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“Feel” and “Create” Your Way to an A

Not long before Thanksgiving, my seventh and eighth grade students handed in their completed photography movie projects.  Actually, it would be more accurate to say that, in a frenzied flurry of activity, culminating in all but one of my eighty-five upper level students handing in their movies, artistic expression took on a life of its own for many kids at my school.  I can’t really take credit for what took place.  I just showed them some types of basic shots and gave them a list of requirements for their movies.  The kids really took the ball and ran with it.

Boy taking picture with digital cameraThere were several success stories of students who don’t typically rank as high achievers getting A- or better on their movies.  That really warmed my heart.  But what almost had me in tears only a mother could cry, was Jake’s movie.  Jake* is dyslexic.  Plenty of stuff is a struggle for him academically.  His parents are very supportive, and our staff does what we can to accommodate his needs so he can demonstrate mastery of content.  He had done somewhat poorly on his previous project for me, partly because he was not asking for help during class.  On the photography project, he spoke to me plenty of times.  But he’s actually a really able kid (as most dyslexics are) and quite charming.

Not only were his photographs very good, his reflective video self-interview at the end was cheerful, very well-spoken, and just darn cute.  When I finished grading his movie, I had tears of joy in my eyes as I wrote the full points and A+ at the bottom of the grading sheet.  I was hanging on to those grading sheets for parent conferences, so I would have them close at hand to answer any questions that might come up.  But when Jake was in my lab with another teacher recently, I whispered to him, showed him the grade, and gave him a thumbs-up.  We both had ear-to-ear grins.  And again, I almost got teary-eyed.

I’m not just a teacher; I am also a Mom.  Now that my son is in first grade and faces struggles of his own with school stuff, I get a little sense of how parents of kids with learning differences feel.  Ever since I had my son almost seven years ago, each child is now, in my eyes, some other parent’s son or daughter.  I know how hard Jake worked, and I know how important it was to him – and his parents – that he see some success as a reward for all his effort.  I’m hoping that this dance with an A+ in the pale moonlight entices him to keep up all that hard work and believe in his ability to be successful.  Success isn’t always an A+.  Especially for kids who learn differently.  Grades are such an unfair measure of children and their immeasurable worth.  But this project was a long one, with many stages and tasks to accomplish.  And Jake stuck through it and came out shining.

Flowers up closeMaybe it was the departure from pen-and-paper, objective-test-style assessment.  Projects – especially creative endeavors that allow kids choices and a chance to express themselves – teach kids so much more than the content.  Sure, this project was about elements of photography and using Windows Movie Maker.  But it was also about time management, aesthetic principles, perseverance, and knowing when to ask for help (from the teacher, peers, a parent).  It was about learning more from your mistakes than your victories, trial and error, and having to start from scratch at least once during the project.  It was about trying new things and watching someone else struggle so you’d be able to do it right yourself.  It was about asking others’ opinions of your artwork, helping a classmate pick the right shot for a category, and blushing a little when the teacher gushed over your pictures because they looked so professional.  For one kid, it was about learning the hard way about plagiarism and fair use.  For another, it was about never getting past the early stages (or ever handing the project in) because he wasn’t willing to ask someone to help him get the pictures off his camera.

Projects allow us to learn the kinds of lessons that will prepare us for what life throws our way.  When was the last time your boss, your kid, or your co-worker asked you to pass a quiz or fill in a bubble on a sheet with a number two pencil?  No beaming smile on the face of a kid like Jake ever came from a quiz it took five minutes to take.  Smiles that big take a whole month of effort to build up.  Great job, Jake.

*Student name changed to respect privacy.

Both photographs were taken by, and are property of the author of this blog post.

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