The Compliments Project



The moment I saw this video, I knew I wanted to share it with you. And I didn’t just want to post it on Facebook; I wanted it to live right here on my site, so it would never get lost. It’s too wonderful to be washed away in a wave of Internet sludge.

Let me back up.

Nearly two months ago, I got an email from Stephanie MacArthur, an 8th grade health teacher in Stillwater, New York. She had done this incredible project with her students and wanted to share it with other teachers. Because I get a lot of emails, it took me quite a while to even click on the link she sent.

When I did, I was blown away by what I saw. This project, which Stephanie and her students had called “The Compliments Project” most of the year and eventually renamed “Spread the Love,” is simple and powerful: Each student in class takes a turn being in the “hot seat.” While the hot seat student sits, facing away from the board, his classmates take turns writing positive statements about him on the board behind him. When they are all finished, the hot seat student stands and reads what has been written about him.

MacArthur’s students were so moved by the power of this exercise, they decided to film it.



I’m posting this at a time when most of you are just starting your school year, so I think it’s important to mention that I feel this is a project that would be best done later in the school year, when students know each other pretty well.

I had some questions for Stephanie MacArthur, the teacher who orchestrated this project, and I’d like to share her responses here. If you plan to do this with your students, take the time to read what she wrote here. It gives a more complete picture of how this project was done, and she offers really helpful advice for making it work well.

(1) What gave you the idea for this activity?
When I was in high school, my softball coach conducted an activity somewhat like this. All of my teammates sat down on the gym floor and received a piece of paper with their name and number on it. We passed the papers around and anonymously wrote compliments about that person on their paper. In the end, each teammate had this wonderful memory to take home, keep in their locker, etc. That activity was the foundation for this one, but how it came to fruition involves a bit of magic from my students!


Stephanie MacArthur

In my health class, I have what I like to call “Feel Good Video Time.” This is a (planned) random moment within a lesson or a unit where I share various character education videos that surface online. One day I decided to show my class the viral video, People React to Being Called Beautiful, which was created by a very talented high school student from Chicago. In this video, the creator simply says, “I’m taking pictures of things I find beautiful” to fellow students, and films their reaction (watch the video…it’s really good!) (Jenn’s note: Video contains some profanity; watch before showing to students and use at your discretion). After the video was over I had a discussion with my 3rd period health class about what they thought. The overall consensus was that it’s amazing how sometimes people just don’t realize how beautiful and awesome they really are! I mentioned my activity idea to this class and said, “maybe we could try it another day,” however, they begged to give it a go right then and there.

Various students volunteered to sit in “the hot seat” and participate. I gave no directions, except that what was written on the board had to be positive and school appropriate. I turned on some music, and away we went. At one point, a student walked up to the board and wrote, “I forgive you for everything you’ve ever done to me.” The entire room was in tears, and it was in that moment I knew I had stumbled upon something special. I left my 3rd period health class beaming like I had found a million bucks! Students were walking out with smiles and began telling their friends about the activity at their lockers. I said to myself, “I have to try this with my 5th period class to see if it was all a fluke.” Keep in mind, at this point I had no intention of filming/photographing this activity, and never thought it would amount to what it did.

I went to my 5th period class, showed the same video, gave the same directions, and sure enough, the same reaction happened! One student said to me, “Hey coach, why don’t we film this activity and make it into a video like the one you just showed us?” I smiled, told him that was a great idea, and the rest was history. I disregarded the curriculum I had planned for the following week, and conducted this activity instead.

(2) Did you call it anything?
While the project was going on, I referred to it as the “compliments project.” I would say things like, “Okay folks, let’s get set up for compliments. Who wants to go first today!?” The entire process was fairly informal, but I wanted it that way. I also asked students to email me any thoughts or suggestions they had for a title of the video. One student sent me “Spread the Love” and I thought it fit the overall message of the video very well.


(3) The students’ comments to one another are so thoughtful. What instructions did you give them prior to starting this activity?
I wish I could say I had a well thought out lesson plan with essential questions, NYS standards, and Common Core connections, but I don’t! This entire project developed as it went along, but I plan on creating one for this upcoming year. As far as what instructions I gave, they again adapted as the project advanced.

In the beginning I simply stated that all comments had to be positive and school appropriate. Then I added things like, “only 3 or 4 people up at the board at one time” because it was getting very crowded. Every now and then I would remind the students that the point of this activity was to connect on a deeper level, however those reminders were far and few between. The thoughtful, kind, and sincere comments you see in the video are just our kids! I’m proud to say that the students at Stillwater are genuine, commendable young adults who help those around them.

