Affirmation [af-er-mey-shuh n]
In our classroom, I define an affirmation as a written encouragement or offer of emotional support and/or praise.
Originally, I made this page to teach my students about writing and receiving affirmations. But recently, I've had a lot of questions about the affirmation station since my high school classroom was featured on Jennifer Gonzalez' Cult of Pedagogy. I'm thrilled with the concept that many of my fellow teachers are willing to give this important aspect of creating a positive culture into their classrooms a try! Imagine the world if we made it less awkward to give and receive specific and positive feedback from each other?
Incorporating affirmations in your classroom can be #postitivelylimitless
When I first tried affirmations in my high school classroom, it was really time consuming, not only because the typical high school classroom hosts 150+ students over many hours a day, but also because I didn't know how to make the practice both meaningful AND efficient. But how could I stop, when I'd get affirmations like this from students?
I knew I had to find a way to make it work!
Not only are affirmations beneficial for students like Hunter, but they also make a huge difference in how my class functions as a whole. Students are more willing to come to class and take learning risks in front of each other in part because they have written evidence supporting their process not only from me, but also from their peers.
It's a growing process, but I have learned a few things about how to make the practice sustainable, timely, and enjoyable.
You want to help me change the world? Let's do this!
1st: Build a Systematic & Reusable Space
I used to allow students to decorate an index card or library card holder with their name and/or pictures to use as their "mailbox" for affirmations, but that proved to be pretty difficult for mailing (more on that later). So, I took a lesson from the good old USPS: I assign everyone an address and make them use that to send affirmations through what I call The Malmquist Mailing System.
I happened to find some old library card holders in our school library that were not being used anymore and used those. They work nicely, but using an index card adhered with clear packing tape to the wall, making sure the bottom is sealed, works just as well. On each mailbox I place a number. The important thing: the number is ALL that should be on the mailbox. As a high school teacher, this helps me to locate the mailbox quickly, but it also allows me to reuse the space year after year. If I need to replace a single mailbox, its a lot easier than replacing the entire system. I would suggest using a good old Avery label template and a printer to number these for you, so your hand doesn't get tired numbering 150+ mailboxes, but also because it's more uniform for those times you have to replace mailboxes.
I give each class a color and each student within that class a number. I use the rainbow to help me remember the order of classes; first hour is red, second hour is orange, etc. Then, I export a class roster onto a spreadsheet and assign each student a number within each class. I always add more numbers than students, just in case students come in the middle of the semester. I wait to do ALL of this until our drop/add date comes within our district (I learned this the hard way). Once that date comes, I assign colors and numbers for each student. For example, Spencer's address could be Red 27 and Kamryn's address could be Blue 15. Next, I make copies of class addresses and post them all around the room. I point out the "address sheets" and tell students that these are their addresses for the semester.
A blurred out address list, like those placed all around the room
To make the students feel like it is truly their own space, I let them decorate their own index card that highlights important aspects of their own character, using pictures, drawing, and/or quotes and tack them directly above their mailbox.
The purple wall, early in the process
The red wall, further in the process
Now that I've done this a few times, it takes me about 10-15 minutes to make the address lists and less than 5 minutes to post them around the room. Creating the wall from scratch would probably take me about an hour or two at this point, just because of my numbers. But making it well at the beginning will save you lots of time during the rest of the year and make mailing more enjoyable for you.
A panoramic view of our room, showing the placement of the entire wall
2nd: Teach the Concept of Specific, Honest, and Written Affirmation
At first, students will likely write very broad affirmations that are not specific.
Example of the quality of early affirmations
So teach them to be even more precise in affirming by praising process or very specific outcomes.
Also, teach expectations for affirmations. Remember: an affirmation, in this context, is a written encouragement or offer of emotional support and/or praise. An affirmation is not a way to ask for a date, share contact information, a way to offer honest critique, a regulated way to pass notes, etc.
