Time on the sofa for good behavior

"...And the Friday Sofa Award goes to..."

I said these words every week last semester to my high school students. Surprised? In school, as in society, we tend to hear more criticism than praise. School is structured to facilitate criticism; grading fosters a critical habit of mind. That's not all bad - constructive criticism helps us improve, and critical thinking is a goal of good education.

Still, this critical bent can blind us to the positive things going on in our classrooms. What if instead we regularly give space in our classrooms to acknowledge all of the good things students do? Last year I decided to give it a try.

"In addition to receiving the Friday Sofa Award certificate, this student will be able to sit on the sofa all class period Friday."

Another teacher had left a sofa in my room which she could no longer use. Students gravitated to it during breaks, so it was a natural outgrowth to use the sofa as a "reward."

Recipients weren't excused from work - I kept a clipboard nearby - but they did get to work from the comfort of the sofa. While sitting on it was enthusiastically received, I was surprised to see greater impact from the certificates.

Long after students' day on the sofa, their certificates still adorned their notebooks and parents told me how much that award had meant to their child. Giving the sofa award seemed to keep some students motivated who might otherwise have put less effort toward the class.

"This student has shown laudable persistence - coming multiple times to meet with me outside of class in order to understand and do his work."

One student likened my award-giving speeches to the Academy Awards. My favorite part was talking about the great work done as I gave each recipient a personalized, signed certificate.

Students don't have to be getting A's to be doing great work. Throughout the semester, I recognized students at all grade levels. Good work starts with small actions - being willing to ask for help, finding out what they missed when they were absent, not giving up when presented a challenge. Students need to know these actions are valued.

Not all students do them, nor do all even know which actions or skills will help them succeed academically and professionally. The Friday Sofa Award highlighted valuable skills and encouraged students to practice them.

"It can be difficult to jump into a class mid-year, when other students already know the routines and expectations of the class. This student has done an excellent job of just that - participating in class discussions and being an active contributor to groups."

Sometimes positive behaviors were so obvious, I couldn't not acknowledge them - facile use of technology to enhance a project, composing a music score as part of an in-class assignment, embracing their character in a role play.

Other times I sought the less visible skills that students express - improved note-taking, planning ahead, asking thought-provoking questions.

"Today's recipient, even though she does not yet have the grade she wants in this class, has turned around her attitude toward the class and the work, and as a result has begun turning in higher quality work."

Often the students knew who had received the Friday Sofa Award before I identified them by name. Within two or three weeks of starting the awards, the class had forgiven the "cheesy" aspect of the whole thing and applauded heartily for every recipient. They also looked for good work from their peers and themselves and brought my attention to work worthy of an award.

On anonymous course evaluations at the end of the school year, 73 percent said the Friday Sofa Award contributed to a more positive climate and 64 percent said it helped them identify skills for success. Students who had actually received an award were even more supportive.

In the class with the lowest skill levels, 80 percent said the Friday Sofa Award made some positive difference in class climate and 85 percent said it helped them identify skills for success.

"I believe our society doesn't spend enough time praising what is going well."

This was part of my explanation when I first introduced the Friday Sofa Award to my students. There is absolutely a place for critical thought. I hold high expectations for all students in my class. In fact, my students often say I am the most demanding teacher they have ever had in high school.

If I am going to push them that hard, I have all the more responsibility to look for and praise their achievements along the way - whether small or large. And think about it - don't we all relish having our achievements recognized and applauded?

Mary Hendra teaches social studies at Santa Monica High School in California.

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