“Rolando” doesn’t do much on computers. He doesn’t read or write much either, although he can. He mostly gets Cs. He gets in trouble sometimes when he goes off on a teacher (but by all accounts has improved greatly since last year). We’ve had our own run-ins, including one I wrote about here. But…

But early in the semester I gave students a couple of pipe cleaners and a dixie cup and challenged them to build a model water tower. We’d use pennies instead of water and scored towers on their height and the number of pennies they held. Rolo’s team was among the best.

Some time after that I showed them the Apollo 13 clip that engineering teachers love – the one where a bunch of junk is thrown on a table and the NASA engineers have to make a CO2 filter to save the crew. Then I dumped a bunch of junk on each table in my lab and told the students to make something that would be useful to someone stuck in bed with an illness or injury. Before most students had finished saying they don’t get it, Rolo had build this devise that a patient would wear on their head and get a drink from by tipping their head back. He tried it with water and made a mess, but pretty much everyone else in the class started making things patients could wear on their heads.

We worked through a long series construction, transportation, and manufacturing projects. Students built a K’NEX roller coaster but needed Rolo to get it to actually work. They designed and built model Maglev vehicles from scratch. Rolo knocked his out in no time and it was one of the best. Then he helped others. In manufacturing they built one finger from this robot hand in which you close the finger with the string and the rubber band opens it automatically. I told them use that string/rubber band action in an original creation of their own. Rolo used it to make a model working elevator.

We read an article on ways to screw up your engineering career. Instead of having students write the dreaded five-paragraph essay about the piece, I had them create an info-graphic about success and failure. We were going over the some of the points from the article that they might use in their projects, and “learning how to learn” came up as an essential skill for success. Rolo was all over that:

Teachers always say we need to learn how to learn, but then never give us a chance to do that. They give us a worksheet and say, ‘Do number 1 like this, and number 2 like this. Nobody learns how to learn like that!’

I told him he could create his info-graphic about how schools fail students. He included:

  • Giving packets and not helping
  • Telling students they won’t amount to anything
  • Not teaching one on one
  • Not caring about students, just working for the money
  • Not communicating right – yelling and scapegoating (I gave him “scapegoat” when he explained it but didn’t know the word.)
  • Giving grades for tests and not other work

So that we don’t end up fighting when he disrupts my class I give Rolo more latitude than I would other students and we’ve reached an equilibrium. I asked the class if they minded if I let him get away with things that I wouldn’t let them get away with and, except for one student, they said no.  (I reminded the student who objected that I might have to start keeping track of his tardies, and he said never mind.)

Rolo wants to be an auto mechanic, even though with his creative gifts he could be an engineer. He spends vacations and extended weekends in Mexico working with his dad and uncle and lights up when he talks about working on cars. 

Maybe some readers would say I should encourage him to be “something more” than “just” a mechanic. But I would push back hard and say, No Way! Here is a young man who in every way exemplifies someone in their Element, whom Ken Robinson would say aligns their passion with their gifts. He’s happy, self-aware, and I wouldn’t hesitate to take my own car to him except it’s still under warranty.

So what to do about a student like Rolo? I’m going to name him as my Student of the Year.

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