Teachers: have you ever decided to do a lesson, and it just explodes into a different beast than you’re expecting? Have you ever steered away from the Common Core and done something to drag your students out of the everyday content sludge? As a Special Education teacher, my curriculum is written by me for my students. This allows me the wiggle room to not just work on reading, writing, and math skills for their IEP goals but to dig into their social- emotional well-being.
Our students have been through so much over the past year, and I wanted to take some time away from the monotony of finding the central idea of a text or figuring out how to graph linear equations. I see my high schoolers drowning in notes, online videos, and Google Forms. The end of the year assessments are still a bit unknown at this point, and as we entered the third marking period, I pulled the plug for an entire week of content skills to work on an assignment where they were able to spread their creative wings.
I can’t take credit for creating the bones of the assignment. I found the structure of my assignment via Google in a desperate attempt to soothe my overloaded teacher brain (we’ve all done it). The assignment is called “About Me, By Me,” and if you Google it, you’ll end up with 1,420,000,000 results. You’re welcome. The essence of this lesson is to have your students create an autobiography. I know this might be something you would think to have them do at the beginning of the year to introduce themselves, but hold tight.
The lesson required them to come up with five adjectives they would use to describe themselves, and they had to explain why they chose the words they chose. They had to list important people in their lives and, again, explain why those people are important. Next, they had to list some of their strengths and some of their challenges.
Their final question was a deep one: what has been a defining moment in your life, and why was it so transformative?
After they completed the questions, they had the option to present their autobiographies in several ways: written report, oral report, podcast, vlog, or graphic novel. After demoing the lesson to many deer in headlights, I set them loose to spent two class periods on completing their four questions. It was not going well. As I wove around the room, I saw half-answered questions, words like “ok” to describe themselves, and “I’m perfect” where they were supposed to write their challenges. After trying to pump them up one last time, they chose their presentation style, and away we went…with one more day until presentations.
My Preconceived Notions
After teaching for eleven years and knowing some of my students for three of them, I had a good idea of what some of the answers would be. I teach teenagers, 10th and 12th graders, and many of their responses when I ask what they did last night/over the weekend/over break/over summer vacation are pretty similar: sleep and play video games. I also expected answers such as “my friends” to be the important people in their lives and “completing the final level of such and such video game” to be a defining moment in their lives.
After looking over their first round of answers, I was really concerned that this lesson was crashing into the ground. Most of my students opted for the written report to end the torture and not have to present their projects outwardly. What they didn’t know was that Friday was the day everyone would present, even the written reports, to their peers. I had forewarned them that they should choose answers they felt comfortable sharing with the class. Friday was finally here, and the sharing began. My students blew my mind.
What Happened When My Kids Spoke
I have three classes who completed this project. Each class ended with people in tears (myself included). This is why I mentioned at the beginning not to include this as a beginning of the year getting to know you a lesson. My classes are small and intimate, made up of students who feel safe around and supported by each other. The students had seven months to get to know one another. This is the only reason I truly believe that this lesson ended in the way it did.
When I announced to the students that they would present to the class, the grumbles began—even the students who completed the written report needed to read their reports to the class. The first student took to the front of the class, and in every class period, the same result happened: magic.
Question 1: What are five adjectives that describe you and why?
My students’ vocabulary to describe themselves didn’t include words like “tired” or “happy.” They used “lover of life,” “empathetic,” and “goal setter.” Where on earth did they come up with those?! Those were CERTAINLY not the words used when I was walking around a few days prior. Their rationale for those adjectives all came back to the same thing: Covid. Many of my students responded to the words that defined them as to how they see themselves after having lived a year through a global pandemic. They described themselves as survivors and fighters. They said they wouldn’t take opportunities for granted because of all they lost in the past year.
The conversation didn’t stop there. The presenters described (off-script) more about themselves and how they feel others see them. Without prompting, my other students in the audience began a dialogue with the presenter, telling him/her how they agreed and saw those attributes in that person. I was blown away by the beginning of the conversation that was happening without me facilitating. My students took the reins and moved to question two.
Question 2: Who are the important people in your lives and why?
I really thought I had this one figured out. My students would all tell me their friends were the most important people in their lives because they like hanging out with them. Again, I’m wrong. How am I so wrong on this one as well? Although friends made a list for some of my students, the most common important people in my student’s lives: their parents.
