Why I’m Sticking with Awards for All

This week, I posted Awards for All, where I gave examples of awards from my annual classroom awards ceremony that celebrates children for characteristics unique to them and few, if any, others. Feedback was generally positive, until my good buddy Pernille Ripp responded with Awards for All Means Students Still Lose – No Matter How Well Meaning They Are.

Disclaimer: I have the utmost respect for Pernille, and I wouldn’t want anyone to think otherwise. We just happen to have different points of view on this issue. So don’t read this and take it for anything more than it is: me issuing my defense of why I do what I do based on the points she made in her post. Or you can choose to read it as a general defense for anyone who does similarly.

I read Pernille’s post with great interest and found myself saying in my head, to more than one of her points, “Yes, but…” In other words, it was obvious to me I needed to clarify my position.

Pernille writes, “making someone the best means someone is always the loser. …It is not that I am opposed to celebrating students, I just don’t understand the need to always give them something.” I take exception with these points. Of course, every time someone wins, then that means everyone else “loses.” This, however, is a very cut and dry interpretation of what Awards for All is really about.

Earlier in her post, Pernille posited that, “I got the impression that Matt created these rewards because otherwise his students may never actually receive any form of reward. So then that makes it ok, right?” Actually, yes, it does. In fact, I conceived Awards for All when I taught fifth grade, as a response to the senior awards night. In my first year of teaching, I gave out invitations to that ceremony to nine of 28 students while standing on my soapbox preaching, “Those of you who didn’t get an invitation, you should have been working harder and listening to me this whole year.”

The next year, I was so embarrassed to have to hand out those coveted invites that I met with each recipient quietly and out of view from everyone else. In response to my personal need to make sure each of my students felt valuable – which most wouldn’t because they didn’t get an invite or award – I decided each one of them should, indeed, receive some kind of special recognition.

I make no apologies for this practice.

In her post, Pernille writes, “While personality awards like the ones Matt discussed may seem harmless, I wonder, how does the child feel that really wanted to most improved in math and didn’t get it?  Or the child that has been working hard to be kind toward all but is not recognized for it?  We are also making losers out of them.” While the actual receipt of the award is a surprise, I am yet to notice any dissent from students about who gets what. In fact, most times, students are guessing the recipient based on the qualities I describe and before the award is presented.

This is because my classroom has a culture of everyone being valued, and everyone being an important contributor and everyone having something that they are better at than anyone else. It’s like Rick Lavoie says in The Motivation Breakthrough, “I advise parents that if your child’s solitary strength is his ability to use a Philips-head screwdriver, … Mom should go around the house and loosen every screw she can find. As soon as the boy gets off the bus, she should hand him the screwdriver and say, ‘Go to it, champ, because nobody tightens screws like you do!'” In other words, my students know who the best users of the Philips-head are, and they each have things about them that make them shine brighter than others in the same areas.

Finally, I’ll address what Pernille says here, “When we choose to focus on one trait of a child’s personality, no matter how kind our intentions were, we in essence tell the child that this is the one thing I have noticed and all of these other things, you did not quite excel enough in.  Why the need for recognition?  Can we not through our own words and actions give these children enough recognition without having to do it in awards form?” It is an erroneous conclusion to assume that I only “focus on one trait of a child’s personality” (and in fact, I would venture that I am misinterpreting Pernille on this one.) However, I will point out that, often, the pre-award build-up, in which I talk the unnamed student up, is very well-received because I address so many other traits that make the student the wonderful being s/he is. If someone wanted to argue that the certificate the child receives only mentions one trait, then I agree. As I said above, though, it’s not as cut and dry as my original post makes it.

And yes, of course, we should be rewarding students daily through our words and actions. I hope I do and that I continue to.

Rest assured, though, there will be still be Awards for All at the end of the year.


4 responses to “Why I’m Sticking with Awards for All

  1. Although I am not a teacher, I have had the same idea as Awards for All and agree with Mr. Foteah that it’s important for kids to receive adult recognition for the strengths. Also, by seeing the strengths of other kids, they can decide to work on those other skills. I think the more value we can add to positive traits for developing children, the better our society would be. I think this should be implemented in all elementary classrooms, no matter what cognitive ability of the students.

    My only suggestion for your post, it would be helpful to those of us who randomly discover your post if you would mention the grade you teach.

  2. As I read blog posts on the pros and cons of giving awards, I am reminded of something I read years ago in a parenting magazine. The author described some unintended results when parents celebrate the attributes and accomplishments of their children, such as referring to one as the athletic one and another as the musical one. He believed that this put pressure on children to continue to excel in that area to avoid disappointing their parents. He also felt that it made them less likely to break out of their comfort zones and try other activities, especially those in which a sibling excelled. Just some food for thought in the award debate.

  3. I have recently had cause to reflect on some issues in one of the sped classrooms that I work with and what jumped to mind was a thought that has stuck with me for a long time (and I wish I could remember to whom to attribute it – so sorry). “To be successful, you have to be successful.” And unfortunately in our world there are children who perceive themselves as destined for a life of non-success given their educational journey so far. It is up to us as educators to recognize each students glimmers of success, acknowledge them, and then recreate and extend them. Creating successful ‘Phillips-head’ experiences will lead to successful ‘Robertson-head’ experiences, and eventually more and more of the toolbox. One final thought, I am quite sure that your “Awards for All” is only a momentary amplification of the daily (multiple times daily) work that you do to acknowledge and create success for all in your classroom. As we all should. Thanks for the pros and cons – I’m with Awards for All.

  4. rainydayreflections

    Thank you for this great post. I sat through a 2nd grade awards ceremony today where a handful of students didn’t receive an award. At one point my grandson was one of 5 in his class that didn’t go up on the stage — it was made very obvious that those 5 weren’t good enough (in the kids’ eyes). The sad thing is that my grandson has had a rough year this year because his parents divorced right before Christmas. He was doing his best to just survive the rest of the school year. A small recognition would have helped end his school year on a positive note. Instead his accomplishment was holding it together and not crying until he go to the car. Yes, I guess I am venting. I’d like to add that I’m an educator of 24 years. And I’m a believer if the awards for all philosophy. There’s something good about every student. (I realize this is an old post; but I felt the need to comment. LOL)

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