To award or not to award?

To Award or Not To Award?

I was visiting one of the after school program sites I work with recently and I found the site coordinator in a bit of a frenzy.  I asked her what was going on and she said she was behind on getting her paperwork in for a field trip.  She informed me that the field trip to award the after school students who met their attendance goals for the last semester.  Attendance goals?

“Yes, if they attend the program for at least 30 days, we plan a field trip for them. I also print up awards certificates for them as recognition.”   I have encountered this strategy in the past as a technique to give students incentives to attend and stay in their school’s after school program. The rationale is that if they come for a certain amount of time in the beginning, they will eventually grow to like the program, the staff and the activities so much that they will continue to attend for longer.  But to get them to initially come is challenging, so a field trip somewhere new and exciting is the carrot to get them first in the door.  This strategy is also used as an incentive for students to attend these positive programs at their schools in high poverty/high crime neighborhoods during after school hours as opposed to the alternatives which are not so positive (hanging out at home unsupervised, engaging in deviant behavior etc.).   Finally, the field trips themselves are learning opportunities.  In the case of this after school program, the field trip is scheduled for a nearby national park where all of the students have never been nor will they ever likely go because they lack the resources otherwise.  So as I hear this, I am ok with it.

Then there is another attendance awards scenario that I am not so ok with. I received my first award ever which was a plaque when I graduated from 8th grade.  It was an academic award that I still have.  At 14 years old, that was the first time I had received some type of tangible award with my name on it.  Now, both of my kids who are still in elementary school have an entire counter full of various awards/certificates.  I’m not saying I am not proud of my kids and their accomplishments as  I find so much joy in sitting through their awards ceremonies and taking those embarrassing pictures.  In fact, a few of the awards on that counter are for achieving top honors in academics.  But the majority of those awards that fill that counter are in fact participation awards or awards where my kids basically just showed up. My son showed up for a week long summer camp and got an award for attending all five days.  Really? My daughter played soccer for the first time where the games looked like a hilarious mess of herding cats. She received a huge trophy for participating.  So are all of these awards necessary?  I don’t think they are and in fact I find most of them kinda lame.

So why is the field trip award ok and not the herding cats award?  I guess it comes down to one thing – EFFORT.  For students in poverty and crime stricken neighborhoods, showing up to school in the first place is challenging and requires a certain amount of determination and grit. So yes, that should be awarded in my opinion.  For my kids and other families I know, getting them there is the easy part and requires very little work (relatively).   Something that requires little work should not be awarded.  This is summed up best in Edutopia’s “True Grit: The Best Measure of Success and How to Teach It” @coolcatteacher

“No one celebrates easy, but everyone celebrates championships and winners because those take grit (and more). We need more circumstances to help kids to develop grit before they can ‘have it.’”

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