On the day of our second school-wide exhibition last year, a student’s words nearly broke my heart. I heard them secondhand and I am glad I did or they might have done even worse damage. “Will you call home and tell my mom that I’ve been suspended so that she will come to my exhibition?” The tactic, by the way, did not work. No one lied to a parent in order to deceive her into celebrating her son’s work. The parent didn’t arrive unannounced. He still had a great exhibition, but was it enough?
My instinct was to place the educational value on the exhibition and to dread how other factors negatively impact particular students. I realize, however, that I was missing a key component. Yes, exhibition matters. Getting students to own their work and to rise to the challenge of explaining the process to an unexpected visitor can transform the learning experience and make the work more authentic. Having a specific audience in mind (particularly one encouraged to ask deeper questions about the work) also raises the bar, motivating students to create a higher quality product. Placing all the credit on a one-day exhibition, however, misses some key takeaways and learning opportunities.
For that same student and others, simply showing off the work had its purpose, yes, but it was extremely short-lived. The purpose was just to show off the work. Getting that work published (as they did with this particular narrative assignment) lasted a little longer but also would soon be stripped of its novelty.
My own emphasis on displaying the work led to lulls in productivity and a lack of ownership of students’ learning. Kids would do their best work when they began to explore their ideas early on and then again in the end when it was time to exhibit that work. In the spaces between, old habits thrived. Work was done quickly and sometimes shoddily. Collaboration was minimal. In those middle stages, the purpose was missing. No matter how much I thought they would look forward to showing off the work, getting that work ready wasn’t essential until the moment seemed inevitably near.
In the midst of this same long-term narrative assignment, however, there were some glimpses of real purpose. I think particularly of a student whose essay brought others to tears when she read it out loud. She had put her best efforts into her work before this point, but her purpose was simple: she wanted a good grade. Seeing how others responded to her work and seeing that it then meant they all wanted her help in editing their own papers gave her a sense of purpose that didn’t exist until then. Despite being typically reserved and apt to work on her own rather than in a group, she opened up to others and wanted to see how they could help her make her writing piece even stronger and she delighted in explaining why she thought her essay might have been so powerful in the first place. She went from simply telling her story to knowing that her story mattered and could matter even more. It was inspiring the work of her peers, and that gave her greater purpose. For that student, the audience gave her work meaning. Having someone there to celebrate her work helped her reflect on the experience and to value her process.
Imagine if all students had an audience like this to whom they could turn through the entire process of a long-term project or course unit. My student whose mother couldn’t be there to celebrate his work would now have someone who was going to see his writing not just at the end but as it developed; this audience would be invested in how the writing piece and its author were transformed. The student who became an inspiration for others’ writing could push herself to even greater heights with an expert author to turn to who made her see a process developed by years of practice and critique.
It is this exact reason that led me to repeat this same narrative project this school year. I looked back at the successes and the regrets of the first attempt at this project, and I wondered how even small changes could develop a more sustained audience for students. I knew that students often had a very limited audience and that this audience of one—their teacher—was also in charge of their grades. They were limited in how they took risks because of this, and they subsequently limited the heights they might reach.
This school year, each student completing this project takes on two roles: first as a contributing editor (or author) to the book we will publish and secondly as a member of a team preparing our book for publication. By simply adding this structure, students became more accountable to one another; there was always an audience for the work, and that audience’s goals could shift. One moment the focus would be on celebration and the next it was on critical feedback. In addition, students know there is an outside audience in mind, and it fuels me as a teacher to seek those opportunities to get them in touch (in person) with the type of audience members they need to consider.
In the end, though, this work will be exhibited in much the same way. As I near the end of this project, I have let worry seep in. I struggle with the anxiety that someone might have slipped through the cracks of this process and will maybe come alive for a single-night exhibition but won’t have the same rich experience of learning.
What keeps me certain that this is less likely, however, is that I’ve focused not just on purpose in the beginning or audience in the middle, and I know that I won’t be focused just on showing off the work in the end. What has kept the whole process moving is the idea of purpose. Every step of the way, my students and I have made sure that we’re asking the most important question: why?
So far, this simple focus has served the learning well. I have my purpose behind assigning these narratives, and I have another purpose for getting the book published. What I’m finding, though, is that my purpose pales in comparison to the multiple purposes the students find on their own.
By providing them with a structure for their work and in using an audience to drive the process, this unit of class opened up an opportunity for students to determine the why behind each step of the process. They began their narratives knowing why they wanted to dig deep into those memories, but they did so in part because time was intentionally taken to question why these narratives might matter. They continued to revise and were challenged by both peers and outside experts (and discovered the opportunity to challenge all participants in our process), and it was planned for us to take time to determine why we should share this work with others and for what purpose. Now, as students make key decisions about which narratives will and will not be published, the purpose changes.
In the end, as an educator, I know that some purposes are important; I want to set high expectations for students and prepare them for their future. That hasn’t changed, but I realize that it also meant that I oversimplified the roadblocks that got in the way. I was heartbroken when my student wanted his mom to come to exhibition so badly he was willing to lie to her. My mistake was that I (unintentionally) was just saddened by the circumstance when I should have realized a more crucial mistake. I realize it now. The exhibition still mattered because that student had a sense of purpose throughout the entire process. For other students, I hadn’t offered that same opportunity. I was the absent adult figure missing out on a chance to see how they could shine.
As an educator, I’ve learned better how to reach students. As with most things, the answer is simple but the reflection can be hard to endure. Rather than focus on shortcomings, though, I move forward with a new purpose and I look forward to every opportunity for students to seek their own purpose in learning.