The Wall of Champions
The Subtitle to this post: How I Get Students Excited About Acing My Assessments.
What You’re Looking At in the Picture: A bunch of post-it notes with my student’s names written on them (written by the students themselves)
Some Background: I use Standards Based Grading (SBG) in my classroom. This means whenever I give an assessment, students are graded on a holistic rubric from 1-5. A 1 means no understanding, a 3 means strong understanding and corresponds to a passing grade, and a 5 means mastery and corresponds to an A. In my system, 5′s always mean 100%. There is no argument or debate – it is black and white – to earn a 5, your paper must be perfect. As you might imagine, it can be difficult to get a 5 on some pages of my assessments. I set my standards high and my students know it. Which means when someone does get a 5, its a big deal. Like, a really big deal. I yell it out excitedly when I pass back tests – I can’t contain my excitement.
But, my excitement about 5′s wasn’t translating as well as I wanted to my students. Even though I was stoked and knew how big of a deal this was, most students just seemed to shrug and go ‘that’s pretty cool… I guess…’. And worse, some students were ‘satisfied’ with just earning a 3 or a 4, even though I knew they were capable of earning a 5. I wanted them to earn that 5, but they didn’t want it as much as I did.
And then I made the Wall of Champions. Here’s how it works: Whenever a student earns a 5 on a page, they get a post-it note on their test. With that post-it, they write their name on it and place it on the wall on the back of the room – a sign to the rest of my classes that this person earned their 5. In that picture above, each post-it represents a student who has earned 100% on one of the skills in my SBG system. Each color represents a different class, so students can see how each class compares with each other class. Throughout the year, I had them all mixed together – it was only at the end of the year that I separated them (like above) because I wanted to see which class had earned the most 5′s. And I threw that class a small party at the end of the semester to celebrate.
The philosophy behind this wall is simple – it’s a a simple, tangible, visible reward for students excelling in my class. And. Its. AWESOME! My students were getting pumped about having assessments returned – everyone wanted that post-it. And if they didn’t get it, they wanted to know why – so they would look at their test to figure out their mistakes and what they needed to do if they wanted that 5. Read that last sentence again – that’s a big deal. Then they’d say “I’m gonna retake this – I want that post-it!” (but first, they’d do some practice or come in for tutoring or whatever they needed so they’d understand the material). All students – even the ones who earned high marks - everyone wants that post it. Everyone wants to do better. This, coupled with the Wall of Remediation, led to an amazing ecosystem of motivation and action all on the part of my students. I just had to try and keep up with them
A lot of the results, from a social perspective, were fun to watch. Students started bragging to their friends – they’d come in before or after school to show their friends the post-it on the wall. They’d take a picture and upload it to Instagram. They’d see their friends on the wall and get competitive. They’d want to have the most post-its in their class. Students who weren’t reaching their potential would see their friends, who they considered ‘less-bright’, earning post-its and this would be the motivation for them to finally pick up their feet and start succeeding in my class. The amount of positive self-image that this created for my students was pretty awesome to watch.
Here’s my favorite part. For a lot of students, all they need is that spark – that initial feeling of success and progress before they’re ready to jump in head-first and take math seriously. Sometimes its bigger than math – after this spark, they start to take school seriously. But they still need that spark – as much as I say “You’re improving so much! Look how much better you’re doing!”, they still shrug their shoulders and don’t believe me. This is why I love SBG and my Wall of Champions – the Post-It is the spark. I’ve had so many students who, after earning that first post-it, become hungry for more. Their entire attitude about what they’re capable of completely changes – all because they’re able to put that post-it up on the board. They brag to their friends and parents and ask ‘What do I need to do to earn another one?’.
Full Disclosure: I stole this idea from another teacher. I was visiting a fellow math teacher in Phoenix (Hi Sarah!) when I saw this basic setup in another math classroom. This teacher doesn’t do any kind of SBG-related grading – he gives traditional tests at traditional times (ie: end of the unit). The teacher had two pieces of butcher paper on the wall with lots of post-its on them – one piece of butcher paper had the smaller post-its and the other one had the normal-sized post-its on it. The smaller post-its were for students who earned at least an 80% on his tests and the other regular post-its were for students who earned 100% on his tests. The 80% wall was reset every quarter, but the 100% board stayed up for the whole year. Same idea – a tangible, public incentive for students to be successful in his class. So, if you’re reading this and wondering if this can be done in a non-SBG classroom, the answer is yes because I stole it from a non-SBG classroom.
A Few Last Words: When I think of the usual motivation in schools, most students are satisfied to reach a certain threshold and stop. “I just need a D – as long as I’m passing, I’m good”. Traditional grades reinforce this. Very few students have the inherent incentive to earn high grades, and these are usually students who have this incentive before they walk into my classroom. I guess what gets me so excited about this is I’ve seen students change from the type of student who was satisfied with a D to the type of student who wants to achieve excellence. There’s probably lots at play here, but I think these post-its create a reward system based on mastery rather than an acceptable level of understanding, and I don’t think this happens too often in most schools (maybe honor roll?). The thing I’ve been the most impressed with are the students who earn passing grades but still want to earn that 5. This is the same as a student earning an 85% on a test, then asking to retake it because they know they can do better and they want that 100%. This is something I’ve never really experienced before and the only thing I can think to explain it is this Post-It reward system.