Teacher talk: The Red Lantern Award

Posted: Friday, October 28, 2005

Dear great Mom,

In order to generate energy for a multi-class art project I have set in motion, I asked my sub to have each of my students construct an equilateral triangle with 6-inch sides. What went inside the triangle was up to their creative minds, with one caveat - the interior design needed to be constructed, using a compass and straightedge, and not drawn free hand.

The idea of setting up categories and making this task a little competition wasn't mine, but I thought, "What serious harm could come of it?" So, I agreed to the categories. When I returned to class, my students cut out their constructions and hung them on the wall, as they knew they would. I asked them to put their names on the back, so the voting process would be more about quality than about popularity. The students in one of my classes suggested we add "The Red Lantern Award" for the worst construction. I let it happen because I thought I had done a good job cultivating a respectful community of learners who should have the chance to judge both ends of the spectrum of work. I never thought my students would collectively vote for one construction over the others, and I never thought they would deviate from the instruction of voting on quality. I misjudged my students, and I let them know my disappointment.

I gave your son the Red Lantern Award for his triangle construction. As voted by his peers, his was the worst, the last, the one bringing up the rear carrying the red lantern. Based on the facts that the votes were overwhelmingly cast for him and I had not yet had the time to study every construction in detail, I thought, "Geez, his must really stink."

All the triangles were supposed to be equilateral triangles with sides measuring six inches. Before I gave out the awards, I went to the mass of triangles and took down one of the ones that was not like the others. It was not triangular for a reason, and it was his. I immediately knew why your son won the Red Lantern Award.

His construction was a little above average in design and execution, but the words he wrote on it drew the attention of his peers and apparently, his words compelled them to vote the way they did. His construction was not triangular, because he needed more room to write. He wrote, "Get well soon, Ms Gervais." It was a message to me, because my health has been off-kilter. He wrote it using his very own tasteful, geometric font. Though his construction did not follow the letter of the instructions, contained within it was the triangle I was looking for.

Your son's selfless act touched my heart. I gave him a stuffed red salmon for his prize, because they never give up until the end. Who cares what the rest of the kids think? Your kid really does have character, great Mom; I wasn't just kidding when I said it before.


Ms. Gervais

P.S. If I ever have kids of my own, can I call you occasionally for parenting advice?

• Mary-Lou Gervais is a math teacher at Juneau-Douglas High School.

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