Tell you students that you will be reading each and every affirmation and that if they ever receive an affirmation without your stamp of approval, they should alert you immediately. In those cases, reteach the concept of mailing it through your system. Many will assume this is to make sure people are writing nice things; while this is somewhat true, it is also to help you see what wonderful things are happening all around you. To this point, I have not had trouble with students mailing their own letters directly or sending anything without approval. For those of you that may worry about the sheer volume of reading all these notes, let me tell you that it really only takes about 15 minutes to read 150+ notes and is the best way to begin or end your day.
I ask students to sign their affirmations and ideally date them. I have delivered unsigned affirmations, but I reteach this until I get all signed affirmations.
As evidenced my these photos, I do not correct grammar and spelling, but can use their notes to inform my teaching in those areas too.
3rd: Have Them Write to Themselves First
Even though it seems weird, I always start them off by having them write affirmations to self. For some, this is easy. For some, it's not so easy. They are ALWAYS allowed to write to themselves from this point on; even when they are asked to, "Write an affirmation for anyone in the class," because - well, they ARE in the class and allowing this alleviates some pressure, for some.
Example of affirmation to self
Rewriting to self usually happens a few times at the beginning of a semester, especially if no one else inspired a student or if the student is still feeling pretty vulnerable sharing affirmations with others.
4th: Have Them Write to ANYONE in Class
And then I let them write to each other, as much as they want. At first, I assign it like this: "Write a letter of affirmation to someone in this class that you have noticed (and maybe even admired) this day/week." I don't have to "assign" affirmation writing more than just a few times before they start writing them without prompting. I think it is because not only does it feel good to receive them, it also feels good to write them.
They will usually write to people they know first (but not always).
Example of affirmation between friends AFTER teaching to praise process and to be specific
Example of affirmation between friends AFTER teaching to praise process and to be specific
When a student receives an affirmation from someone within their peer group, it is nice. When a student receives an affirmation from someone outside of their peer group, magic happens.
5th: Have Them Write to ANYONE in ANY of your Classes
Sometimes students ask if they can write to other students outside of their own class, especially when students see the address lists posted for all classes. I say yes, as long as it is truly an affirmation that is specific and encouraging, and not just a quick note to say hello or something else. You decide what works best for you.
6th: Repeat! Repeat! Repeat!
Even though I just said that students will start writing to each other, and it won't really be as necessary to assign it as the affirmation system gets rolling in your class, it's really important to keep assigning opportunities to affirm each other in writing throughout the semester, especially after students have done some kind of learning activity that is especially risky, like writing workshops, speeches, group discussions, presentations, etc.
But once they are taught, they like to write them without prompting, too.
I have a little mailbox on a shelf near my desk. When students are just inspired (not assigned) to write to each other, they place their affirmation in this box and put the flag up. I check this at the end of each day and deliver notes to the wall.
This actually takes a LOT less time if you do it this way. I'd say the whole process, from beginning to end, takes roughly 30 minutes for 150+ affirmations (that's with READING them ALL). It is totally satisfying and worth it because it makes all our lives more pleasant in the classroom. The time investment pays off multifold. I've tried a number of different ways, but this is what works best for me.
First, flip and sort your affirmation notes into different classes by color.
Next, pour a cup of tea and enjoy reading each one. When you have decided that an affirmation is worthy of delivery, put your mark on it. I use a stamp with my last name on it. You could use anything, really. Just make sure it cannot be easily replicated by someone else. Hint: keep them in the color-coordinated piles to help you deliver when done reading.
Now it is time to mail them. When you put an affirmation in each mailbox for EACH affirmation delivered, include a colored "flag" (or piece of construction paper scraps) to show how often each person receives an affirmation.
When do you let them read the affirmations?
In our class, it is ideal to check for new affirmations at the beginning of class, when everyone is setting up and preparing for class, or at the end of class when people are putting things away. Depending on the activities and learning objectives, it may be that students can check during transitions or after individual work time, as long as they have finished with their work and they are not disrupting others' learning or efforts.
Is the affirmation stationery specialized paper?
No, it just has to fit within your mailbox when it is folded at least once. I use scrap paper from our copy machine that has been cut into 4 rectangles or even those little pads that school supply companies leave in our office to sell their products.
