Words of Widsom: Settling

Our 20Time presentations gave my students an opportunity to share their learning and accomplishments. They weren’t just about the successes. One seventh grader asked a powerful question of herself, and it’s got me thinking: am I doing what she needs me to be doing?

I’ve talked quite a bit about the success we’ve experienced with our 20Time projects. A few projects weren’t huge successes, but just about every student really liked his or her project and has been talking for weeks about possibilities for next year’s projects.

However, not every student had such a great time with 20Time projects. One of my students has really struggled with any kind of long-term assignment for two years now. When she was in sixth grade, I was using an independent study program that provided students with a number of options in math, science, social studies, leadership, or language arts. I steered students toward the area in which they showed the greatest interest, and they could pick within that range. She didn’t finish her first project, and her second was a bit better. As we launched into 20Time in August, I was hopeful that the freedom she had to choose would become motivating. It worked for a while, but the twice-monthly blogs became an issue. Then the lack of interest and motivation spread to our regular language arts work, and completing any kind of written work became a challenge. It took some prodding from her mom and me to get work completed. Given this history, I was really curious about what she would share in her presentation.

She was really honest in her presentation. She readily admitted that blogs were a problem. Her topic was a study of musical terms and the development of instruments across centuries. While still interested in this, she also confessed that her attention span on anything isn’t really better than that of a goldfish. She talked about how she had actually finished, but then she raised this question about her final project:

“Is this what I wanted, or have I settled?”

What a powerful, reflective question this seventh grader asked of herself. Her presentation revealed mixed feelings. Yes, she completed what she set out to do, but she could have done better, and she knows it.

As a teacher of gifted children, I find situations like hers to be especially challenging. She is actively involved in our class in school; she participates in our small group work, makes insightful comments in class discussion, and is usually pretty energetic and eager to be in class. When it comes to the written work, it’s a different story. This winter, when she was far behind and at risk of failing the class for the grading period, I asked her directly, “Do you really want to be here, in this class?” Her answer was an emphatic “Yes!” So somehow there is a disconnect between what we do in class and the written work I’m assigning. When I consider how I’ve approached her and her needs, I have to echo her own question:  “Is this what I wanted, or have I settled?”

How do I get her more engaged and motivated by our written work? Do I settle for that tired line: “This is a language arts class, and you’re going to have to write. In life, we all have to do things we don’t want to do.” But that’s not really what I want. I want to spark a fire in her, one that reflects an understanding that writing is a powerful means of communication, and one worth developing. It takes time and energy, but it’s work worth doing.

How will I do this with her? I’m going to have to try something different next year. I don’t know what that is yet. I’m taking time this summer to read and see what options I might have for challenging situations like this.

What I do know is this:  I cannot settle. She deserves better from me.


  • LizPrather

    “Is this what I wanted, or have I settled?”


    I have two students in this exact same spot. Both my students are gifted writers and both embark on ambitious plans, but then begin to sabotage their work through procrastination and paralysis, and then they “settle” with something that they deem as less than their original (unwritten, idealized) idea. I’ve had to have the “perfect is the enemy of the good” conversation with them several times this year, and at least one of them has developed some strategy by which he avoids paralyzing dissatisfaction with his drafts.  The other student is so continually rushed and frustrated in her desire for perfection that she gives up altogether.  Good luck.

    • TriciaEbner

      Sabotage . . .

      such a great way to describe it, because that’s how it comes across. 

      I’ll share what I find and learn this summer that might help us help them overcome these challenges?

  • Joy Kirr

    7th Gr ELA

    This. This is my issue with #20time/GeniusHour. Those who just take the time I give them (as a gift?) and squander it, either "wondering what to do," or pretending to do something and not doing much of anything. Last year, one of my "gifted" students (who didn't make the program because he didn't WANT to) wrote to me in a reflection that "I have no project, no goals, because there is nothing I want to do. Not a thing. In my opinion, I would like to learn by the teacher, not on our own."

