For years, I've been marking student birthdays as follows. Let's say it's Hayleigh's birthday today. During class, I call on Hayleigh and I ask her, “Hayleigh, what is one thing you've learned about life?” I record what she shares in a spreadsheet, and after she shares I say, “Happy birthday,” with a big smile. From here, the lesson moves on.
At year's end, I print each class's “Words of Wisdom” from the year (we do all the summer birthdays in May), and students get to go back and reminisce on the year.
(There's a much more thorough description in this post.)
As with all things in my class, I've learned that this isn't just nice, fun, or special. It's also meant to improve student motivation, specifically in two of the five key beliefs:
- Credibility: I'm trying to demonstrate to my students that I care enough about them to keep track of and acknowledge their birthdays.
- Belonging: By collecting every student's words of wisdom, I'm communicating that all of us belong in this academic community.
So that's all well and good, but when this year started I couldn't escape some problems I had noticed with this birthday tradition.
First, students sometimes feel “put on the spot,” and this can result in awkwardness or embarrassment. That last part isn't good because to feel embarrassed on any day isn't fun — but how about on your birthday? That's just a bummer. And the result of this, I suspect, is that over the years I've unintentionally offended students through this practice — and as I've shared before, research suggests that offensiveness is the worst way to undermine one's credibility.
Furthermore, it's become harder for me to call this “Words of Wisdom” over the years because the words students share are often a bit less than wisdom. For example, each year I had more than a few kids share something along the lines of, “People suck.” Do I really want to suggest to students that such a sentiment is wisdom, on par with statements like, “Love other people like you would want to be loved”? I don't see those two ideas as equally helpful in building a flourishing life — so do I really want the final paper I hand to students to be a document placing the two ideas next to one another as if they're equal?
And finally, a lot of times I think the silly answers I get to the question are the result of being put on the spot and of seeing previous students get out of the awkwardness by giving a silly answer. And so it can become a norm in some classes that the thing to do with words of wisdom is to say something flippant so Stuart lets you move on with your birthday.
So enter this year, and it's the first day of school, and dear ol' Abraham's birthday is up. What's a teacher to do?
I didn't know what to do, so I ended up just writing a short note to Abraham on the top of an index card:
Happy birthday, Abe! What is one thing you've learned about life?
I handed the card to him and asked him if he would mind writing something in response and giving it back to me at the end of the hour. “Happy birthday,” I said with a smile. And then I walked away and continued with the lesson.
I kept doing this for the other birthdays during those first two weeks. Finally, I had a chance to read my stack. Here are some samples:
- Have balance between work and fun. Enjoy times you have with family. — Hunter
- If you put in the hard work now, life will be better in the long run. — Izaak
- The older you get, the faster life seems to fly by. Seriously, high school graduation and being an adult is getting way too close! 🙂 — Emmalee
- Stay out of the drama and try your hardest to complete your dreams. — Hannah
Wow! What a difference in quality! Questionable wisdom status: improved. And guess how many of these students seemed to feel “put on the spot” or awkward? Zero. Unintentionally embarrassing students: gone.
I'm still getting the credibility boosts (without nearly as much risk of accidental offensiveness), and I'm still getting the belonging boosts (nobody's birthday gets missed), and I've got the makings of one heck of an end-of-year surprise.
I hope this helps!
In the Student Motivation Course, I teach through the science that informs the five key beliefs and the interventions that science suggests help most with improving them. Join over 1,000 participants from around the world in this career-enriching professional development experience. Register here.
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