People talk about a moment that changes your life. It’s usually dramatic and leads to a shift in reality, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be so abrupt to lead to change. For me, I was watching a musical with my mother at the Mater Dei High School in Chula Vista. I was an 8th grader at the time and going through adolescent angst about the prospects of high school. We started a conversation with a gentleman behind us and one thing led to another before he recommended I attend a school called High Tech High Chula Vista (HTHCV). I remember him saying, “Your daughter will love it.” That brief interaction was a moment that changed my life. I remember hearing about the school and feeling an electricity spark within me. After attending the play, I did research about HTHCV and the electricity powered through me, making me excited at the idea that I could attend a school that was so engaging and meaningful and different from the rest. I filled out an application on my own and dragged my parents to an information session they held at the high school. On August 30th, 2011 I started my first day as a freshman at HTHCV. I was so excited, I wore this pink and white dress and a black blazer to look professional. The other students at the school mistook me for a teacher. Now, so many years later, I am a teacher at High Tech Elementary Explorer. That same electricity hums through me now…
I start my mornings off by singing in the car with a microphone. I figure if I can be a rock star during my 30 minute commute to work, I will be energized, zesty, and invigorating for the kids. Sometimes it works. After all, performing on stage in front of thousands of cheering fans is not much different from teaching a room full of 4th grade students.
Then I arrive at school and the daydreamed ambiance of off-key pitches and mumbled lyrics I don’t actually know fades into the background. Still, an electricity only rock stars and teachers have fuels my ego and passion as I start the day.
Today, we are going to finally drop our egg carriers off the top steps of the school to see if our eggs can survive the dangerous fall. Students have been researching, designing, prototyping, and creating egg carriers to land their fragile eggs safely to ground.
It’s not about the eggs, though. It never is. As eggscellent as the egg challenge is, the purpose of this experiment is rooted in the essential question, “How does our brain help us solve problems?” I wanted my students to grapple with challenges, to critically and creatively think about solutions, but most importantly to learn the difference between failure and quitting.
So here we are, all of our eggs in one basket (pun intended), with sweaty palms and jittery energy to see if maybe just maybe our eggs will survive. I gather the students outside and climb the steps with each group one by one and drop their egg carriers. The students wince as each carrier lands with a thud and they eagerly await to see if their egg survived.
I bring the students back into the class and we gather on the carpet. I open up each egg carrier one by one to reveal an unbroken egg. The students cheer and we repeat this pattern until we get to the last egg carrier.
The last egg carrier was designed by a single student. He opted out of working with a group. Since the start of school, I have only heard this student’s voice once during a reading assessment. He has not, to this day, spoken to me or his peers in class.
I open up his egg carrier and my heart sinks to see yellow yolk dripping down. I look up to find him, but he’s retreated into the corner of the room. It’s hard to know what he’s thinking or feels when he doesn’t speak to me. So I bring our message notebook over and write to him instead.
As we pass the notebook back and forth, we fill it with questions, sentence starters, sketches, feeling scales, and repetitive prompting. After an hour, I learn he’s feeling mad and sad because his egg broke and he doesn’t want to try again. I ask him if he thinks failing is equal to giving up or to the egg breaking. He circles “giving up.” I ask him what makes him more sad; giving up or the egg breaking? He circles the “egg breaking.” He is adamant about not wanting to try again. I am even more adamant in insisting that he does.
After all, this was the essential question. This was a moment I knew students would have when designing egg carriers. I knew challenges would arise, I wanted to equip students with tools and skills necessary to help them overcome challenges. I wanted students to adopt a growth mindset and at this moment I was willing it out of him to no avail.
There’s this song called, “Home Sweet Home”, by the legendary rock stars Mötley Crüe. In the song it says,
You know that I’ve seen
Too many romantic dreams
Up in lights, falling off the silver screen
My heart’s like an open book
For the whole world to read
Sometime nothing keeps me together at the seams
I’m on my way
I’m on my way
Home sweet home
This song was playing in my head during my interaction with this student. I was filling my head with romantic notions about idealistic goals for this student: that he would talk to me one day, that he would sit with us during morning meeting circles, that by the end of this year he’d engage with our class community. I felt that my heart was an open book and this student could read my thoughts and desires clearly. These ideas were supposed to bind our relationship, but like in the song, it appeared like nothing was keeping the seams together. I was trying to serenade him into the idea that this class, or at least I, could be a home sweet home.
Multiple times throughout the day I ask myself if it’s worth it. Is it worth working with this one student over the other twenty-one students? Is it the right call to push him so hard? Is it worth it? Sometimes it’s not and that’s okay, but sometimes it is and this moment was the golden egg. If this student didn’t try re-designing the egg carrier, I was afraid of how he would respond when faced with a challenging math problem or a difficult reading passage. What would he do when he had a conflict with another student or when he wasn’t having his needs met?
It’s really not about the egg, it never is. It’s about the challenge and the growth that comes with struggle. So I pushed and I pushed hard. I told him he could take a break, we looked at other egg carrier models and pointed out similarities and differences between his design and others, and then I told him he had to do it. There wasn’t a choice.
After silent tears and whispered resistance, I found him working on his egg carrier again. He added a parachute and switched the padding for a lighter material. When he was ready we dropped the egg carrier a second time.
This was it: another rock star moment.
Stage lights shine down on us, the crowd cheers in the background, the rhythm guitarist starts strumming, and the tempo begins to pick up. Our hearts beat quickly to the drums as the egg carrier leaves my hands and heads down to earth. It lands with a thud.
We check the egg: a smooth, white oval, completely intact.
Our fans go wild, cheering in the background. Success rattles in our bodies, but growth blossoms in our minds. Mötley Crüe starts their chorus in the background, and I hear Vince Neil’s voice sing, “Home sweet home.”
Afterwards, I asked the student to write about his experience from start to finish. He opened his piece with the words “I’m happy…” I don’t have the words to describe how it felt to read that. To have a student in front of you who is experiencing complete defeat is heartbreaking. To endure that and still overcome the challenge is exhilarating, a rock star moment at its finest. He still wasn’t actually talking to me, but for that brief moment we were on stage together performing, singing our songs, microphones in our hands so our voices were heard.