It was the end of the year—a time when teacher patience is growing thin and students (and teachers) have visions of lazy mornings and long days lounging in the sun. Eighth-grade students, in particular, have their own unique set of distractors, They have, in their mind’s eye, already graduated and moved on to the bigger and better things that many think high school has to offer.
It was our first year in eighth grade, so we were thinking of ways to commemorate both the end of the school year and the end of students’ middle school careers. We were searching for something tangible that they could take with them and look at weeks, months, or maybe even years later and say, “There were some good things about this time in my life.” Because middle school is hard, and there is no way of getting around that.
We had done this in fourth grade. We had had students create word clouds about each other that we presented on the last day, and we had written each student a personal letter. But in eighth grade, we didn’t just have a class of 25 kids; we saw three different classes of 75 kids, and the task of writing 75 letters that were personal and individual felt daunting.
And so, while perusing educational blogs and newspaper articles in the pursuit of innovative ideas, we came across the idea of a compliments project. We read an article about Anna Sergeeva, a San Francisco artist, who created and placed posters with compliments in public locations around San Francisco. The fliers resembled the ones that advertise an apartment for rent or guitar lessons, with little dangling slips of paper that usually hold a phone number. In this case, these dangling slips held a compliment to take.
Then we came across an article by Jennifer Gonzalez at Cult of Pedagogy that detailed an experiment by an eighth-grade teacher, Stephanie MacArthur, called “spread the love” that she did with her students. She had one student sit in a “hot seat” while other students wrote compliments about them behind their backs. Then the compliments were revealed to the student in the “hot seat.” Once we read this, we knew we’d found what we were looking for.
Middle school does hold some dear memories. When we shared this project with our families, we gave a brief description of the process and ended with the purpose: “Because we can always use a little more kindness in the world.”
In reading more about this, we learned that Stephanie MacArthur’s “spread the love” project actually stemmed from a high school student’s viral video where she videotaped people’s reactions to being called beautiful. The reactions varied from shock to anger to genuine gratitude, but one thing they had in common was the general discomfort with being given a compliment. Receiving a compliment is a skill that middle school students (and adults, if we’re being honest) can struggle with. It’s hard to know how to react. Maybe it’s because people feel that the compliments might not be genuine, or maybe it’s just a discomfort with how to react to being given a compliment. Giving compliments was also not something that we had noticed in great abundance in the previous few months in our school. It’s not that compliments were nonexistent among our student body, but we couldn’t call them widespread. And that was just what we witnessed in school, not on social media.
How We Began
A few days in advance of our anticipated start, we showed students a video of Stephanie MacArthur’s class taking part in the project. We wanted them to see the project in action and have some time to consider its effect before we started.
We talked to students about our purposes in doing this project, explaining about how influential our words can be. Thinking about the effect of words is so, so important in this age of Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat, just to name a few. Since the video spoke for itself, we didn’t feel the need to say too much more about that.
We made sure that we cleared our schedule to provide time for every student to have a turn. We anticipated about five minutes per student.
That’s it! They was very little preparation needed for this project.
Tips for the Compliment Project
We decided in advance that we would never say that someone had to take part in the project, but we also wouldn’t say that students didn’t have to do it. This came up because one grade-level colleague considered telling students that they didn’t need to participate if they didn’t want to. Her reasoning was that she didn’t want them to feel pressured into giving a compliment to a student who hadn’t been kind to them.
In our view, this could have two unintended consequences. One, it could be used as an instrument of power. By withholding compliments from certain students, a message would be sent without ever writing anything. Two, it didn’t present the challenge of looking for the positives in someone with whom we may not agree or get along. After all, it’s easy to compliment those we like or want to impress. It’s harder to do this for those we don’t.
We let students choose music to play in the background to create a more relaxed atmosphere, especially for the person sitting in the chair getting compliments.
We told students that the purpose of this project wasn’t to show how witty they were or to share personal jokes; it was to share a genuine compliment about a classmate with whom they had at the very least spent a whole year of literacy, although many had spent nine years together in school.
We didn’t place any measure or requirements on what students could write. For example, we pointed out that many students were writing sentences, but we didn’t tell students that they couldn’t write just a single word as their compliment either.
We sat and let students write compliments for us because they requested it, and we can tell you that it was important to feel even a little of what they must have felt like, sitting on that chair with their backs to a board where the topic was them.
We took a picture of every student sitting with their back to their boards before they read their compliments and one of their initial reaction. We laminated the picture of them with their compliments and presented it to them on their last day of school.
These are two of our favorite compliments.
We did this at the end of the school year and felt this was the perfect time, not least because we knew that our students had had the year to get to know each other as writers and readers.
Hands down, the very best part was watching students’ reactions when they turned around to read their compliments board. We took a photo of their reactions and felt our hearts grow as we watched their eyes scan their compliments.
We saw students who wouldn’t normally be our most enthusiastic writers dig deep to find the perfect words to frame a compliment for a classmate we knew wasn’t a “good” friend. We saw genuine delight in the faces of students as they watched their classmates read the compliments they wrote. Some were eager to take credit for what they had written, whereas others were content to just watch and not reveal.
While students were writing, we were able to insert some very “mini” lessons on grammar that came up. For example, many of our compliments began with “Your” as in “Your smile lights up the whole room” but were written as, for example, “You’re smile lights up the whole room” or vice versa, “Your the kind of person who makes everyone feel welcome” instead of “You’re the kind of person who makes everyone feel welcome.” Another minilesson that came up was the proper use of then and than. These moments felt sweet to us because they were embedded into the work we were doing and held meaning. After all, we were going to be taking a picture of every student’s compliment board that could, presumably, be kept for posterity, so there was a purpose and audience.
We had a student who lost a parent during the project and returned on the last day. Although a counselor had spoken to students about what they could say to comfort a peer who had lost someone, this project gave them an opportunity to say things they might not have been able to put into words before or had the courage to say face-to-face. Throughout the process, we often reiterated that although everyone could benefit by hearing genuine compliments, you just never know when someone really needs those words. This felt like one of those times to us.
So, will we do it again? The answer is a resounding yes. It ended our school year on a positive note, and we genuinely felt that we had given students an artifact that will conjure up some happy memories when they need them. Because, after all, we can always use a little more kindness in the world.