A good friend and mentor recently sent me an email telling me about something called the “Compliments Project.” It’s a community-building activity in which students sit in the “hot seat” while the rest of the class writes something positive about them on the board. Since our culture is still reeling from the recent election and horrendously uncivil campaign preceding it, learning about this project seemed very serendipitous, and I wanted to try it as soon as I could fit it in.
I found myself with two “lame-duck” days before Thanksgiving; we’d just finished a unit the week before, and I went for it with my Freshman-Sophomore class. Before the activity I gave a quick mini-lecture on what I thought the “arts” in Language Arts was about, and how it related to humanism, and how that related to the concept of dignity, in which every person born has value and is worth the same as every other person; I emphasized that everyone is born equal – nobody is born a Christian or a Muslim or a pianist or a point guard – and it’s only after we’re born that our identities and other cultural values are shaped. I added that often what gets lost in the process of identity formation is the understanding that everybody has dignity and value, and that it’s important to try to remember that when we find ourselves judging others. Then, at the suggestion of the Compliments Project post, I showed the wonderful student video, “People React To Being Called Beautiful,” which truly exemplifies the aphorism, “beauty’s in the eye of the beholder.” Students appeared to understand that, although many of the subjects in the short film weren’t “typically” beautiful, someone (the film maker) found them beautiful somehow. From this I believe my students made the connection to the compliment activity: everyone can find something positive in anyone.
Then I called two students to sit in the hot seats while other students wrote compliments about them. Instead of having them write on the board, I decided to have them write on adhesive Post-It poster paper so I could hang them on the walls afterward; I also took photos of students as they turned around to read the comments about themselves, printed them out, and attached them to their posters.
With 19 students, it took two class periods to have each student sit in the hot seat, going two at a time. The results were interesting. I wasn’t sure what to expect because the post I read about the project made it sound very emotional and powerful and immediately transformative. Because of the small size of our school, and how familiar students are with one another (many have been in the same class since elementary school), I was not expecting such sudden and profound responses but wanted to see what happened. After the first day, in fact, I thought it might have been a waste of time because people didn’t write much on the posters, with many jotting down just one word, such as “special” or “funny” or “cool.” Later that day I asked a small group of students what they thought about the experience, and they raved about it, saying it was really thought-provoking. “Cool,” I thought. We’ll see how tomorrow goes.
The second day, I prefaced the activity by suggesting that they feel free to write a bit more than a single word or phrase, and all students heard me. Their thoughts were more developed and longer (despite continuing to confuse “your” and “you’re”; arg!). After school, when many students came in to look at the posters, I asked if they felt the activity was worth the time we spent on it. I got an overwhelmingly positive response, even from some students who often criticize most classroom activities. They said things such as, “We don’t normally hang out with all those people, so we didn’t know what they thought of us,” or, “It was good to have the chance to compliment others because we don’t normally do that.” I asked why they didn’t normally compliment others, and the response was, “People don’t trust you when you say something nice to them. They think you want something from them.” If there’s a value for us in this, then, it’s that the posters might point to the idea that compliments not only matter, they can be trusted and they feel good both to give and to get.
Now the posters hang on my wall, waiting for students to return from Thanksgiving break. I hope each of them carries something positive home with them from this activity to share with their loved ones. I hope that when they return to my class, they’ll remember something positive about the experience. What I’m taking away from it is the very gratifying feeling that we had, together, two days of safe, vulnerable sharing and fun. I’m thankful for that.