Do you need a last minute lesson plan for these final two interminable days before holiday break? Do you need a plan for any time when you have a little bit of downtime and you really need your kids to come together, stop kicking each other, stop gossiping, and work as a united front?
The Compliment Game is what has worked for me.
I had a situation with one of my groups last Friday, and they left for the weekend with the fresh memory of me yelling at them. Strong disapproval error. (A disapproval was warranted, but I was way too strong with it.)
Honestly, it bothered me all weekend. So I came in armed for Monday, with this impromptu "game" I made up nearly ten years ago. I created it in the aftermath of a disastrous day involving one of my first Beginning Band classes and a substitute. I have used it at least annually my entire teaching career.
You say you want to teach empathy? You want to teach kids how to take care of each other? You want to teach kids how to appreciate each other and work together? At some point, you've gotta do stuff like this. (It might also work for a band camp or a retreat activity if you cannot afford to give up any rehearsal time.)
Here's how you play:
1) Everyone writes their name down on a slip of scrap paper and puts that scrap into a container. Simple, yes.
2) After every student in the room (myself included) has placed their slips in the container, then every student, one at a time, will pick a single name out of the container.
3) The student will give a genuine compliment to the student whose name they picked.
Sounds easy enough, no? Here are some of the caveats that I've found of playing the game.
"What if a student picks a name and then says, 'Who is THAT?'"
Seen it happen. I solve that issue with namecards, which are part of a system I put into place the start of the year. I also take care of the issue by telling my students to say the name of the kid whose name they picked aloud, and for that kid to wave when they hear their name called.
"What if a student picks another student they don't know?"
Well, that's kind of the point. It's more fun that way, too, because sometimes kids will pick their best friends and sometimes they'll pick other students they barely know, or who are new to the class. During our most recent round of playing, students came up with some amazing things to say about other kids they didn't really know. One student picked the name of the newest student in our class, and her compliment was, "I don't really know you, but ever since you've come into our class, you've seemed really nice, and you aren't one of those rude people." It was a sweet moment.
And if a student picks the name of someone they don't like? All the better. It forces them to dig deep and be kind. Sometimes, my too-cool-for-school band kids have a hard time coming up with genuine compliments, but on Monday, my Chorus kids were bursting with amazing things to say about each other ("You have such a big heart and you really care about other people" was among them). Sure, it taps into the touchy-feely lovey-dovey Chorus kid stereotype, but here it played out in the best way imaginable.
"How do you get your kids to be quiet this long?"
I've had classes like that, and am still handling other classes that cannot sit still or be quiet (unless they're playing or singing, and sometimes not even then). The magic of this game, although you might have to shush them frequently, is that everyone wants to hear kind things said about them. As a result, they tend to listen up.
And what happens afterwards? I often have kids ask me, "Can we play it again!?" and so in go the names for Round Two. It's an incredibly positive way to leave the school week, especially before a vacation.
But this time around, when we played it first thing on a Monday morning?
I offer you this anecdotal evidence: I have two students in my Chorus class who by all accounts are not fans of mine. Without going into too much detail, I'll just say that they generally don't seem to enjoy Chorus or having me as their teacher. I was worried that my Friday yelling episode had in some way altered my relationship with some of my students, especially these two. As Dr. Madsen would say, "Positives come and go, but negatives accumulate."
But after we played "The Compliment Game" on Monday, on Tuesday morning, those two disaffected students were the first in my room. They asked if they could "chill" in my room before class started, something they'd never done before. They were enthusiastic to help, and smiled at me for maybe the first time ever. Somehow, being surrounded by that much positive energy had shifted something in them.
As the rest of the year plays out, we'll see if that shift lasts. But especially in our times, when the world around us stops making sense, reinforcing kindness and caring in our classrooms is maybe the most important gift we can give our kids before we depart for our break.