At the conclusion of someone’s turn at the board, I would ask the class to quiet down a bit and focus their attention towards the reveal. This allowed me to not only see the amazing reactions of the student in “the hot seat” but also the smiles of their peers knowing they had a positive impact. I would then take a photo of the student in front of their board and share it with them via Google Drive, so they could have the photo for as long as they like.

(4) How did this activity impact relationships in your classroom?
It created a safer classroom space; plain and simple. I realized that students were sharing and opening up more in the following units because most of them had been vulnerable during this activity. I noticed more and more students reaching out to me for advice or guidance with their everyday lives, perhaps because they trusted me more? I don’t really know to be honest, but I do know that my classroom was different for the better, post activity.


(5) We can only guess at some of the stories behind the reactions we’re seeing in the video. Are you able to share any stories of how this activity impacted your students?
Oy! Where do I begin!? First let me say that while I think this video does a great job at highlighting the activity, it’s no comparison to being present when your students are having “a moment.” There were so many boys and girls, more than what’s depicted in the video, who broke down in tears at their reveal. I think it’s very validating, yet extremely emotional, to see what your peers truly think of you. “This gave me more confidence,” “This was the best part of my year,” “I felt so uplifted after my turn,” “I’m so happy I moved to this school,” and “I never knew people thought so highly of me,” are just a fraction of the comments I received from students throughout the remainder of the year. I shared this video at our 8th grade graduation, and the compliments I received from students, parents and community members are ones I will remember forever.

(6) Can you tell me more about the logistics? When did you start?
In NY we have a school break in February, so the first day back I decided to show a few videos at the start of class before transitioning to our next unit (at least that was my original plan!). Our school also runs on an A/B day schedule so I see my health class students every other day for 43 minutes for the entire year. This majority of this activity took place over the next 6 days, 3 class periods total for each section. Some students were reluctant to sit in the main chair, so I did not force them. I would of course encourage, offer words of support, but if a student didn’t want to, they didn’t have to; demanding participation was not what this activity was about.

Per student, I would say each session took about 5-7 minutes from start to finish. In my larger classes (20 or more) I had two sessions going on at one time. After the 6 days were over, I HAD to move on with my curriculum because I was having guest presenters come in soon from a local agency, and I needed to teach a few topics before they arrived! In some of my classes there were a few students who didn’t get to go, so at random times throughout the remainder of the year I would set aside a few minutes for “the compliments project” so they would have an opportunity to go. Next year, I think I will plan for a total of 4 classes (8 days), this way I wouldn’t feel so rushed.


(7) What advice would you give to teachers who want to try this in their classrooms?
There are definitely a few key points to make sure this activity runs smoothly. To ensure success:

  • Show the video People React to Being Called Beautiful beforehand, and discuss how sometimes people don’t see themselves the way others see them.
  • Preview the video to determine if it would be appropriate for the age group you teach.
  • Make sure your students feel comfortable in your class and there’s a level of trust already established.
  • Have a relaxed environment with music, let them sit on desks, talk to one another, etc. However, at the the time of reveal, everyone pays attention and is respectful.
  • Only allow 3-4 people allowed up to write at a time, otherwise it’s overwhelming.
  • Have two “hot seat chairs” going at the same time if you have a class of 20 or more. Otherwise it’ll take you forever!
  • Don’t be afraid to sit in the “hot seat” yourself! You’ll have a better understanding of what it feels like to be up there, and it’ll make your day!

(8) Anything else?
I once had a professor in graduate school who said, “The day you’re not afraid to run with the idea of an inspired student is the day you truly become a teacher.” I’m happy to say that that day happened for me when this project commenced.

On a tragic note, a few weeks into summer vacation our community suffered a terrible loss with the passing of one of our recent 8th grade graduates who appears in the video. The pictures of his beaming smile and true friendships that were captured during this activity are priceless. He was a joy to be around, and I’m so grateful to have known him. There are no words to describe the feeling you get when a colleague emails you saying your video helped them grieve the loss of a student. I never thought this activity would carry so much meaning, and I’m so incredibly thankful to my students who encouraged me to trust them and give it a try. ♥




There’s a lot more where this came from.
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Jennifer Gonzalez

Editor-in-Chief at Cult of Pedagogy
Former middle-school language arts teacher and college-level teacher of teachers. NBCT. Mother of 3. All of these experiences have brought me to where I am now: Devoted full-time to helping teachers do their work better.

