This is Not a History Lesson
Updated: Jun 20, 2020
In education we sometimes think content and skill-building are the two most important aspects of our work. More often, it’s about connection.
Victor’s classmates tried to be patient with him but couldn’t abide dinosaur screeches during basketball. His teachers were equally frustrated. Victor accepted each assignment without protest and then refused to do them. As the weeks of the new school year wore on, Victor began withdrawing from social interactions and was expressing violent thoughts. I was the dean of students and knew what was developmentally appropriate for a ten-year-old. I was deeply concerned about Victor. There must be a solution that could bring him back to learning. But what was it?
Enter Mr. Chen, Victor’s thoughtful and creative history teacher. And enter, Project X, one of Mr. Chen’s finest curricular creations.
Leaning against his desk, Mr. Chen gave directions to the class. “For Project X, each of you will pick a person, topic, or event in history and you’ll show me what you’ve learned however you’d like―reports, models, songs, whatever. You’ll do your work at school and you may not work together.” Victor waited patiently, hand raised, while his classmates asked when the assignment was due and could they work in pairs. Mr Chen was surprised to see Victor's hand. Breaking a smile, he called on Victor. “I’d like to make a movie describing the battle tactics of the Roman army, and I have a stop motion animation station set up in my room. Would it be okay to do some of the work at home?”
Other teachers wondered and worried. How would Mr. Chen keep his students on task and ensure “rigor” with everyone doing something different? When I shared that same wonder and worry with Mr. Chen, he comforted me with a gentle pat on my shoulder. “Don’t worry, Markus. This is the best work they’ll do for me this year.”
Mr. Chen met with each student weekly to provide guidance and encouragement. The students went to work on research, taking notes, creating graphic novels, directing dramatic performances, writing research papers, and building 3D models. They stayed on task because they were interested in what they were learning. When the due date arrived, Victor made good on his plan to create a stop motion animation on Roman battle tactics. Historically accurate and masterfully shot, Victor revealed a considerable intellect and demonstrated an impressive work ethic. This project was a personal invitation and Victor showed up.
Mr. Chen’s student-authored project forever changed my understanding of education. He understood that children are naturally curious and motivated to learn about topics of interest. He personalized skill-building and made suggestions to fit individual need. He modeled that education should feature curricula fueled by a perpetual cycle of research, observation, dialogue, and reflection. To borrow from the ancient world that Victor explored, education as I had known it was a Sisyphean nightmare; education was a rock when it should have been a rocket.
This is the second blog in a three part series honoring teachers.
Markus Hunt is an educator, writer, speaker, and musician living in Aurora, Colorado.