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.