People become teachers for a variety of reasons – summers off, love of the subject matter, love of kids, love of learning, etc. When I decided to be a teacher it was because I had a teacher that changed my life, Mrs. A, and I wanted to be that teacher for other kids. I also felt that I could relate to some kids better because I was not the model student. I never really enjoyed school, never really enjoyed learning. I was not intrinsically motivated to do well. I had to have teachers, like Mrs. A, and my parents to constantly remind me of the end goal, to keep me focused and motivated. I was one of those kids that got excited about projects but would rather pass notes in class than take them, would rather read teen gossip magazines than any assigned literature, and would rather do anything (including get in trouble) than a worksheet. I became a teacher to reach kids like me, because without Mrs. A, I don’t know where I would be. However, somewhere along the way in my career, I lost sight of that. I became bogged down by the requirements, the to-do lists, and the ever increasing mountain of grading. I went into survival mode. It’s easier to give a worksheet or do silent seat work than it is to take the time to create, manage, and grade projects or group work that covers the same material. Now, I’m not saying a day of silent seat work or worksheets every now and then is bad, in fact I would contend it’s necessary, however I do not want it to be the majority of what I do. I want to interact with my students and get to know them past the assignment or the test score. I want to know their dreams and goals for the future and then I want to help them reach them. I want to come into my classroom excited about what I’m doing and knowing the kids will be excited about it too. I want to inspire, motivate, and enable my students to achieve their dreams.
With that said, last week my students presented their Holocaust projects. These projects were assigned three weeks ago and were meant to be a creative outlet for them to display what they learned during the unit – a type of culminating assessment. Due to teaching language arts, my students mainly do reading and writing. There isn’t a lot of room for projects. It’s not that I never do them, but I usually end up talking myself out of them with the justification of, “I’d love to do that, but we have so much to cover and not a lot of time in which to teach it, so I don’t have time”. However, I made up my mind to make these projects a priority, and it was so worth it! Let me explain.
I saw students come alive in a way that I haven’t before. When I hand out a writing assignment or a test at this point in the year, I can see my students’ eyes glaze over. Now that’s not to say that what I give them isn’t important, it is, and I definitely don’t want to create the assumption that students have to be excited about everything in their life because that is simply not true. However, I do think it’s our job as teachers to create memorable moments for students and to instill in them a love for learning. And for the first time in a long time, I feel like I did that.
Let me start with when I handed out the projects. There were eleven options of how they could display their knowledge, from dioramas, to videos, to illustrated flashcards, to ABC books. So three weeks ago, I gave them this three page packet of project options, and the first thing I told them is this is a completely outside of school project. I would not be allowing them any time in class to work on it. I expected to see disgruntled faces and to field a slew of complaints, but instead the students were going through the packet marking all the options that seemed viable for them, too excited about the project to be phased by the news that it was all homework. Let me tell you, middle school students being excited about homework is definitely a rarity!
So, I mentioned the projects every few days over the next three weeks just to keep it on their radar, and I stayed after school a few days each week to offer assistance to those that needed/wanted it. However, other than that, I didn’t really think much about the projects again until they presented last week. So, presentation day rolled around, and I was hesitantly excited. I was worried I wouldn’t have enough students do the assignment. I was worried the projects wouldn’t have much effort put in them. I was worried the presentations would only take a few minutes then I would be left with the majority of a class period to fill with…well, I didn’t really have a plan. Thankfully, all my worries were completely unfounded. The most students I had in any one class without their presentation was three, and I had multiple classes where everyone had their presentation. I’ll spare you from the exact statistics, but trust me when I say the completion rate of this project was significantly higher than typical homework.
However, that’s just participation. What about the quality of the assignments? Well, when I graded them, I only had one student not receive a C or above, the majority had a B or above. The amount of effort and energy that went into these projects was astounding. Not only that, but the amount of research…these students knew more about their topic than I did! They had really went above and beyond my expectations, academically and creatively. There were students that were so obviously in their area of interest that their work level exceeded anything they had shown me before. Students that struggle to get their work in on time, if ever, sent their projects to me days ahead of time for me to look over. Students that struggle with social anxiety asked to present in front of the entire class rather than just to a small group because they were so excited about what they had accomplished. Also, there was definitely no need to worry about excess time. The students were so excited about showing off their hard work that it was actually a struggle to reign them in enough that everyone in their group would have time to present. What a wonderful problem to have!
I was challenged by the success of these projects. Challenged to continue looking for opportunities to provide project-based assessment options/assignments, group work and interactive lessons when appropriate, obviously this cannot always be the case. Challenged to look past the mountain of papers to the students and spice up my classroom and methodology for their sake. Challenged to look for ways for my students that don’t feel success often in school to be successful. Challenged to be the teacher I set out to be.