How often do you do assign affirmations?
It varies, honestly. I like to try to do it at least once every two weeks. Sometimes it is more authentic to do it at the end of a unit, depending on your activities. I do it MORE often at the beginning of a semester to build community within my classroom.
Do you assign affirmations as homework?
No. Affirmations are written in class and take the average student less than 30 seconds to write. I usually give them affirmation stationery (scrap paper) at the beginning of an hour and tell them that I will collect them as exit tickets that same day. Oftentimes, students will use transitions or extra time when individual work is done to write the affirmation in class. In all cases, I give them 1 minute near the end of class to actually write, if they still need to. The exit ticket idea also helps me formatively assess who does not understand the addressing system; I reteach individually, as necessary.
What if a note is mean?
It happens. It is rare, but it does happen. Ideally, they are signing and you can reteach 1:1 with the student. If it is unsigned, I still reteach, but I do so for the whole class. I take less than 3-5 minutes for this reteaching time and usually frame it by asking students to give me examples and non-examples of affirmations. In the case of an unsigned and mean note, I rip it up and throw it away.
How do you ensure that everyone gets affirmations?
At first, I would keep a list of received and sent affirmations; if a student didn't receive an affirmation in a certain round of writing, I would inevitably start writing each and every one of those students myself. I micromanaged that business and it made me nervous and crazy. I invite you to give it a shot and see for yourself. Kids know. It's not so great to get a pity note, even if it's well-intended. I have since stopped keeping track and started employing some other strategies that I'll share with you next.
I do still write affirmations to students. Now, I follow the same guidelines I give to my students; I write when I'm inspired to write (which is often).
Usually, when I get questions about how to ensure that quieter or "less popular" students also get affirmations, I can remember worrying about this too. The truth is, the extremes are usually covered by their peer group at first. The kids in the middle, surprisingly, are the most often overlooked. Sometimes, I give certain challenges to the class at the beginning of a week or right after new affirmations have been delivered to help with these issues.
"Challenge: Look at the newly delivered affirmations. They are marked by a red flag. What do you think about the way that they are dispersed? Why are some empty (no red flag) and others have multiple new affirmations?" I invite them to discuss the reasons why this may happen. Oftentimes, it may be a person who receives multiple affirmations did something spectacular and or conspicuous in class that week (like delivering an excellent speech or offering to lead a small group, etc). We talk about how it might be important to notice that even the quietest members of our class are also contributing in their own ways and that we should attempt to really watch for those ways over the next week or so. I hate to admit it, because you'd think I would have learned by now, but teenagers can actually be the kindest people in the world and have an innate sense of wanting justice and equality. I keep delivering with flags for the entire semester and they get just as excited as I do when the wall shows more uniformly-distributed new affirmations.
Caution: Inevitably, someone will ask, "Who is [fill in the number of the person who didn't receive any affirmations, like #25]? Can I write to her now?" I always answer something like, "Only if she actually inspires you. If you only want to write to her because you want her to receive a note, ask yourself if you'd want the same thing. If you really want to do 25 a favor, watch her for the next little while so you can write a truly meaningful affirmation." If this idea does not come up in their group discussion authentically, I tend to lead them there.
"Challenge: watch for students you don't really know very well this week to do something amazing so you can write a letter of affirmation to them when I assign it." It also helps when a student receives affirmations from someone they least expect (or don't know very well) and the affirmation is SIGNED; many students want to reciprocate and tell the sender how great they are doing, too.
"Challenge: at the end of this group work session, I will ask you to write an affirmation to someone within your group that did a particularly nice job. If you want to write more than one, I will gladly read and deliver as many as you write." This is probably my silver bullet strategy; it always works to ensure that many affirmations get written almost uniformly equally for all students within a class.
In RARE cases, I ask someone (1:1) to watch for a (named) student so s/he can write a thoughtful affirmation when I assign it next. I have only had to do this once in a very great while. Usually, I try the group work challenge first and it works beautifully.
If you have questions or comments, please don't hesitate to contact me. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and my Twitter handle is @beckymalmquist.