Sunday, October 12, 2014

What are my options?



Last week I spoke on the incredible value of Chicken Bowl at my high school.   A lot of my students were excited that I talked about their favorite dish;  few of them realized that the point was that they seemed to care LESS about autonomy and choice than they they claim.  There's a distinct reason for that.  It isn't that they don't care, at least in the case of the gifted and talented population, it's that they want to be right.  Right the first time.  Don't cloud the issue with the added value of decision-making, they'd rather I just tell them what to do.  

With most students, it's only when they don't actually like the assignment, that they might actually consider proposing an alternative idea.  Often the rationale is, "I will be successful if I do exactly as she says."

What I want is not a product.  It is the process.


Ten years ago, I had an incredibly artistic student in my class.  His giftedness was evident in the fascinating drawings, seemingly-unrelated connections in his discussion, and his risk-taking skills that often scared his mother to the point of exhaustion, and left many an administrator head-scratching.  
He couldn't spell to save his soul.  His written expression was horrific.  How could I engage this student in a manner that played to his abilities?  

That was the year I started assigning open-ended projects.

Free choice is scary, especially when it is linked to grades.  (And even more so when you are competing for valedictorian and highly-competitive colleges that expect straight As.)  Panic ensued.  "What do you MEAN?"  "What do YOU WANT?"

It really isn't about what I want.  What I want is not a product.  It is a process.  I want proof that the topic of the assignment has been fully realized.  I want to know that incubation has happened.  I want projects that reflect the passion and creativity and insight of their creators.  

I want to see something that isn't going to be thrown in the trash or recycle bin the moment it is returned.

The intent of that first project was PERSPECTIVE.  The focus topic for the class was 9/11 - Five Years Later.  When I invited that class to consider an alternative perspective, with no assigned perspectives I got the following:

  • Pilots
  • Terrorists
  • Firefighters
  • Those who choose suicide (jumping from the towers)
  • Loved ones at home receiving the "last" phonecall
  • Workers in and out of the towers
  • People on the street
  • A cockroach
  • A bum 
  • and many more...
There were poems, sculptures, beautifully written narratives.  There was a videogame designed to get a terrorist through the airport to the plane, while airport security and ordinary people intervened.  (That kid now works with computers.)  There was a plane replica built from LEGOs.  (That kid is now an architect.)   The cockroach writer went on to Penn to major in English, later teaching English for two years in Japan.

And the bum?  That was Dan's piece.  The kid who never wanted to write choose to do so for this project.  Was it a traditional piece?  Far from it.  Could I ever have imagined or assigned it - not in a million years.

It came in a pickle jar, with pickle juice stains (and smell) on the crumpled paper.  Also included was the stub of a very small, dull pencil.  The writing was atrocious, the spelling was worse.  The perspective was that of a homeless person (self-proclaimed bum) who was bothered by the dust and grime, the noise, and the 24 hour  lights at what we now know as "Ground Zero."  It was gross, it was raw, it was smelly.

It was brilliant.

Kids don't claim to want choices. I'm not the only one who thinks this.  Check out Sarah Cooper's piece here, It's our duty to force them to make decisions.  The Common Core Standards may not require thinking skills as a standard, but it's our responsibility to equip this generation -- and subsequent generations -- the the ability to make decisions.

When the possibilities are limitless, the creativity happens, and the trashcans and recycle bins are far less full, because pride ensues.