Celebrating student success is a huge contributor to creating a positive classroom culture. Traditionally, teachers have used many different kinds of reward systems and incentives to motivate and celebrate students. Often, these systems have unintended and problematic consequences. This is something that I am aware of and working to minimize!
In this post, I'll share a few ways that I celebrate student success.
Celebrate when students say beautiful things!
After a conversation with Emily Baker last spring, another Spanish teacher here in Anchorage, I started distributing "Chiles" to my students whenever they say beautiful things in Spanish. A Chile is a nothing more than a little piece of paper (a 1.5" x 1.5" square) with the picture of a Chili pepper on it. And a beautiful thing is... well... a beautiful thing is different for every student!
At the end of the class period, students write their name and date on the back of the Chile and put it in a bag that is labeled with their period. Emily said that her cooperating teacher last year would do Chile drawings once a month and really made them a crazy affair, with music and lights and things. We will do this eventually. Maybe.
What contributions deserve celebrating?
When I first started using the Chiles, I handed them out to students who contributed to our conversations with complete sentences or complex thoughts. I realized that this policy was not only in line with what we know about Language Acquisition, but it was also biased toward rewarding only the most advanced students in the class. The purpose of celebrating students is to help all students believe that they are smart, capable, and amazing, and so I began distributing Chiles to students for just about every contribution that they made to the class (responding with a yes/no answer, with a thumbs up or down... anything that I could observe that let me know that they were with me).
Celebrate student acting
Last spring, I was telling the lovely Ms. Diana Painter about the Chiles, and she shared with me her fantastic idea of the CHEESE AWARD! Similar to the Chiles, you give little Cheese slips to students for an awesome, cheesy performance as an actor in a class story. The Cheese slips are clipart cheeses copied on yellow paper. "El premio de queso" is a way to encourage your actors to (1) actually act and (2) stay on task. You get El premio de queso for acting with the perfect amount of cheese.
Not all students want to be actors in class stories, and that's okay– the Cheese Awards are just one way that I celebrate students in my classes.
Celebrate positive interactions
The last award that gets you entered in the drawings is the "Star Student" award, which is given to superstar members of our class community. These stars are given to students that help each other, encourage each other, and show kindness. This is another area in which I can be pretty biased, based on how I think 'good' students should be acting, so I try to focus on who each one of my students is and what positive interactions look like for them.
What prizes do students get?
The favorite prize for students is earning a chance to become the Singing Ninja (El CantaNinja). The Singing Ninja is a special job–nay, a SUPERPOWER–that students receive for a single class period.
When a student receives the power to become the Singing Ninja, they are given a foam ninja sword and all of the powers that any respectable Singing Ninja would possess. In addition to Ninja-fast reflexes and the ability to appear out of nowhere, the Singing Ninja has the power to stop time and choose a song to listen to.
Essentially, the Singing Ninja is a brain break that a student is in control of. At any time during the class (unless I declare ahead of time that an activity is NinjaProof), the CantaNinja can interrupt me and play a song of their choosing from our class playlist. As every Ninja knows, the way to do this is to jump up, do a high kick, swing the sword, and scream "HI-YAH!" This is so challenging for even the most skilled Ninjas that it drains all of their powers for the rest of the class period... meaning, they only get to stop class once in the class period.
We listen to at least one new song each week, so at the beginning of the year the Ninja doesn't have many/any options from which to make their selection: they simply get to choose when to stop the class so that we can listen to the one song or one of the two songs that we know. Very quickly, though, a library of familiar songs grows, and students have quite a selection from which to choose.
So, what is a Cantaninja?
In summary: at the beginning of class, I draw a slip of paper (a chile, queso, or star) out of the class period's prize bag. The person whose name is on the back of the paper becomes the Singing Ninja for the class period. During that class period, they get to interrupt me ONCE to choose a song to listen to as a class. After the song is selected, the student returns the sword to me for safekeeping until the next day when a new Cantaninja is selected.
Concerned about cultural appropriation?
The language that we use matters. If you are concerned that this job title is a form of cultural appropriation, I completely understand. This is something I have reflected on and discussed with Japanese colleagues, and I feel comfortable using the term. You may have a different conviction, and I validate that! Instead of calling this job a Singing Ninja, you might instead call it the "Show Stopper" or the "DJ" for the class period.
I also have bi-weekly drawings on Fridays for really inexpensive prizes, like peanut butter cracker sandwiches, Dora the Explorer pencils, and fruit snacks. Sometimes there are cool things, too, but they are expensive to provide and therefore few and far between. I usually choose five winners in each class (of approximately 35 students).