Latest posts by Jennifer Gonzalez (see all)

Jennifer Gonzalez

Former middle-school language arts teacher and college-level teacher of teachers. NBCT. Mother of 3. All of these experiences have brought me to where I am now: Devoted full-time to helping teachers do their work better.


  1. I love this idea!! I would really like to try it with my 4th graders. Could you give me some suggestions or resources that could get me started? Thanks!!

    • Hey Clare! My first recommendation would be to wait until the school year is underway, so they all know each other better. Other than that, and the advice given by Stephanie above, I’m not sure. Because of the profanity in the “Beautiful” video and the age of the students pictured there, I think it may not be appropriate for that age group. I’d say your best bet would be to have a good long chat with your students where you talk about the difference between a vague compliment (“You’re awesome”) and one that’s more specific (“You’re a good listener.”). Then you might talk about how infrequently we get to hear compliments from others and how powerful they can be. Then I guess just start! You might volunteer to be the first person in the hot seat, or have a very well-liked, confident student go first. And be sure to write your own compliment on the board, too, to show students how it’s done. I definitely think this could be done with 4th grade. If you learn anything in the process, come back and let us know!

    • I feel that Ms. McCarthy has an excellent idea here! I work in kindergarten and I would like to try this when child is Star of the Day and everyone can make verbally state one positive comment about that student (as most cannot write completely at this stage). We have an ongoing project throughout the year where I have a chart (100 boxes) if a child does something helpful in the class or schoolyard, they can put a dot (we use bingo dabbers) in one of the boxes with their name underneath. Last year we accumulated 550 dots by the end of the year of being a helping hand!! It’s a positive message of how to get along and help one another.

  2. Thanks for sharing this post. I will be at a new school this year and this seems like a lovely way to get to know my students through the other students. I may try this towards the end of first semester.

  3. Having just watched both videos, thank you for providing some much needed inspiration. I have been searching and struggling to find a read-aloud or video to use to begin 2 days of curriculum writing. I am a semi-retired teacher/educational consultant and I will be working with 86 K-12 teachers plus administrators who recently went through an emotional year (2 faculty deaths and a bitter strike). I do not know them, but feel as though I do and I desperately want them to begin their new year filled with joy and hope and pride in what they do. They are going to change their students’ lives and in my small way, I want to help them get off to a great start. Thus, you see why I have struggled to determine how to start…”Hi everyone! Are you ready to spend 2 days writing curriculum with a complete stranger when you would rather be doing anything else?” I think this video is just what I need and more importantly, what they need. Thank you.

  4. What a beautiful idea! I would like to try it with my class (there’s trust amongst pupils and they do know each other well) but am a little hesitant as I do have some pupils who would be tempted to write something negative just as a joke/because they think it would be funny. If something negative gets written, how should I react?

    Thanks in advance.

  5. Brilliant and beautiful! I could imagine printing the still photos to display in class to Model the Love for visitors. Jenn, you were spot on to give the Compliments Project a permanent home. Thank you!

  6. Wow this is awesome!!!! Thank you for sharing! I will use with my class at some point this year. Love it!

  7. Thank you so much for posting this. I’ve been thinking of doing something very similar with my kids, so this is great inspiration! I originally heard of this type of activity in the context of an African tribal custom: when a tribal member has committed an infraction, everyone sits in a circle with that person, and each member of the tribe tells the person something positive about him or her. Rather than ostracizing the person, the tribe embraces them and reminds them of their value within the tribe. Thank you, Jennifer, and all your guests, for helping spread the love!

  8. Bawling my eyes out! So great and so powerful! Thanks for sharing it. It gave me a lot to think about! This should be done with staff too!

  9. I absolutely love this project and will definitely be doing this in my health class this year. I am all about making kids feel loved, respected and valued. Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing.

  10. I enjoyed how personal and student-driven this entire project was. In fact, I also found it beautiful, inspirational, and positive.

  11. Thanks for sharing this! For many years, my partners and I have had an end of the year compliments tradition in which every student writes a compliment for each classmate. We’ve been using a Google form the past few years to compile them and print each student’s personal list out to display for all to see at the end of the year play. I’ve had former students (now in college) tell me they kept their lists all through the years (one said her list is on her bedroom mirror). I wonder if the real time version here with handwritten notes is even more powerful though?

