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!
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. ♥