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The Power of Authentic Compliment Conferences by Emily Strang-Campbell

From 1st grade until 3rd grade, I HATED writing. Mostly because myself, and a handful of other unlucky first graders, had received the not-so-coveted title of “struggling writers”. The labels started being handed down in October, and by late November, my excited, story-telling self, started to dread any and all writing activities. Whenever I met with my teacher, I felt as though I was in trouble, or I’d done something bad. She would always meet with the six of us “strugglers” (she often announced this loudly across the tables) in the gray, cramped corner of her room. The beginning of her instruction was usually kicked off with a slight, frustrated sigh (as if we were the heavy slack holding the rest of the class back) and ALWAYS started with what we were missing or the parts that were “not correct” in our writing. This was followed by a controlled, narrow writing “task” that was about as exciting as waiting in line at the DMV. To say I was bored and unmotivated was an understatement. I also had lost any confidence I had as a writer.

It wasn’t until the fourth grade when Mrs. Knab started the year with fairy tale writing, that things changed for the better. “Guess what writers…you can write about anything today!” Anything, I suspiciously thought to myself. “And, you can even begin writing in your notebook by sketching, or drawing, or even talk about your ideas to your friends!”

My stomach dropped and my untrusting “struggling writer” guards went up. I hadn’t sketched my ideas or talked through stories since pre-K, and that was the last time I loved writing. In a matter of 15 minutes, my entire writing life was turned upside down. I immediately grabbed the colored pencils and started drawing a magical setting, while talking excitably with my table mates about a misunderstood princess named Petunia that was desperately searching for her parents. Ms. Knab walked over, knelt down and with a warm smile, pointed to my pictures. “Emily, these are wonderful! Your use of color and the details you’re adding to the princess are helping me see the story. I can tell that you have a strong imagination and that you are going to create some powerful stories this year. You are a writer.” Her words felt like gold had been pieced in my ears. I hadn’t received a writing compliment in years. Even though I hadn’t written a single word, she made me feel seen and heard. Her specific compliment made me feel like a writer. As a result, I was a writing machine that year, and filled up at least three notebooks. I went from hating writing, to staying up past midnight to finish stories. That single compliment helped motivate me, and changed my mindset. In that compliment, Ms. Knab gave me my confidence back.

My past experiences with the label of “struggling writer” and my journey out of this deficient belief, reminds me just how closely confidence and academic success are linked. Although I was certainly not a great writer yet, Ms. Knab’s relationship-building skills and positive, specific feedback, set in motion an academic mindset I hadn’t envisioned for myself. As John Hattie has said when discussing successful teachers, “They often see more in you than you see in yourself.” By giving me an authentic compliment at the right moment, Ms. Knab helped me see my potential, which up to that point, had been invisible.

The first time I listened to the late Rita Pierson’s Ted Talk, I immediately wished my younger self had heard her words years earlier. Rita understood the direct connection between human relationships and academic movement. In her talk, she asks the audience, “How do I raise the self-esteem in a child and his academic achievement at the same time?” Her question reveals that academic learning can be nearly impossible for many kids if they don’t have a strong social and emotional foundation in the classroom. Specific and authentic compliment conferences can help strengthen this trust and foundation and be the springboard kids’ need into rich, academic learning. The two are symbiotic.

Of course, sometimes finding a specific compliment can be easier said than done! As teachers, we’ve all experienced carrying home enormous piles of student essays that need to be graded over a weekend. In these overwhelming moments, it’s sometimes easier to see the many holes and problems rather than the writer’s strengths. Ralph Fletcher has said, “You almost have to reach into the wreckage of the writing, which sometimes is not that good, and find one sentence, one part, even one word. And I think when you do that, the student opens up that window of vulnerability and will listen to what you have to say.” The truth is, many times it is the student with the most flaws and holes in their work that is in most need of a personalized compliment – the writing with the most wreckage are the ones we have to reach deeply into, and dust off lots and lots of rocks before we find that hidden gem. But when we do find that jewel, boy…do we sure want to make a big deal out of it! We want to highlight and POP OUT that part for the student, and in as precise and warm a manner as we can muster, explain to them what made this section (no matter how small) strong. And, as we compliment the young writer, we can try to break it down as specifically (step-by-step) as possible in our explanation. This way, not only will they feel inspired and proud, they’ll understand how to replicate these moves in their future writing. It’s not always easy to reach into the wreckage and find glimpses of gold, but so many kids need us to dive deep and lift their confidence –to remind them that they are worthy and capable of great academic work.

Ms. Knab could have easily just walked by and given a quick nod or eye roll at all the sparkles and colors in my writing notebook. Instead, she leaned down, and not only saw my story, but saw me. Even though I didn’t have a single word jotted on the page, her specific compliment made me feel like a writer. She acknowledged that my sketches and sparkles were important, and I had something to say to this world. That single compliment (and the ritual of compliment conferences, along with research/decide /teach conferences she conducted with her students throughout the year) set me back on a path of learning – a path I’d veered from in earlier grades. Throughout that fourth-grade year, Ms. Knab saw more in her students than we saw in ourselves. In her brilliance, she recognized that compliment conferences could be the mirror that allowed us to see our potential, to see our hidden gems.

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