This is the third in a series of posts I’m running about what is working inside my pandemic classroom. If you have things that are working in your classroom right now, please reach out. We teachers are better when we work together, and I’d love to share what is working in your class with others!
Of the adjectives I’d use to describe this moment, celebratory is not one of them; in fact, it might be the antonym of how I feel as I look out on this grey morning and think of the news dominating the headlines today: Frightening new Covid variants, staggeringly high levels of economic hardship, and the looming specter of a previously unthinkable assault on our capital still hanging over our democracy.
Of course, there is also some good news too. We are on the backside of this dark winter I’m seeing out of my window. My state already has more vaccinations than overall Covid cases. Amanda Gorman just gave us a poem for the ages. These things are cause for celebration, but I still find myself struggling to celebrate even these wonderful things, given everything else going wrong.
In a time like this, a post centered around celebration might seem odd or misplaced, but it is precisely because of how dark and difficult this time is for so many that I have come to believe that we teachers need to, now more than ever, use celebration consciously as a pedagogical tool in our classes.
When I look out at my students, or rather when I look out at the mostly black boxes on a screen with their names printed on them, I see a lot of things. I see apprehension, frustration, exhaustion, uncertainty, and resigned malaise. When I read student papers or emails that often arrive to my inbox at terrifyingly late (or early) hours of the night, I hear students again and again talk about feeling stuck in the intractable negative news, their own worries, and the seemingly never-ending series of days spent largely in front of a screen, one just like the other.
And while my district is remote right now, I’ve heard similar reports from colleagues who are hybrid and face-to-face with masks. One commonality across modes and parts of the country seems to be students struggling, and like most teachers, not a day has gone by where I haven’t worried about the short and long-term impacts those struggles will have on my students.
This fall and winter, in an attempt to help in my own small way, I actively sought ways to add some joy or to help show my students that while so much in the world is stuck in place, we are moving ahead in our class. When the fall colors were at their most glorious, we went outside and wrote Golden Shovel poems under trees and on the first snow we had a snow-person building contest. We had whimsical competitions to flex our new rhetorical muscles and we deployed our new argumentative skills to argue whether pineapple has any place on a pizza (spoiler, it doesn’t).
And while these little diversions were enjoyable and well worth the time, I struggled to find a tool that could do more than land a glancing blown on the negative narratives I could feel settling inside so many of my students. But then three weeks ago, I stumbled into the most effective pedagogical answer I’ve found yet for helping my students to feel like they have some momentum, even as so much of their world remains ground to a halt: Active, carefully-planned celebration.
In previous years, I have at times prided myself on how often we celebrate student work and progress in my classes, but over this last fall, after enough awkward attempts to read student work over Zoom or give snaps to a poet as our screens lagged, celebration quietly began to drift out of my lesson plans. I didn’t see this at first, but as the semester neared its close, it dawned on me that we had not done nearly enough celebration of the incredible accomplishment my students had achieved: Continuing to learn and grow in the face of deeply disruptive and frightening pandemic.
To help me frame my celebration of them, I turned to Troy Hicks and Andy Schoenborn, whose Creating Confident Writers has a whole section on using celebration in the writing classroom, and I eventually adapted a final paper that Schoenborn uses where he simply asks students to reflect on the semester. Regular readers will know that I think reflection is one of the most critical and underrated teaching tools, and that I’ve long asked my students to reflect at the end of the semester. This year though I stripped away everything else and made the final paper focused solely on reflecting and celebrating. I never actually used the term with my students, but in my mind I called it the Celebration Paper, and it had the following two parts:
Part one was a less-polished reflection where I asked students to gush about their various successes this semester. Here are some of the prompts:
- How have you grown as a writer since the beginning of the year? What papers are you celebrating? What skills do you now have in your writing tool box? How are you a better, more informed writer now than you were in September?
- How have you grown as a reader and thinker since the beginning of the year? What specific triumphs did you have when it came to reading, thinking, and arguing? What observations, analysis, moments of connection, or ideas are you most proud of? How are you a better, more savvy reader and thinker now?
- What else are you proud of from this semester? What small victories did you have that no one else saw? What lessons would you like to hold onto in the upcoming years?
Part two was a more-polished deep-dive where students wrote a paper explaining and exploring one major theme or lesson they learned from the class using the approach that made the most sense to them.
Then in my feedback and conferences over these papers, instead of trying to cram in one last lesson, I focused instead on giving the students what Zac Chase calls High Grade Compliments, which are compliments that are specific, meaningful, and true. I did this to make a case to them that this fall, as so much stood still, they continued to move forward in their reading, writing, thinking, and learning about themselves and the world.
And the response was more than I ever could have hoped for. Not only were the papers as deep and thoughtful as any final papers I’ve ever received, but the conferences and comments were filled with the most excitement, energy, and just overall life I have seen all year.
Hicks and Schoenborn argue at the start of the Celebration section of Creating Confident Writers that while nearly all teachers likely agree that celebrating student success is important and impactful, it is far too often overlooked as we move ceaseless forward towards the next big thing. The are right, and if ever there was a moment to linger and celebrate and remind students that they still have something to say and someone in their corner to help them say it, this is likely it. The students have done something remarkable–they’ve grown and improved under incredibly difficult conditions–and that should be celebrated.
Further, celebration is not just something nice but most superfluous. It is necessary right now. Motivation largely boils down to the combination of something’s value and the likelihood of one’s success, and pointing out and celebrating growth helps to show the value of a class and make a case to students that they can succeed. Further, this pandemic is not done yet, and even when it recedes, the impact of it will last for a long time. If the reactions to the celebration narrative are any indication, recognizing, acknowledging, and then celebrating what the students have accomplished could likely help them to both get to summer and transition back to normal life when these days of quarantine, Zoom, and masks finally, as all things do, drift into the past.
Yours in Teaching,
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