Reimagine Your End-of-Year Awards Assembly


In theory, an awards ceremony is a time of celebration. But for many students, this is not the reality. All too often, the same handful of students stand onstage accepting award after award, while the majority of their peers look on. Any teacher will tell you, seated rows of idle children make for a behavior management challenge waiting to happen. Attempts to mitigate this have lead to the onset of participation trophies galore, leaving many children with recognition that feels disingenuous. Taken all together, this can make what should be a joyful recognition feel stale and boring.

But what if there were another way to approach the traditional awards ceremony? What if there were a way to give meaningful recognition in a way that is engaging for the entire student body? One Connecticut middle school sought to make this a reality and ended up starting what will surely become a time-honored school tradition.

What is an academic pep rally?

When Principal Michele Murray attended a training session hosted by Jostens, she knew she’d found something that she had to bring back to her school. “I loved the idea of recognizing and celebrating as many students as possible for how they participated in school,” Murray shared. “It was was more appealing than running a more traditional end-of-the-year award ceremony in which only some students would be recognized.” 

And yes, by the way, you are thinking of the right Jostens. This is the company responsible for equipping schools with everything from yearbooks to letterman jackets. What you may not yet know is that they are also responsible for the Renaissance Culture Challenge. This framework is designed to equip schools with the tools needed to be a place where all members thrive. One of the key tenets of the culture challenge is hosting school-wide events, such as the pep rally Principal Murray learned of.

Jostens refers to their event as a Renaissance Rally. According to their website, it is a “school-wide celebration energizing with the same passion and excitement of an athletic pep rally, while recognizing academic excellence and performance as well as exceptional behavior, kindness, and character.” Though Murray and her school community chose to refer to the event as an academic pep rally, their goal was the same: to get students excited about recognizing each other’s accomplishments.

What went into creating the pep rally?

Because the pep rally would include the entire 7th grade class, it was an all-hands-on-deck effort from their teachers. Among the team, several teachers planned and gathered materials for “mini games,” others prepared decorations, and another curated a playlist. One member of the staff organized the gathering of recognitions. Most important, the pep rally needed strong, dynamic leaders who could keep students engaged and energetic. The two perfect people for the job have already been featured here at We Are Teachers: guidance counselor Scott Raiola and language arts teacher Christina Herrick.

Setting up for the pep rally proved to be relatively simple. A teacher on each 7th grade team dedicated a class period to having students construct banners out of butcher paper. Students wrote their names and a favorite memory from the year, and the banners were hung at the front of the stage. Paper chains in school colors and the strobe light used for school dances completed the decorations.

In preparation for the pep rally, Scott Raiola sent a survey to all 7th grade students and staff. Respondents shared how a member of the community has positively impacted their school year. While there was only time to read a handful of the shout-outs out loud, a digital whiteboard set up on the side of the stage offered a scrolling display of the contributions.

Yet another group of teachers gathered the seemingly random supplies needed for mini games. After gathering fruit by the foot, pool tubes, and beach balls, the team began planning how the pep rally would unfold.

Welcome to the pep rally!

On the day of the pep rally, students entered the auditorium to pop music and neon lights. The atmosphere was more reminiscent of a sports game than a school assembly. It was already clear to students that this would be like no awards ceremony they’d experienced before.

This message was quickly confirmed by Christina and Scott’s introduction. Students were encouraged to shout their support throughout the rally. After beginning with an attention-grabbing icebreaker, the rally was underway.

Student recognition and mini games

The format alternated between themed recognitions and mini games. During a recognition portion, Scott began by explaining the trait or skill that would be the focus. Starting with taking on new challenges, Scott acknowledged the anxiety many students felt during their 7th grade year. He asked students who had tried out for sports teams, joined a club, challenged themselves in the classroom, or sought additional support to stand up. Almost every student found a reason to stand. Without handing out a single participation trophy, students reflected on the the variety of challenges they tackled throughout the year. To conclude the first recognition segment, Scott read aloud several related survey submissions. Students had written heartfelt thank-you messages to both adults and peers who had supported them in new challenges. Similarly, staff acknowledged several students who had impressed them with their ability to tackle something new.

Following the recognition, Christina took the mic to introduce the first mini game. Students were already familiar with this one, as the #fruitbythefootchallenge has gained traction across a variety of social media outlets. I’ll allow Millie Bobby Brown and Jimmy Fallon to demonstrate.

Five students led by a teacher “team captain” competed in a five-person relay. Students on the winning team were almost as excited as Millie.

The pep rally continued with cycles of recognition, followed by a mini game. Games ranged from the human ring toss, an over-under beach ball relay, and a contest to make the best animal noise. By the end, nearly everyone in the auditorium was on their feet cheering.

So, was it worth it?

Undeniably, more work went into the pep rally than the typical awards ceremony. So, was it worth the additional time and energy? If you ask Michele, Scott, and Christina, the answer is unanimously yes. In talking about what future pep rallies might look like, Michele shared, “I absolutely want to do this again next year! In fact, we plan to expand it from one grade level to the whole school. This format allowed us to cheer on everyone in some way and was such a powerful end to our school year for our students. In fact, instead of trying to control student behavior on the last day, we used all that energy to have fun with our students.”

Are you convinced yet that you need an academic pep rally at your school? Check out Jostens Renaissance Rally page to get started on planning your own!

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