I had my first observation in October of my first year teaching. Part of my observation was a small group writing lesson about adding details. Rather than put the students on the defensive by launching into all the things that they “needed to fix,” I started off with a cheesy, overzealous, transparent compliment: “First of all, I just have to tell you, your writing is awesome. Really, really great. I loved reading it all.”
I didn’t believe it when I said it and they didn’t believe it when they heard it. My supervisor said it was obvious I was just saying it and suggested, next time I praise kids for their work, that I have some genuine belief in the words I choose.
Of course, I already knew that. Several years prior, when I began working at a day camp, part of our orientation was how to praise effectively. More specifically, the session was how to effectively and positively suggest an idea to a camper. In harsher terms, it was about how to “criticize” without totally offending.
It’s called “the praise sandwich,” and since having my supervisor feed one to me when she tactfully noted, between compliments, how awful my attempts at building my students up were, I try to feed praise sandwiches whenever there is something that needs to be addressed.
In a praise sandwich, the bread is the praise, while the turkey/cheese/burger/liverwurst/watercress is the criticism or suggestion.
This is easily applicable to social and behavioral situations, but I’ll give an academic example. Let’s say Johnny’s writing can benefit from some more details. A delicious praise sandwich might sound like this:
“Johnny, you obviously took a lot of time to write your letters really neatly, just like we have talked about doing. Now, I also noticed when I was reading what you wrote that maybe you could add some more details. I know that just like you’ve started writing neater, you’ll do a good job learning to add details to your writing.”
The teacher starts Johnny off with a piece of praise about how his handwriting has improved. He’s feeling good about himself and he’s proud the teacher noticed his improvement. Then, the teacher mentions something else that can be improved upon now. It isn’t offensive to Johnny because the teacher started him off with something positive. The teacher ends by going back to the initial praise and expressing confidence that since Johnny has improved in one facet of his writing, he can surely improve in another.
How much nicer is that than saying, “You know, Johnny, I’m kind of surprised that you have no details in this”? Why would Johnny have any motivation to care if a teacher uses that approach (especially if he is sensitive, shy, and lacking in confidence)?
Notice, too, that the praise for Johnny was specific. It wasn’t just, “You’ve improved your writing.” It was, “You’ve taken the time to write your letters neatly.” Make the praise in your sandwich multigrain, pumpernickel, rye, or cinnamon raisin, but never white. White is boring and generic. Sandwiches need interesting breads. Praise sandwiches need specific praise.
Praise sandwiches have many benefits: they are healthy, no one is allergic to them, they are free and fun to make, there is an endless supply, and they are deeply fulfilling. Serve them up and watch your students grow.