Friday, May 31, 2013

Between the Idea and the Reality

"Stranger and Stranger," by Maureen O'Hara Ure

(This is a re-post from last June, but year-end awards ceremonies are on my brain at the moment. Thanks again to Tea Levy for being brave enough to voice her words and allow me to share them on a bigger stage.)

Twice a year, we formally assess students' writing. I hand out a prompt and grading rubric about one week before the date of the assessment in order to give the students time to organize their thoughts in advance of the prompt. They then have two class periods to write their essay. It allows us to create a portfolio of writing samples from about second grade on, and the assignment also gives them some practice writing timed essays in class. Usually, the prompts are expository, based on the literature we have been reading in class - the mid-year assessment was about Great Expectations in the seventh grade and A Tale of Two Cities in the eighth - but in the spring, when the flowers are blooming, birds are singing, and attention spans are short, I opt for a more creative topic. 

This was the prompt I handed out last week:

Crossroads Academy’s core virtues curriculum is a central part of your education. Just as your education in math, literature and science informs your academic development, your education in the four core virtues informs your moral and social development. For your essay, please choose one of the virtues – justice, temperance, fortitude, or prudence – and write about a moment, experience, or event in your life when you relied on your education in the core virtues to guide you.

I love grading these essays. The students take it very seriously, and I am fascinated by their perspective on the core virtues, character education class, and the way students rely on the virtues to guide their actions. 

The essays were sublime this year, and I loved reading all of them. 

But this one...this one stuck with me. I was impressed with the writing, but I was also deeply disturbed by my part in her ordeal and the lessons that she and her classmates may have taken  away from the experience she describes. The author, Tea Levy, and her parents, have given me permission to share her words. Tea hopes that her words will help educators understand what end-of-year awards assemblies feel like from her seat in the bleachers. 

The Problem With Awards

In seventh grade during one of the last weeks of school, everyone headed down to Bancroft to attend the “culminating final assembly.” At the assembly, awards were given out to the students who had earned them during the year. I watched as nearly all of my classmates walked down to the podium to receive awards, but when the awards ceremony was finally over, my name had not been called. One of the teachers asked everyone who had gotten an award to come to the front of the room to take a group picture. When all of the award-winners had left the bleachers, three of my classmates and I were the only ones left sitting. The experience was devastatingly humiliating for me, but through my anger, I learned the importance of perseverance and optimism.

When my name was not called during the assembly, it made me feel inferior, as if my hard work had not been recognized, and my efforts wasted. I had done the very best I could on the National Mythology Exam, studied hard for the Grand Councours, and prided myself on my Latin poem, but after that morning the significance of all that seemed greatly diminished.

Suddenly I was angry. Angry with my teachers for creating what seemed to me at the time to be an exclusive and competitive atmosphere, but also angry with myself. I couldn’t understand why I was unable to be good enough to win or why everyone else seemed to be so much better than me. Optimism helped me cope with my anger. I had to remind myself that if I wanted to redeem myself, I would have to maintain a positive attitude. I reminded myself that the only way to have my efforts recognized in the future would be to remain as unfazed from this incident as possible and not limit myself based on my experiences.

The optimism I used to overcome this obstacle was linked closely to perseverance. My self-proclaimed failure gave me a new motivation to succeed that would push me through to the end of middle school. I wanted to prevail against the odds and become the perfect student. I quickly realized how unreasonable this goal was, but my desire to have my efforts acknowledged never faltered. I worked harder and concentrated harder and my work paid off. The first trimester of 8th grade I received my first straight A report card. This achievement made me feel as though my perseverance had been noticed, and I was elated.

Although I still look back on that morning with dissatisfaction, the experience taught me many things. First of all, I acknowledged the fact that they couldn’t give prizes to everyone without making the whole thing seem like a joke. But more importantly, I realized how much I wanted my efforts to be rewarded and that I have the power to ensure that they are. 


  1. I love this - and her essay is pure brilliance. What I love about it most is that she writes of her emotions so genuinely and compellingly. I foresee a bright future.

    Excellent writing prompt!

  2. What an amazing piece of writing! Tea, you should be very proud of yourself for such a descriptive and eloquent essay. My fiance, also a teacher and an English minor, and I have both read over this more than once and are impressed with such high quality of work from such a young writer. Keep up the good work.
    Thanks for sharing Jessica! You are truly blessed to be working with such a great group of students.
    Best wishes from Manitoba Canada.

  3. P.S. We have eliminated our "culminating assembly" and now hand awards out throughout the year during our weekly middle school meetings. We always do a "compliments" session at the beginning of the meeting (my favorite part of the week), and this is just one more way to compliment the kids throughout the year without creating a public praise-fest at an assembly.

  4. I used to be a middle school counselor. Reading Tea's essay reminded me how incredibly insightful pre-teens can be. And then seeing how she turned that "right-of-passage" moment into a positive growth experience is inspiring. She was right then and she is right now: Turning creative, subjective activities into competitive, comparative activities doesn't make much sense (and risks doing more harm than good). How awesome that Tea "owned" her feelings at the moment and is sharing them now. Educational research shows that rewarding effort is much more effective than rewarding (subjective) outcome. Tea has earned a (bright)gold star in my book for this well-written, well-conceived, and candid essay! And (P.S.) I can't help adding that I'm sorry Tea had this experience in 7th grade, but (again) am glad she could turn it into a positive. Bravo to your school for eliminating the "culminating assembly" and replacing it with something more effective.

  5. Wonderfully done Tea.

  6. Why does she write that her failure was "self-proclaimed"?

  7. I would recommend Alfie kohn's punishd by rewards. Speaks nicely to this issue.

    Thanks, Jess, for sharing this excellent essay.

  8. Dear Tea,
    Some people win awards. Others change the world. You just did the latter. Well done!

  9. FIrst it's wonderful to see the range of word choices she makes "devastatingly humiliating" really had an impact.

    A;so nice to see kids thinking about values more profoundly. For a reward to mean something is should involve hard work or commitment. Your student seems to have internalized this and it's a lesson well-learned, regardless of what certificate she might (or might not) garner as a result.

    Lastly it's nice to see you asking them to think hard.

  10. it was so kind of tea and her family to agree to allow this to be posted--because i'm 41, and you know what it's always important to remember? "not[to] limit myself based on my experiences."

    i just love that it was an eiqhth grader who reminded me of it today. thanks to you, too, ms. jessica for sharing it.

  11. I love this story so much!

    I'm surprised you changed the awards ceremony.