Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Unconditional Recognition

Three years ago, I was a part of a committee of teachers who decided to abolish our school's Awards Ceremony. Rather than inviting only the honors students, and openly excluding everyone else, we decided to unconditionally recognize all of our students.

After we poll the students to find out what friends, interests and strengths they want on their poster, the teachers create them and have them printed in colour on nice photo paper. We host a breakfast recognition event in our school gym where every single student walks across the stage to shake hands with their teachers and receive a personalized recognition poster. Parents and family members are invited to attend.

As a middle school, we have three grade levels (6, 7, 8), so have three different designs that ensure the students don't get the same poster from year to year. Here are the three recognition poster designs that we created: (click on them to view larger)


Graffiti Recognition

Scrapbook Recognition

While the old honor's certificate would perhaps precipitate a "good job" or a pat on the back from the parents, there simply wasn't much more interaction created by the certificate. At our old Awards' Ceremonies, I would fine dozens of the traditional Honor's Certificates laying around the gym floor - many simply didn't care about the certificate. Other than their name and a proclamation that they had received honors, there just wasn't enough on the certificate for them to care about.

In contrast, these personalized recognition posters encouraged parents to ask about the content of the poster:
  • "Who is this friend?"
  • "I didn't know you were friends with them?"
  • "Why did you choose that activity to go on your poster?"
  • "When did you go to the Columbia Ice Fields?"
  • "What was your favorite activity this year?
  • "I played basketball in school, too."
  • "Looks like you had a lot of fun this year."
This is not simply a change in semantics: awards to recognition. This change in practice reflects a change in pedagogy.

Instead of using Awards Night and Honors as a way to artificially entice students to learn, we understand that all students should be recognized unconditionally. Some of the most thankful parents are those who have children who would never be invited to be recognized by their school's honor ceremonies.

Critics of this might suggest that we are de-valuing academics - to this I say that these recognition posters are not about devaluing anything, rather it is about broadening our current narrow vision of what is important. While the old-fashioned Honors certificates are limited to only student achievement, these recognition posters are about a wide range of students' achievements.

Critics will also say that abolishing awards ceremonies will only smother children in a cloak of mediocrity. To this I ask the critics why they devalue something simply because everyone can acheive it? Do we wear dropout rates as a badge of honour? I would hope not. So why do we scoff at schools that celebrate every student?

Recognizing every student is no more an exercise in mediocrity than believing all children should graduate from high school.

Traditional Honor's certificates are more about control through seduction and exclusive elitism while these recognition posters are more about unconditional, inclusive acceptance and recognition for all students.


  1. I led a similar effort when I was a team leader. I also encouraged us to quit rewarding students with a great immune system (perfect attendance). We switched to student celebrations, where all students showed work, to celebrations with interactive games, short plays, etc. where the whole family could be involved.

  2. I shared this with my division network. I think your effort moves us in the right direction.

  3. I love this idea. I just blogged in my reflection about how I did "recognition" this year and the need to change it. This idea will most definitely inform my push for change next year. I'm going to start at the beginning of the school year so as to not get caught by TWIAB (the way it's always been).

  4. This was not what I thought it was going to be. At first I thought this was going to be an "everybody is a winner" type thing.

    My school has us do a recognition award for two students each month. We are supposed to spotlight kids that are showing high achievement, or exemplary behavior. Many teachers feel this can be unfair, so they make sure that eventually every student gets it- everyone is a winner. This completely devalues this "award" because the students know that, no matter what, they will eventually get it. It is funny to see the winners during the last month of school. It is typically full of the behavior issue type kids.

    I actually like this idea. I know I would have enjoyed it when I was a middle school student.

  5. Here-here. I teach personal narrative writing as a writer in residence in schools and can't tell you how many times teachers are amazed when students who are considered underachievers (what is that?) rise to the occasion when given a chance -- and a challenge -- to be seen and tell their own stories. Leveling the playing field, inviting them to become invested, and offering authentic connections and recognition -- yes.

  6. During my teaching in South Africa, I made sure by the end of the week that I had a certificate [produced by myself on my PC] ready for EACH and every student for ANYTHING good that they've achieved for that particular week. [9 year old kiddies]. I believe EVERY child/student has something to celebrate even if it was ONLY to be more focused in ONE lesson for ONE day...whatever.

  7. Great post. I'm going to forward this to my our school's principal.

  8. Love, love, love it! And it's really not about something the child is GOOD at, but about something the child IS. We all belong just because we are human, as Dreikurs said, and this acknowledges and celebrates that fact. Hooray for you! (I've just discovered your blog and adore it and will share it often with my Facebook friends.) Thank you for your inspiration and vision!


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