I recently read an article shared by TRC which discussed research regarding praise in the classroom, entitled “Proof Points: Putting Praise to the Test”, by Jill Barshay. In this article, middle school teachers were trained to give positive feedback to their students and actively track what they said. “Teachers were coached to say three to five statements of praise for every reprimand and encouraged to raise their ‘praise rates,’ which were monitored,” noted Barshay. I appreciated the balance in the article, as it admitted that while some studies did show success in improved test scores for kids, other data showed little to no change.
In my high school classroom, I find that the best way to offer successful positive feedback is to be genuine and focused. Teenagers are excellent at reading hypocrisy and they are not too impressed by generic praise that does not relate to them as individuals, so the connection made between a high schooler and teacher must come from a genuine foundation of individual care and concern. Teens are desperately searching for belonging. Some people think they are only seeking to belong socially, but I think it’s deeper but also simpler than that. Kids want to belong in their whole day. In their classes, in the hallway, on the field, on the bus, at home…all kids really want is to belong. I don’t mean they want to conform – quite the contrary. In my experience, kids want to be individuals, they want to find their voice, but they want to be surrounded by people who listen to that voice they’re practicing. They want to feel safe enough to experiment and all the while they want to feel like they belong in the space they’re standing in.
For me, genuine and focused positive feedback starts the moment students approach my classroom door. I like to compliment a student’s shoes, ask them what their new nail polish color is called. I like to ask about what game they’re playing on their phone as they walk to put it in the phone caddy. Then I follow up with the student the next day, to show them I remember, I listen, and I truly care. When I’ve had a hard conversation with a student about their choice of behaviors, I make a point to check back in with them the next day to see if they have felt any resolution since we last talked. I’m not doing anything new or monumental whatsoever, but I believe students need to see that we are genuine and focused in how we relate to them and how we help them feel like they belong.
When it comes to my classroom as a whole, one approach that I use to help praise them in meaningful ways is through what I call Bravery Quizzes. It’s my spin on the awesome CPM concept of Participation Quizzes. Bravery Quizzes really showcase what are the most important observations I can make in my classroom – observations of my students being vulnerable. Vulnerability is vital to learning, and my focused praise of students working bravely and vulnerably with each other helps reinforce to students that the more open, honest, and brave they are, the more they will get out of their learning. I make a big deal of praising all of the questions I hear from students, and I remind them that being brave only happens when things are hard – it’s not brave to do the easy thing, to solve the easy problem. It’s brave when things are HARD – when you have to ask each other for help, when you have to try the problem once, twice, again and again, until you figure it out. That’s being brave! I have included a couple of screenshots of my Bravery Quizzes from one of my classes below, and our daily closure time is a great space for this full class discussion.
My favorite quote from the article was, “The purpose of all the praise is to reinforce the teacher’s rules and help the child feel good about making progress.” I look forward to helping each child feel good about making progress. THAT’S IT. It’s all about the progress.