Way to go, Mom and Dad! Even though I’m sure it doesn’t feel like it, your teenagers believe you to be the most important people in their lives. My favorite reason was, “My mom is the most important person in my life because she is the glue that holds the family together. She makes all of us better, and I can’t imagine how I would have made it through all of this without her”. It’s fine; you can tear up a bit; I know I did!
Coming in at a close second place, which I did not expect at all: me. Not just me, but many of the students mentioned their teachers as important people in their lives. Now, it could have been an easy out as a way to appease my nagging to give me more than just one person, but their reasoning for seeing my colleagues and myself as important to them gave me another explosion to my heart.
My students identified that their teachers are important to them, not because of the grades they earn or the amount of work we do/do not give. We’re important to them because we talk to them about how they’re feeling. We give them chances (and sometimes a third and fourth chance) to make up their assignments. We remember their birthdays, ask about their animals, and give them opportunities to know us as people, not just teachers, and we get to know them as people, not just students.
Question 3: What are some of your strengths and challenges?
This question always stumps students. They can often answer what they’re good at, but they really struggle with their challenges. I was ready for several similar answers, such as being good at video games or eating, but this question took us in a direction I was not prepared for. Again, I believe a number of the answers reflected the experiences my students have had with Covid.
Their strengths did include subjects they enjoy and sports they are good at. They shared that they’re wonderful golfers and amazing at cartooning, but they also discussed that because of Covid, their work ethics have changed. They realize that, although they are strong in certain subjects at school or thought they really loved doing certain activities, now they feel like some of their strengths include “persevering when faced with obstacles” and “accepting help when I need it.” What amazing attributes to learn as a teenager! Some adults don’t know how to accept help or deal with obstacles.
The student’s challenges are what ended up blowing me away. As they discussed the things they were good at, I asked who had problems coming up with challenges, and not a single hand was raised. I was shocked; as most people struggle to come up with weaknesses or things they need to work on, my students became vulnerable in front of each other and shared their challenges.
One student shared that they (preferred pronoun) needed to work on not getting knocked down, but then when they get knocked back down, getting back up again and moving forward. When I asked them if they meant that they had literally been knocked down, their response was, “no, I mean figuratively. When things get tough, I just used to sit down and let it overtake me, now I don’t want totake it anymore, and I want to be stronger. I want to get back up and accomplish whatever it was that knocked me down”. Wow. To be able to identify that at 17 years old and share it with your classmates. I wish I were that brave when I was in high school.
Question 4: What has been a defining moment in my life, and why was it so transformative?
This is the one that got me. I’ll give you a second to grab some tissues…
Welcome back. I really thought (although by now, I should have had more faith in my students) that the defining moment in some of my student’s lives was going to be when they beat Final Fantasy 7 on their PS5s. Wrong again! Growing up, I was in a small town and went to a small school where the most scandalous thing was someone’s parents getting divorced. I now work in a large school, and although it is located in what is considered the suburbs, we have a large number of students who come from urban areas or live not what you would imagine being the typical suburban lifestyle. They have had to grow up dealing with things I can’t even imagine dealing with at their age.
These kids have been through so much. Although most of them have only lived 16 to 18 years, their defining moments broke each of us. I had a student tell the class about his homelessness in elementary school and how that impacted his appreciation of all he has now. I had a student talk about moving away from his family and friends to another state (where he currently lives) and how he has had to adjust to not only a new place and new people but trying to learn all of this through a pandemic. One student shared that a trip to Florida changed their life and made them realize that there’s so much more to the world than where they live and their desire to introduce their sister to the world.
Another student talked about being bullied and living with anxiety over the past few years and learning what he needs to be mentally well. He shared that he is who he is today because of the teachers and friends, and family who believed that he could be more than he thought he could be.
Why We Keep Going
It has been a tough year. Tough on students, tough on teachers, and tough on parents. I know there have been multiple days when I leave school with a pounding headache and frustration vibrating off my body. The thought of “if this is the way it is again next year, I don’t know that I have it in me again” has passed through my brain more than once, although I can honestly say I haven’t had that thought since doing this assignment with my kids. My students have taken on new personas in class since this assignment. We have a stronger teacher/student bond that gives us the confidence to move forward.
I will end with this: keep going. You don’t know the impact your actions are making on others. Ditch what you should be doing for a week (eh hem, common core curriculum. Try something to build a connection between you and your students (or child at home). Throw out the rule book for a week and do something to build those relationships. Believe me, your students will remember this, and you can teach that math lesson next week.
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