Yesterday was grad project day at my school. On this in-service day every year our seniors come in to present for evaluation their senior projects. It is, for many of us on staff, one of the best days of the year.
Pennsylvania installed a graduation project requirement years ago, leaving every school free to decide what their local version would be. Some required every student to write a paper (and the English department to grade all of them-- thanks a lot), some required a service project, and some incorporated the project into classwork students were already taking.
We took a different approach, allowing students to select from five different types of projects-- everything from a career research project to service project to building a cabinet to performing an original work. The project is student chosen, and as you might imagine, some students choose more wisely than others. But as I tell them at their project kick-off meeting, if the project is a waste of their time, they have nobody to blame but themselves. This is one time that a major element of their school career is based on what they value, not on what the school values. If you want to see all the nuts and bolts, follow the link at the bottom of this page (please excuse the comic sans).
Do some students half-ass it, or create some desultory bland project? Sure. But we also see so many awesome things on this day. Numerous beautiful pieces of cabinetry. An album of photographs. the models our students with hair and make-up by the photographer. A home-built log-splitter. A delicious meal. A refurbished game room for children staying at a battered women's shelter. A student weeping as she tells the story of going to Puerto Rico to meet her extended family. A student explaining the training he goes through to be a volunteer fireman, and what he thinks about going into a burning building to rescue a person.
Every grad project day reminds me that our students are so much more than the handful of classes that we teach, and that when they are allowed to display their competencies on their own terms (and those competencies fall outside "sit in desk for forty-five minute increments all day"), the vast majority of them turn out to be pretty great people. They are passionate about stuff-- it's just not all stuff that has a direct and clear connection to classroom and School Stuff.
We complain that the Big Standardized Tests measure just a small sliver of what we do in schools, and we are right to do so. In fact, the meagerness of BS Tests is doubly inadequate, because these students live lives so much bigger than the small sliver of existence that we deal with in school.
We are also right to complain about the narrowing of school under the reformster regime, reducing education to a narrow path for narrow purposes. That has happened, and it's not a good thing-- not for students, schools, or the nation.
But let's be honest. Public education in this country has always flirted with the narrow path, the idea that what we could fit within our school walls was a complete and sufficient view of life and the world and what it means to be fully human in that world. The architects of Common Core and NCLB did not try to take education in a completely new direction; we've been dallying at the trailhead of the narrow path for-- well, forever.
What we see on grad project day is that there are so many and varied versions of success, and that, in many cases, we would never have seen them in our classrooms. Grad project day always prompts me to reflect, to remind myself that part of my obligation as a teacher is to make sure that the path through my classroom is as broad as I can make it, to make sure that I have left as much space as I can for the full range of who my students are and who they aspire to be. There is so much to see and do, and the view from the narrow path is so limited and restrictive.