It’s that time of year when elementary aged children get assignments to create projects for one or more of their classes. I have mixed views on such things because I always loved the creative aspects of those types of requirements. I think that I have always been a bit of an artist at heart. I enjoyed doing the research and I’ve always had a knack for writing. Projects were always fun for me but I wonder how I might have done in today’s world given that my family had a very tight budget to say the least.
I suspect that my past efforts may have lacked the style that some teachers seem to expect in the present. My illustrations would have been handmade because I can’t imagine my mother finding enough extra cash to purchase a computer, a color printer, and the paper and ink to make the photos look as lovely as they now need to be for such efforts. Any additional materials would have had to come from what already existed in our home. I became quite adept at turning boxes and milk cartons into fantastical creations. Sticks and stones from the yard were my logs and mountains. My completed projects almost always had my childish signature on them. It was obvious that I had done them by myself and without spending funds that my mother didn’t have. The teachers were always content with my submissions because they wanted to see my work, not that of an adult.
Over time the rubrics for projects have become more and more complex and create situations in which it is more likely that parents will have to help more than they should. When my niece was in the fourth grade her teacher sent home a long letter outlining the directions for completing a history quilt. My brother was dumbfounded because the requirements made so many assumptions about the resources and talents available to the children. He wanted to protest but his little girl didn’t want to make a scene. In the end the finished product that she presented to her teacher was quite lovely mostly because my mother came to the rescue and did all of the sewing.
My brother steadfastly maintained his contention that the assignment was ridiculous. He noted that it had little academic merit and that for some students it was an impossibly difficult task given that he had to spend a great deal of money on supplies. The fact that his mother had to save the day with her skills as a seamstress only further emphasized that the whole idea was just wrong.
I spent much of my time as an educator in schools with a high percentage of students whose economic situations were often dire. It always baffled me that some of the teachers appeared to be clueless as to the spending restrictions that their pupils had. I was the subject of their ire when I printed papers and illustrations for such students because there were supposed to be hard and fast rules prohibiting the kids from using the teacher machines. I kept calm and did what I believe to be right because I understood that so many of our pupils literally had no access to technology in their homes. Their buses usually arrived just as classes were starting and left as soon as school was dismissed so they had no time to visit the computer lab. I often wondered what the poor souls were supposed to do.
I also knew from carefully guarded conversations with so many students that many of them had less than academically friendly environments in their homes. Often their parents worked in the evenings and they were in charge of feeding and caring for their younger siblings. The worst case of this that I ever encountered involved a fourth grade student of mine who watched his second grade sister while his single parent mom worked all night long. One evening while his sister was playing outside she was molested by a neighbor. The boy’s mother ultimately blamed the boy for the tragedy. Ultimately CPS got involved but the family’s problems were far from being resolved. Needless to say my student was an emotional wreck and most of his homework assignments were left undone. I always considered his unique situation when grading and did my best to give him time to work in class whenever possible.
Because my own life I understood that most children are rarely going to admit to having less than perfect home situations. I remember being embarrassed to tell people that my father was dead. I always found excuses for avoiding situations that would require me to spend money that I knew that my mother didn’t have. I was happy that we had to wear uniforms at my school. That way nobody ever guessed that I had only a few changes of clothing or that I was a scholarship kid. I preferred living under the radar and luckily none of my teachers ever put me in the position of being unable to complete the requirements for their classes simply because my home was not equipped with boundless assets.
A few days ago my youngest grandson’s teacher sent an email to parents outlining a major project that the students will be required to do in the coming weeks. She wisely created a rubric and even included a photograph of what she considered to be an example of an excellent final product. It is easy to imagine that the aforementioned work was done by a commercial artist or perhaps an architect but it would be a stretch of the imagination to believe that a child completed the intricate details on his/her own. That doesn’t even take into account the expense. I found myself wondering what the teacher was thinking when she made such an assignment because as far as I was able to see it is an arts and crafts project that greatly favors students and parents who have the time, money, and talents to pour into such an activity.
I wish that all teachers would be more aware. I know many educators who understand that not all of their students enjoy the same level of economic comfort. They provide countless opportunities for their pupils to use school technology, materials, and time. They base grades mostly on content and creativity rather than on the beauty of the final product. They peer deeply into student submissions and find genius even in homely surroundings.
I have a nephew who is brilliant. I used to call him Leonardo, as in “da Vinci.” He is as gifted as any soul that I have ever known. In high school he entered a project into the school math/science fair. I honestly still don’t know exactly what he did. His topic was too far over my head but it had something to do with a particularly esoteric mathematical theory. His research was so incredible that most of the judges at his school had little idea how good it was. His poster appeared to have been thrown together by a fourth or fifth grader. Still, a couple of NASA engineers saw something exciting in his work. He ranked high enough that when a couple of kids decided not to take their projects to the Greater Houston Math Science and Engineering Fair he earned a slot. His teacher helped him to make his backer board a bit more attractive and he was on his way.
His wasn’t the loveliest display among the hundreds of hopefuls at the event but when it came to explaining the crux of his work it became apparent to the judges that he was on the cusp of defining a whole new arena of mathematics. He was awarded the Grand Prize for that year and eventually went on to both the state and national competitions. Ironically the teachers at his school had almost missed the point of his research simply because his poster was not as elegant as they thought it should be.
Projects are fine as long as the grading system doesn’t demand too much beyond what the students have readily available. The content and knowledge should always outweigh the attractiveness. If a display appears to be the highly advanced work of an adult, it probably is. Look beneath the facade. You may be dazzled.