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What Happened When We Asked Students to Think: Part II

After we took the leap of faith into the two-week inquiry unit, there were certainly moments of uncertainty (mine and theirs), frustration (same, though I think theirs might have surpassed mine at some moments), and lots of encouragement. There was also one distinctive moment where I turned to my co-teacher and said something along the lines of “Oh my goodness. This is a disaster.” Said moment of perceived disaster came after we had students think of what they thought our current school needed. Their ideas ranged from later school start times, to longer passing times, to daily nap times, to all-school snack machines. Right?! These are the issues that matter to them. I’m here for it.

Then, though, they had to spend some time finding research to help situate their issue within a larger milieu. That was the day I wanted to poke my eyes out because my kids were overwhelmed. And, since I was one step ahead of them, I wasn’t proficient in all the ways to help them, hadn’t trouble shot the issue enough. I kept telling myself: be a model. Grow with them. I told them why they had to do the research, and we guided them through, but it was difficult to help them see the why of the project. Oh, and they had to find out who in the school was an expert and draft a letter with some questions to that person. What I now understand is that hesitation, that annoyance, was really growth mindset in action. That step in the process was hard, and they could either get frustrated and give up, or attempt to work through that frustration to get to the other side.

The next step beyond the research was to design a solution. If I were charting their energy on a graph, this moment would correspond with a trend upward. In the meantime, students also had to interview their peers for insight as they continued to create their solution. We had two design days. During that time, students created a prototype of some aspect of their solution in preparation for presenting their idea to members of the administration.

All it takes is one: one student or group of students to create something that is beyond what his/her peers think is possible, to set them all off, and that’s exactly what happened. For students who wanted to change the schedule, they created an entirely new schedule, basing their decisions off interviews with peers, the principal and their research about adolescent needs. For another group, they went on a scavenger hunt and found cardboard boxes, which they used to create their idea of a classroom snack dispenser. From that moment, the other students took the project much more seriously. Also true to fashion, the kids who won’t work until they’re up against a hard deadline began to pull together their projects, too.

The presentations were definitely works in progress. Some groups didn’t even get around to explaining their solutions, while others had time to spare, while still others were somewhere in between. It was messy, messy, messy, but the panelists who gave their time to watch the presentations asked probing, thoughtful questions. The students responded equally as thoughtfully. They took it seriously, indicating their in-depth knowledge of their ideas. They owned it, demonstrating that the inquiry process is powerful and vital.

Finally, in the next post, I’ll offer some reflections on this process, what I learned, what the kids learned and why students in ELA classes need the opportunity to become makers (while we are also opening the conversation to diversify #makered).

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“But What I’m Writing Isn’t True…”

I tend to have the best conversations with students in the margins (read: the time and space before class starts, or the moments when it ends and they’ve gathered their belongings and linger to talk about something of interest to them, risking being late to their next class ’cause there’s something on their mind). Today, I was running late to class after HAVING to order an iced coffee from the T station and ran into one of my students. She wanted to discuss her writing and explained to me that she felt that she wasn’t going to get a good grade on her narrative essay because during our Friday workshop share (I’ll write another post about that), two of her peers wrote about places where “significant” events occurred: one an act of violence and another an act of gender discrimination. She said that overall, she hasn’t had anything horrible happen to her, and she tends not to pay attention in ways they do. But, was simply being observant about a place that was interesting, but where nothing momentous happened, from her perspective, enough for this assignment?

One of the things I love about this summer program is that I get to know kids as writers. I also think teaching for a while now has created a pretty good BS-meter. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. But, I think I’d not thought deeply enough about what it means for kids to mine the ordinary in their writing. When she told me her feelings, I quickly wondered if I’d set up some expectation that their narratives be heart-wrenching and traumatic, so I disabused her of that notion and told her, essentially, that what mattered most and what I was interested in seeing was showing rather than telling. Most importantly, I told her that if she had to make it up, it would come through and that if it didn’t feel right to her, in her gut, then it wouldn’t read well on the page.

She was relieved. And I was reminded that just because they are living in urban environments doesn’t mean that their lives suck. I’m looking forward to reading her essay about the ordinary. I’m certain that, since she’s writing from her gut, it stands to be quite extraordinary.

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Filed under Teaching Writing in the Summer