It is that time of year again & I am sharing this post because it is vital for these ceremonies to change! I know some are worse than others. It was originally written & published years ago after sitting for over 3 hours at my son's 8th grade graduation where only a very select group of students were praised. Sadly, it still holds true today. Thanks so much for taking time to read this - if there are any grammar errors please forgive them (editing is not my strength).
The end of the school year brings with it many award ceremonies and graduations. As an inclusionist, I am not fond of these event!! Many (although not all) of these events are designed to exclude and shame students into what our society considers acceptable behaviors and standards of success. True, students who achieve should be rewarded and acknowledged; heck, almost all students want to be acknowledged. I think all students who attend the ceremony should receive an award. This does NOT mean I believe we should give all students an award, what it means is that only those students who are receiving awards should be required to attend the ceremony. Students who are subjected to sit through a 1-3 hour long awards ceremony or graduation and not receive one accolade are not being motivated to become a better student or athlete.
Often a reason given as to why students should be acknowledged for their hard work and effort in front of their nonperforming peers is because this motivates students to work harder. Really? Students getting good grades, high test scores, or achieving athletic success are not necessarily the ones putting forth the most effort. We are doing our students a disservice by only shining a light on achievements and failing to embrace diversity.
Schools often report they are sensitive to diversity yet they only mean race, gender, and ethnicity. What about the diversity of learning? Some students will work exceptionally hard and only earn C’s while for other students learning is easy, therefore they earn A’s. Yes, the “C” student could have all A’s too but it is up to the teachers to educate this student appropriately (this is their educational right – to receive a free and appropriate education). I heard a teacher recently state in her speech about the academic award recipient; “she is so easy to teach... students like her are the reason why people get into teaching.” My heart sank, of course, this student is easy to teach. This student doesn’t have a learning disability causing struggles with reading, math, or writing. The message was loud and clear, teachers don’t get into teaching to have challenging students they get into it so they can reap the rewards of a student who excels easily. Okay, to be fair, that may not have been the speakers intended message but it sure could be interpreted that way.
Sports are another example of how school exclude and shame students. A few weeks ago I wrote details about this topic in my "Lessons from The Breakfast Club" post. Not all students have the ability or talent to play sports although some may have the desire. When schools put talented athletes on a pedestal and worship these students they are sending a message to other students that in order to be successful you must be athletically talented. If you don’t believe this then look at our society as a whole; how much does a professional athlete get paid compared to a teacher.
Sometimes schools try to pretend that they are including all students by having “student of the year” or “star student” awards. This is not true inclusion. You are kidding yourself if you think that each and every student had an equal chance to earn one of these awards. Did the staff really consider the student with severe ADHD who has difficulty with impulse control? How about the student who has Asperger’s and is struggling with learning social skills or is awkward? I bet the student who was bullied so severely he became depressed and withdrawn wasn’t given a second thought. Students who are challenging or have challenges are not often picked for these awards. So, face it, this is not true inclusion; it is a facade. Also, be careful of another facade - when the obviously disabled student gets an award just so the school can say ... "look at us, aren't we amazing, we just honored a student who has a major disability..." Umm this isn't genuine & only done for the thrill of inspiration porn. This is NOT okay either.
So, here is my proposal to all school districts across the country. Over the summer decide what you consider the values we should be instilling in our children. Take a good hard look at the way you are rewarding students. Do you make the students with good grades stand-up in front of their non-achieving peers and tell these peers that they too can have these honors and rewards if they only tried hard enough? Do you have ceremonies where everyone is invited but only a few get rewarded? Do you give out student of the year awards, if so - really look to see if all students have equal opportunity for these awards? Learn about confirmation bias (you like someone so you see most things they do in a positive light – you dislike someone so you see most things they do in a negative light). Once you fully understand confirmation bias go back over and answer the last question: Do all students have an equal chance of winning “student of the year” or “star student?” Now, relearn confirmation bias again and repeat the last question one final time. If you still believe that all students have an equal chance than you don’t understand confirmation bias.
Am I saying that there should be no more award ceremonies and graduations? No, I am not saying this at all. Go ahead and have these events but only require the students receiving awards to attend and if anyone else wants to attend they can make that choice but do not force students to attend hour long ceremonies/graduations where EVERYONE ELSE gets rewarded and praised. Graduation ceremonies can be wonderful celebrations when focused on all students. Call each student up and reward them with their certificate (don't just call their name as they walk in & go to a seat with their "graduation award" is sitting on the chair), if they received other awards announce them at that time – this way each and every student gets the opportunity to walk across the stage (front of a room) and be recognized. Remember that almost everyone wants to be acknowledged and accepted. Schools should focus on inclusion and quit reinforcing a “haves versus have-nots” climate. Now is the time for change and acceptance. Just because the ceremonies and graduations have always been done a specific way does NOT mean they must continue that way. Remember we were once a nation where: slavery existed, women were not allowed to vote, and racial segregation was acceptable. We now know better so we should do better. We need to embrace the diversity that each and every student has and acknowledge their strengths instead of measuring them as successful under one specific set of standards.(Here's another post about shaming- Stop the Shaming Pt. 2)