    This hurt my heart, so I met with a few Genius Hour "gurus" to chat about it. See this doc –> Tinyurl.com/GHScaffolding for our notes.

    I thought about your example, however, and wondered this… what if that student, instead of writing, posted vlogs? Podcasts? Then you'll be getting her thoughts, she'll be reflecting, and the physical act of writing (or typing) would be one hurdle she doesn't have to conquer? I find that sitting one-on-one with these students who are "just" settling helps tremendously, and maybe sitting with her and asking her about this option could spur on some motivation… who knows – maybe she'll become a YouTube sensation?!

    Another thought – 1. Students have learned to play the game of school, and when choice is too open, many will struggle with it. 2. Many students (who become adults) have no clue what their true passions are, and end up doing something they don't like in life. 3. Our school days can be very exhausting for students. Some might prefer to use this time we give them to relax, and some might even shut down. It's tough to be a student these days.

    I have no real answers – just wanted to weigh in! I've been on CTQ for a bit now, and finally found something to which I felt I could contribute! Thank you for writing about "settling." It makes me sing this morning, too! (Sugarland – "Settlin') We are NOT settling. We are trying to tweak each year, depending on each student, and we will keep trying! 😉

    • TriciaEbner

      Great ideas!

      The vlogs or podcasts are an interesting option–I’ll have to look at how we can sort that out on the tech side (which shouldn’t be hard), but I like that idea. It’s not so much the MODE of documenting progress, but more the need to document what’s happening, reflecting on it, and so on.

      We were  trying to keep our blogging “in house” last year, using a secure system within our intranet in our school district, and that became really challenging because of some technical issues. I’m changing it up this year and moving to a web-based system that will be much simpler for everyone. So hopefully that will help . . . but I don’t think that alone was this student’s difficulty.

      Thanks for the food for thought! I appreciate it. 

  • BriannaCrowley

    Expanding Beyond Written Text

    I want to echo some of the great thoughts Joy had about alternatives. Perhaps, this particular student needs the option to tell stories and express ideas in a different (yet potentially even more complex!) way. 

    When I think about why we English teachers emphasize writing, it’s because writing forces us to do the following:

    • prioritize important ideas and support them with logical reasoning or emotional appeals
    • organize thoughts in a way that helps our audience connect with them
    • choose our words and phrases based on our purpose and audience
    • expand our vocabulary by finding ways to express similar ideas with nuanced terms
    • demonstrate agency through spreading ideas

    All of these skills could also be demonstrated through a story board that eventually turns into a video project like this one. The storyboarding chunks ideas into smaller text (not so intimidating as an essay) while still forcing a student to choose words wisely, organize ideas, transition smoothly, support with details, and think about audience and purpose. Additionally, the student has to use inflection, pauses, and visual literacy to convey the message. Could this be a viable alternative to the writing? 

    I love the idea of Vlogs, podcasts, infographics, digital posters, or even ThingLink to provide alternative avenues for the skills of writing you are trying to instill. Perhaps each student MUST complete 2 essays in a traditional written text, but then can choose from a list of other options for the rest of their assignments? Maybe if this student felt a compromise, she would have more motivation. 

    I haven’t taken the dive into 20% or passion projects yet, but I’m considering how it may work in my upcoming year. Glad to know I have some veterans here in the Collab to help me through!

    • TriciaEbner

      Great ideas . . .

      Infographics and digital posters are also great ideas–going to keep these in mind, and not just for our 20Time work but other things we do, too. One of the beauties of 20Time is that the essay piece really isn’t necessarily part of it at all, unless students want it to be. The regular blogging is meant to be a reflective component, so it’s not just a “diary” listing of what is happening with the project, though that can be a piece of it. The students who seemed to do take their blogs beyond basic “This week, I did . . .” and do some reflection really got the most out of their blogs. Right now I’m reading a book about 20Time/Genius Hour, so hopefully I’ll get some more ideas there, too. 🙂 And happy to share and cheer you on, too!