Celebration of Learning: more than cake

Celebration of Learning: more than cake

We parents like celebrating our kids’ accomplishments. From first steps to potty training to college acceptance, we’re all about the party! And why not, we’re proud of our kids and want to affirm them by acknowledging their achievements. But there’s one celebration that has the potential for a lifetime of impact. When we celebrate our kid’s learning we offer them a powerful opportunity to not only discover who they are and how they learn, but to develop self-confidence and purpose.

A celebration of learning
  • Fosters a sense of belonging as a kid takes center-stage. The celebration shows how much they’re valued. 
  • Holds kids to high standards as they share their best work.
  • Increases motivation to learn more
  • Leads to a positive sense of self identity as a learner
  • Leads to reflection on what they have learned, how they learned it, and what skills and habits they’ve adopted to improve learning.
Long-time educator and Executive Director of Marshall Street Initiative (a part of Summit Public Schools), Adam Carter, recalls the moment a celebration of learning in 10th grade changed his academic life; “My English teacher, Miss Jackson read my assignment to the class as an example of how to write an essay. It was because of this celebration of my work that I stopped thinking of myself as a kid who was just good enough to get by and started to recognize I had actual strengths and talents that could be brought to bear not just in the classroom, but ultimately beyond that environment.”

But, what’s worth celebrating?

A celebration of learning serves as a capstone event to a learning experience and provides the opportunity for a kid to show to others what they know. It’s about the project they’ve produced, but also about how they completed it i.e. the process of learning. “Both are worthy of celebration,” says Carter who explains, “As a performance in front of an audience, a celebration of learning gives meaning to a student’s work because it has not only enriched them, it’s now something they can share with others who will appreciate it as well.”
We’re celebrating not just what a kid has learned, but how they learned it. When we celebrate the process of learning — interests, struggles, and all — it helps kids form their identity and honors their progress, not perfection. For a celebration of learning to be meaningful it should reflect the time and effort a kid has put into their work and be rooted in their experience developing the work. In other words, we’re not giving out trophies for just showing up. That would make the celebration feel fake and might do more damage than good. We should acknowledge the energy a kid puts into the work. It shows they’re willing to keep going and power through when the going gets tough. For it to be authentic, a celebration of learning should include: 
  • A public presentation of work accomplished before an audience of friends, family, and peers.
  • A reflection by the student on how the work was completed that shows what they learned about how they learn.
  • Probing questions from the audience that confirms the validity of the project. 
And while optional, there’s nothing wrong with including some cake and ice cream! 

How to prep for a Celebration of Learning

1. Save the date.
Deadlines are great, so pick a date even before your kid begins their project.  Knowing the time and day they will present is going to force them to get organized and work towards completing their most meaningful goals.
Don’t wait until the last minute to invite friends and family to attend. If you’re keeping your social bubble small, you can schedule an in-person event, but since Zoom parties are pretty popular right now, use the technology and expand the audience.

2. Prep the audience.
They’ll need to know how to show up, so send them the agenda for the event and offer guidance on what their participation should look like. While the hope is that everyone who attends will be supportive, the celebration of learning is not just a time to validate your kid. Forward a digital copy of the presentation and ask the audience members to do a little research on the topic and formulate some questions that will get the presenter to explain their thinking. This isn’t the Inquisition, so be gentle, but probe. “If everybody just sits passively by while a student says stuff that doesn’t make any sense, this won’t be a celebration-worthy event,” says Carter. “Learning should be interrogated before it’s celebrated. That’s a sign of respect.”  

3. Prep the presenter
A kid who has worked hard and is proud of their project may want to present the whole thing, but they may lose the audience somewhere in the middle. Knowing that everyone who’s attending has already reviewed the project, the presenter can now point to sections that are especially meaningful because of new knowledge they’ve gained or skills they’ve developed. A particularly well-crafted sentence that highlights their use of imagery or a Habit of Success or Universal skill they’ve adopted may be the most memorable parts of the project.
“It’s up to the student to decide what it is they want to celebrate -- the work itself or how they completed the work,” Carter explains. “There’s a certain amount of self-agency when the kid says, ‘I’m going to present this to you because this is the part that’s the most significant to me.’”

How to show up for the celebration

"We get to see a kid we already know in a new light and celebrate the parts of them that they may not even know are special or unique."
 - Adam Carter, Executive Director of Marshall Street Initiative (a part of Summit Public Schools)
4. Offer constructive feedback
As the host of the Celebration, once the presentation is finished, ask for feedback from the audience.
Use these prompts to quiz the audience
  • What did you learn about the subject matter?
  • What did you learn about the presenter?
  • What did you learn about learning?
5. Encourage reflection
Reflection is foundational to learning. It’s the ability for a kid to look back at their work and progress and evaluate their own process. As the concluding step in the celebration of learning (before the cake and ice cream, of course!) the student should look back and share
  • This is where I started
  • This is what I’ve learned
  • This is how I will use what I’ve learned in meaningful ways in the future
Carter offers, “It’s really helpful when a student can say, ‘here’s what you can expect from me moving forward and here’s what I would like from you.’ It doesn’t always happen, but when it does it can be useful because It leads to healthy functioning in the learning group. Everyone  can sign on to the best ways to support the student moving forward.”
A celebration synthesizes learning, surfaces interest, and gathers the support of interested adults and peers for future endeavors.  Carter adds, “It’s important to recognize there’s value in saying this particular body of work is now in the past tense. Here’s what I’m taking from it to move into the future tense.”