Yesterday I attended the Bergen County Valedictorian breakfast where New Milford High School's top student was honored. It was a great event and I am so proud of the accomplishments that are clearly apparent amongst all of the top students in my area. The valedictorians and salutatorians for that matter are recognized for their achievement of academic greatness at events like this and commencement ceremonies across the country. Quite frankly I am in awe of their commitment to learning.
While I was at the breakfast I began to think about all of the other students at my school and their respective achievements. Shouldn't they all be recognized and treated like valedictorians? I am not taking anything away from the incredible accomplishments of students that finish overall in their class, but the overwhelming desire to inspire all students to mature into life-long learners calls out to me.
There is consistent talk around education circles about the relevance of grades as a reinforcer or indicator of academic excellence. I'll be the first one to admit that this is the only criteria used to determine our top 10 students each year, all of whom are recognized at our yearly senior awards dinner. Recognizing the valedictorian in all students requires a shift from traditional awards ceremonies and acknowledgment acts. So what does this vision entail? Here are my thoughts on other ways to acknowledge great achievements of students to make all of them feel worthy and appreciated for their dedication to learning:
1. Developing a philosophy that supports a school culture where every student is made to feel special.
2. Utilizing more positive reinforcement. This is probably the easiest strategy to employ. It is not that hard or much to ask of educators to tell students consistently that they are doing a great job.
3. Developing alternative recognition programs that acknowledge all students as they exhibit growth, determination, engagement, effort, and a focus towards learning. After all, aren't these significant attributes that lead to a love for learning? Learning and achievement are always tied together. There must be a stronger emphasis on behalf of schools to acknowledge those students that are learning, but not necessarily achieving at the highest levels (as determined by grading systems).
4. Involvement, not just success, in non-curricular initiatives such as community service, athletics, the arts, and other extra-curricular activities.
5. Inviting the Administration, Central Office, BOE members, parents, as well as other teachers and students to be a part of these new recognition programs. By doing so the students will feel that their work and commitment in and out of school has value.
6. New systems, in conjunction with current grading schemes, that provide all students with meaningful feedback and instill a sense of accomplishment and self-worth.
I understand that the list above is no magic bullet by any means. However, I feel that the field of education must design innovative ways to acknowledge all students in ways that make them feel as important as valedictorians. The process begins with a commitment to help all students see that their respective successes are just as important as their peers. This is not an easy task bestowed upon us, and I look forward to hearing about your ideas.