that were correct, leaving them with the feeling of wanting to celebrate more? Well of course, but that would mean that I have to look at things completely differently when I correct my tests and quizzes. I would have to hone in on where they got it right rather than their mistakes. In analyzing data I would have to graphically illustrate their successes rather than make depressing graphs and charts of their deficiencies. I would have to take the time to praise students as a group and individually for even small gains in learning achievement. (Is that all bad?)

To do this I will need to clear more room on my walls for displaying excellent student work. I will have the students keep track of their successes in their notebooks, and I will keep the successes updated on their progress charts on the wall. I will have to change my attitude and look for (and find) successes to celebrate. I could take some time at the end of each class period to celebrate what we have learned that hour. I know what I'll do. I'll have students write down what they are proud of learning in my classroom as an exit ticket. I'll have the students frequently teach their elbow partner what they have learned. I'll be more genuine and generous in my praise for good work. I'll start off with showing the students how much they know and how far they have progressed by giving them a test over the things they have mastered. Then we will celebrate! Wow...This is exciting! (Did my heart just grow three sizes?)

I always have a hard time coming up with any new year's resolutions and even though it's spring, I have stumbled across a really good one: I will celebrate my students' learning successes as often and as effectively as I can. I will change my attitude of pessimism and negativity to one of encouragement and hope

All this reflection has been productive and I think Harry Wong would be proud. In what ways do you celebrate and praise learning in the classroom? Please share in the comments below.

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Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Comments (11) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Mrs. Burns's picture
Mrs. Burns
2nd Grade Teacher, Decatur, GA

Celebrations of learning can make great impacts on students when implemented to show student-learning gains. Debriefing after lessons is a celebration of learning that can be implemented daily and only takes a minute or two. As stated in your post, students can share what they've learned during a lesson with another student or students. I often give pre-assessments before teaching a unit, and of course post assessments after having taught a unit (pre-assessments and post-assessments consist of the same questions, sometimes in different order). After my students complete their post-assessment for a unit we meet individually to compare the data between the pre and post assessments. They are often proud to see how much they've learned. Most of the time pre-assessments consist of students only answering 1 to 2 questions correctly and post-assessments consist of students only answering 0 to 2 questions incorrectly. I make a big deal out of student-learning gains in my classroom, whether it's doing a happy dance for an individual student or borrowing the iPad cart for the class. On a broader spectrum, my grade level, invites parents twice a year into our classrooms and students teach their parents what they've learned within a specific unit. The parents are always surprised at just how much their child knows about a topic. The students become experts and love communicating what they've learned which is a celebration within itself.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Quoting Mrs. Burns:

The parents are always surprised at just how much their child knows about a topic. The students become experts and love communicating what they've learned which is a celebration within itself.

I love this so much. It really pays off to give students an authentic audience to which they can demonstrate what they've learned.

Jennifer's picture
Seventh Grade Science Teacher in Finger Lakes, NY

I find that celebrating the small successes yields greater results and rewards than focusing on what students are not learning. We forget that our jobs are instill confidence in students. We forget that our real role is to make them good citizens of the world. How can we do this by reminding students of what they are doing wrong and never telling them what they are doing right? I made the same "resolution" this year and noticed such a huge shift in student morale. This includes the students who do not want to be motivated. I started hanging posters of projects students completed on the walls. I told students that the classwork I hung on the walls went above my expectations and impressed me. What do you suppose happened next time I had a project? Students rose up to my expectations and surpassed them in an effort to make it to the "spotlight" wall. This can be done in smaller, less noticeable ways, such as saying "great job" and "good job" to every student and greeting each student with a smile and each lesson with an open mind.

Brittney Manning's picture

It is much easier to celebrate at the elementary level. I find it's the little things, like a sticker or getting to move to the front of the line that motivates students. We also do small level celebrations, such as bring board games for an hour in the afternoon if we meet our linguistics goal of proficiency.

STeach126's picture
Fifth Grade Private School Teacher

I love this post. I have definitely been feeling this way about my methods. I really like your strategies for celebrating learning. My students learn so much, but the focus is definitely on what they don't know, what they got wrong.
I am currently working on noticing and communicating small victories for my students, especially those who have struggled in the past. When I acknowledge their improvements I see them light up .... for the moment. I'm looking for ways to make that motivation and excitement last.

Pratanu Banerjee's picture
Pratanu Banerjee

Wow thats very nice to hear your sympathetic approach towards the students and wish to see them shine like stars in the future. I wish your prosperity and happiness and your student's should increase and let there presence be sweet and lovely and favorable for your institution.. regards pratanu from

Joshua Block's picture
Joshua Block
Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

Thank you for this post Ben. What a great tension to recognize: high expectations and celebration of accomplishments. I believe that learners benefit most when both coexist.

Elaine Gowie's picture
Elaine Gowie
High School English Teacher

A great post! I teach high school students and believe you can still celebrate their learning; they're still kids st heart!

Lacey's picture
Preschool teacher from North Carolina

I love your attitude toward classroom celebration and it sounds like you have a lot of great ideas to improve your practice. I teach at the preschool level and of course these children are always seeking praise, and lots of it! Everything is an accomplishment to them and they love to share it with you. This makes it very easy to motivate them because they are so excited about learning. All it takes is a "great job!" and they are smiling from ear to ear. Unfortunately, as these young learners grow older this enthusiasm often starts to dissipate. However, with the right teacher, they can easily be motivated to further their learning and to excel in school. We have to make learning fun for them and, as you said, celebrate their successes. With constant celebrations, no matter how small, and activities that really interest and motivate them, I believe that all students can get excited about learning and in turn, excel in all that they do.

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