As one of my eighth graders gave his 20Time presentation, he shared an observation that struck me to the core. His words have prompted me to reflect on how I can change our work so we can include more of what he and his classmates crave. Changing this may be one of the most important decisions I make for my students.

The past few days have been filled with my students’ presentations over their major projects. My students and I devoted nearly 20% of our time together to these projects, and we added many hours from our personal lives, too. The culmination of the project is the final presentation, where students address not only the project itself, but also their process and their learning throughout it. What they have shared has exceeded my expectations.

As they’ve spoken, certain parts of their speeches have jumped out, including this one:

Education and imagination don’t often go together.

The words came from one of my eighth grade boys, one I’ve taught for the past three years. He loves drama and eagerly participates in the school’s theatrical productions. In this moment, though, he wasn’t trying to be dramatic. He was simply sharing a reality he had observed, using that statement as a way of expressing his excitement over being able to study filmmaking for a school project.

Those words, though, pierced me.

He’s right, absolutely right. In fact, I shared what he said with several of my colleagues. All of them nodded. While I’ve known that’s the case, what really hit me was the matter-of-fact way he said it.

I need to change this in my classroom. In my efforts to ensure my students are fully prepared for the challenges of high school, I’ve focused on literary analysis and crafting well-organized, strongly-worded essays. I’ve allowed this work to crowd out the creative, imaginative work. And that’s a mistake.

What excited this student was that from beginning to end, the project was his to craft and mold and change. His original plan was a full-length feature film. While that has been modified, he still used his imagination to craft his script, direct his cast, and begin his filming. He owned the project, the entire project, and he could use his imagination in ways that we don’t foster and encourage very much these days.

His classmates have used imagination in that way, too. One girl used imagination to craft jump liners that would help encourage her horse to go over the jumps, rather than duck out to the side. Another imagined what it might be like to cook a variety of dishes and ultimately create his own unique, signature recipe. My list could go on and on. In just about every single case, my students used their imaginations.

Interestingly, those few who originally set out to research something and then write a paper on it changed their projects. In just about every instance, they dropped writing the paper. As one said, “It felt too much like school, and that’s not what I wanted.”

Whether or not my eighth grade boy realizes it, he’s presented me with a challenge: Integrate more imagination, true imagination, into our work. To help foster a lifelong love of learning, it’s critical. One of the joys in learning comes when imagination and education do exist together in the same space, and I am responsible for fostering this as much as I possibly can.

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