Gifts from the Classroom

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1770209_sWhat is the best holiday gift you have ever received? From my childhood I remember a much wished for and cherished bike that sat in front of the Christmas tree, the only new one I ever owned.  This was a stunning event in the household where I grew up, because we usually didn’t receive what we most wanted.  However the elves must have been extremely busy that year because they didn’t do a good job of assembling this bike and it never actually worked just right.  Oh, it looked very pretty, but sometimes when you turned the handle bars, the front wheel didn’t turn – not a reliable characteristic for a bike.  I probably jumped more miles on my on my beloved pogo stick than I ever rode on that bike.  Oh, could this gal pogo!  I bounced everywhere.  Yep, I’d have to say that my pogo stick was my all time favorite gift from childhood.

What I Admire About You

What I admire about youBut as we mature we come to realize the truth of that adage, “The best things in life aren’t  things.”  They truly aren’t.  The best thing in life is making others feel good about themselves.  We all long to feel valued and appreciated.   About two-thirds of the way through my teaching career I discovered an activity that helped accomplish this goal.  I always planned this activity for sometime during the holidays.

As my students entered the classroom they received a stack of blank index cards…one for each of their classmates and one for the teacher.  Silently I had them write the name of a classmate at the top of each card and then write one thing they admired about that student.  I encouraged them to be as specific as possible.  General statements like, “You are a great gal” are not as powerful as “I admire the way you always have something encouraging to say when someone in our class is down in the dumps.”  They were required to write one about me (the teacher) also.  Let me tell you high school teachers need their encouragement too.  There were a few cautions and guidelines I voiced ahead of time.  Absolutely no ‘put downs” would be tolerated, only positive comments were permitted.

A Confession

I admit that occasionally I had a group of students so at odds with one another before we began this activity, that I didn’t require that they write a compliment to every classmate.  I might limit it to 10 or 12 compliments written using time parameters as an excuse.  I wanted to make certain no one was ever hurt by this activity.  But when you set limits like these, you always risk the omission of someone being complimented.  I only used these limits a time or two.  Here’s the real beauty of the activity.  Each time I limited the number of compliments they had to provide, they always got half way through the activity and then THEY requested of ME that they be able to write something they admired about everyone in the class.  That is how great is the power of writing positive words about someone.

Then Comes the Magic

magic

At the end of our time limit, we circled our desks and orally read one card at a time.  One student would read aloud to one other student a single comment while all others listened.  Then the next person in the circle would read a comment about someone else.  I encouraged them to keep changing the people who were being complimented.  “Try and choose someone no one has yet read about,” was my occasional  reminder.  When it was my turn to read I always started by complimenting someone I felt was considered just a little outside the inner circle…the kids not quickly accepted by their peers.  As we listened around and around that circle twenty or thirty revolutions, you could feel the climate of our classroom change. They smiled more easily, eyes moistened, shoulders relaxed, heads nodded as everyone agreed with a compliment being shared orally, and teens relaxed their armor.  Kindness settled softly over our circle like a cashmere blanket. Friends became closer and former adversaries demonstrated tolerance.  When others validate us, we are more likely to notice and appreciate positive traits in others.  The students in my classroom became a family.  There is no greater gift for a student who will be walking into your classroom every day for an entire school year.

Just before our time together ended, I instructed them to pass their cards out to one another.  By taking the time to distribute their compliments in written form, everyone could carry the compliments away and read them again whenever they might need a morale boost. As dozens of students stood to distribute their cards to others, I anticipated it to be quite a noisy time.  It never was.  Why?  The moment they received a card from someone, their eyes were magnetically drawn to the compliments written on those cards. They hungered for that validation from their peers.

Our class was always changed from that day forward.  We became a community working together, a unit.  As a side (but not unimportant) benefit, a bully has a hard time finding a foot hold in a community where everyone has your back.

TEACH...To Change Lives

TEACH…To Change Lives

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