Let’s Bring More Students to the Awards Table

August 17, 2009

A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting on the stage at our school's eighth-grade graduation ceremony. I was reflecting on the two years I have had with these students, and how we set out together to do something different with our time in this place we call school.Much of what I was feeling was positive and hopeful.

Hopeful, that is, until the master of ceremonies for the evening came to the podium and announced, "And now, the moment you've all been waiting for: It is now time to recognize the efforts and achievements of our students through the awards segment of our celebration."

For me, this was the moment I had been dreading all evening, the moment I lost sleep over, and the moment on which I fixated during the formal lunch and dance we had enjoyed earlier in the day. Like many awards ceremonies taking place in many school districts across the continent, ours focused on and raised to an obvious level of honor and prestige a narrow band of academic achievement across specific disciplines.

Now, I'm not in any way suggesting that academic development is unimportant, or that success in discipline-based thinking should not be celebrated. It's just that for the past two years, working with a group of 12- and 13-year-olds, we began to explore how our experience of school could be transformed by focusing on things like collaborative and cooperative interactions, critical thinking, creativity, and alternative forms of communication.

By recognizing visual arts, drama, dance, music, and media arts as legitimate forms of literacy, we have begun to combine traditional, discipline-based boundaries and explore questions, ideas, and problems that are at the core of living in the 21st century.

And yet, at the end of the day, those that were honored at our eighth-grade graduation ceremony were those students who received the highest individual marks in each of the traditional academic subject areas.

I realize that traditional schooling practices are often so firmly entrenched in our collective minds that they often become habits that remain, to a large extent, unquestioned. On our staff, for example, discussions around awards tend to concentrate on who is going to win the honors in each eighth-grade class and which teacher will be responsible for getting the plaque engraving done.

I also realize that the change in thinking necessary to inspire a change in practice requires a movement of the critical mass -- and that is always slow. But I'm beginning to frame some questions and ideas so my September conversations with my colleagues might help us move the conversation forward.

Here are my main contentions: First, the traditional honors and kudos that are part of our end-of-the-year awards ceremonies tend to be disconnected with the set of skills, attitudes, and achievements we hold to be important for the 21st century.

Second, if we really want to promote things like collaborative team work, risk taking, ongoing learning, creativity, and critical problem solving, and if we really want our student and parent communities to begin to take these seriously, we need to make sure these goals are provided with honored places at our awards tables. In my own local district, I don't see this happening in any serious way.

Let me get the wheels turning a little with a few possibilities: I can imagine, for example, an award given to the team of students who designed a creative and effective solution to a community-based problem.

What about an award that recognized a students' ability (and willingness) to consistently see situations or problems from another perspective? Here's a provocative one: an award that calls to the podium the student willing to risk short-term academic achievement for long-term learning.

There are countless possibilities that could emerge from serious discussion about our current practice around awards.

Perhaps I don't have to wait until September to get the conversation going! Perhaps you have been doing some parallel thinking. You may agree or disagree with what I've said. Maybe your school has already started down this path. What have the results been like? Finally, you may have ideas for new award categories. Let's run with the idea and see where it takes us!

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  • Assessment
  • 6-8 Middle School

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