  12. I was able to witness a day of this project first hand as students interacted. I appreciate Stephaine and her students for their kindnesses and trust.

  13. This is fabulous!!! When this type of activity was done in the stone ages, students had a piece of paper on their back or passed around the room with their names at the top. I still have mine from 35 years ago in junior high. Is there an app that allows words of affirmation to be shared via smart phone submissions that ALSO allows all comments to be printed so that the students can keep them to read on days of doubt?

  14. This is wonderful! It’s so beautiful and powerful. I have three teenagers of my own, and I wish they had a teacher who thought to do this to make them feel this special. My 2nd graders have buckets that we fill with notes;)

  15. Thank you for sharing. In a time when there is so much focus on academic achievement, this video address what is truly at the core of what we do as educators. It is a reminder that our students have so much goodness in them -and, it is part of our responsibility to help them see it, share it and embrace it.

  16. I have developed a program executes this idea a little differently but utilizes social media and technology so that kids learn to integrate face to face socialization with the handheld technology. I feel we’ve lost that as a society and we crave that one on one. Getting a pilot is like pulling teeth. My program, developed with Beacon Tree Foundation, is a mental illness and suicide prevention focused program. Getting conversations though.

  17. There is also a great fiction book that my reading block teacher read to s called The Best School Year Ever from the same author that wrote The Best Christmas Pagent Ever (Barbara Robinson). They do a project similar in this book. Mi try to read this every year with my stdudents. I teach 5th grade so we do it as a Valentine’s Day project, since we don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day like the lower elementary. The kids love it and it is anonymous.

  18. I teach 6th grade and all girls. Last year, my girls struggled navigating their relationships with each other. To meet their needs this year, I’ve started a “compliment board” in my classroom where the girls are invited to write nice things to one another on the chalkboard. We’re less than a week into school, but my board is already pretty full and my administrators love the practice! We are starting it in PLCs too.

  19. What do you think of having students use padlet.com to write their compliments? It would keep students from having to leave their seats and you could complete a set rather quickly. Then you could even print off the padlet to give to students. I worry, though, that that might make the experience feel a little impersonal for all involved. What are your thoughts?

    • While Padlet would probably be more efficient, I do think there’s a level of intimacy with the approach in the video that would be lost. Being right next to the person you’re writing about gives a pretty strong sense of accountability, and allowing the class to see the student’s reaction live and in person is just so special. This exercise is not only powerful for the student receiving the compliments, but for the others who gave them, because they can feel viscerally how much impact their words can have on another person. I’m guessing that the quality of the compliments just got better and better over the course of this exercise, as students grew to understand the value of thinking carefully about something that would be really meaningful. I think a lot of that would have been lost in digital format.

      • I completely agree that this should be done in a way that personalizes the experience for all involved. I think that it is empowering to give someone else a genuine compliment and to see them receive it right then. It encourages people to be kinder. What I wonder is if this could be implemented earlier in the year and then again as the kids get to know one another better. Maybe what the kids say will differ greatly. Maybe it will stay the same. It would be interesting to see if the activity itself encourages interpersonal communication and relationships.

    • I love the personal element of this activity. I, too, was trying to brainstorm a way to involve technology in the process. I wanted to create a way for students to write compliments about students throughout the year, as they worked with one another, to acknowledge the “little things” that happen over time.
      I wonder if a Google Doc could be started on each student at the beginning of the year and shared with the class. Then, students can add notes throughout time. At the end of the year, they could identify their top memory to write over the student on the white board. A picture could be taken upon its completion for the student to keep. Any thoughts on that process? I wonder if there would have to be continual monitoring of the Google Docs or if students would respect the process.

  20. Great activity. I do this at end of semester with all classes. It’s called positive affirmation badges. I give each student a list of positive character words and on smartboard I have an extended list. This supports students that have difficulty spelling or brainstorming words. Each student writes their name in middle of colored paper and when I say 1 2 3 pass, students pass their paper to the right. They are given a minute to think of that person and write something positive about him or her. They can reference handouts. By b the time it goes around the room each paper is filled with affirmations. When j step back and watch faces when they get theirs back…well it’s priceless.. they are great to keep on lockets or on walls in bedroom

  21. I love everything about this. I cannot wait to implement this with the students I get the opportunity to help. 🙂

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