My Students Rock

I’m so excited about a project that my students have spent the entire semester working on, so I wanted to take  a moment to brag on my kids.

The idea comes from a project that I saw at Lawrence High School last December. While the purpose and design of our respective projects are fundamentally different, the structure of that project and this one are very similar. The LHS teacher’s name is Sue Donnelly, and she gets credit as the inspiration for the project.

The Anthology Portfolio Project

The project started on the first day back from winter break in January. We started by listing all of the great questions of the universe such as “what is my purpose in life?” and “how can we make others truly happy?” and “is fate predetermined?”. Every student was required to design one perfectly worded question that intrigued them the most. They were also required to construct four or five corollary questions that surrounded their thematic question. So, for example, the student who wanted to know “why do some people reject God?” might also ask “what does it mean to be a skeptic?” and “how can I be sure that my beliefs are correct?”.  The students worked closely with their parents to create their question, and the parents had to sign off on the thematic and corollary questions.

From the onset, our goal was never to answer the question, but rather to discover an answer that we can be at peace with for now.

Once students had selected their question, we started our journey by selecting novels, short stories, poems, non-fiction, and other literary pieces (the librarians were a tremendous help in this process).  Each piece was hand-picked by the student for its theme, reading level, and style.  Each piece also offered an author’s perspective on the student’s thematic question. The student who chose rebellion read the novel Catcher in the Rye. The student who asked about inner beauty read the non-fiction book Reviving Ophelia. Yet another student who wanted to define love read Edward Taylor’s poems “Preparatory Meditations”.

Each piece of literature became an abstract conversation between the student and the author. The student asks, the author answers with a plot twist or character development. The student reflects and asks again. The author offers symbols and metaphors. The student asks once more, and the author offers a climax and a resolution. Each piece is a textbook; an emotional map of some intellectual landscape.  

At the conclusion of each literary piece, each student wrote a formal academic essay that included MLA citations, research, and a literary analysis. They also wrote a thematic discovery essay at the start of the unit, a final response essay at the end of the unit, and a synthesis interview essay (in which they interviewed several adults and examined themes, trends, and departures in their respondents’ answers). The even wrote several creative pieces of their own such as slam poetry and poetic responses. We also read and wrote a literary analysis of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  By the end of the project, students had each written eight process papers (a process paper includes all stages of the writing process such as outline, rough draft, etc). They had also read quite a bit as well.

If you think that’s a lot of writing, imagine all the grading! Seventy-five kids. Eight papers. Each one graded twice – the final draft, and then mandatory revisions. Every paper had to be perfect. Each one about three pages. That’s about 1,200 papers, with each one getting about 5-6 sentences of feedback. It’s also about 3,600 pages of careful editing for commas, spelling, organization, and MLA citations.

And it was all worth it, because in about two weeks, the kids are going to present their Anthologies to one adult in their life with whom they’d like to share this journey.

As I write this, I’m certain than more than half of my kids are working furiously to put finishing touches on their papers – or on the portfolio itself. A three ring binder decorated and designed like no other project the student has ever completed; a flawless treasure of hot glue, construction paper, decals, sheet protectors, stenciling, and hand-crafted lettering. Inside is a perfect copy of each page of each paper. Also included is every page of every rough draft; every page that I’ve edited and marked on.

The students know that they will someday unpack this project as they return from college, or move into their first home; or after a death or a birth or a marriage – some event that always requires us to get our hands dusty with memories. It will stay in their parent’s basement, packed away in some random box until fate is ready to return it to them. They are creating an emotional time capsule, and they want their future selves to be so very proud of who they are today.

In twelve years of teaching, I’ve never seen my students so excited about creating something with such intensity and precision. To hear them talk, they are each creating the Sistine Chapel, only not nearly so sloppily as the hand of Michelangelo himself did create.

And this is why I’m so incredibly proud of my students. At the start of the project, they all recoiled in horror at the thought of so much reading and writing. Now, they are more excited about this project than any other one they can remember.

On the evenings of Monday, May 18th and Tuesday, May 19th (we must split ourselves into two equal evenings), we will gather to present our Anthology Projects. Every student has written a formal letter of invitation to their guest. Most guests are parents, many others are youth leaders, adult mentors, teachers, and even a couple of Boy Scout pack leaders. Each student will bring some food or drink to share with everyone, and two of our students have agreed to provide some entertainment: one will play the piano at the start of the evening, one will read an incredible poem that she has written.

Then, for about 40 minutes, every student will share his or her Anthology Portfolio with his or her guest. Together, they will recreate the journey and ask questions of each other, and use the literature and the student’s writing as a springboard for bigger, more important conversations. They will talk as equals, not as adult and child or mother and son.

While I know it won’t be a perfect evening, and there will be mess-ups and last minute problem-solving, I also know that this could be the most wonderful night of my teaching career!


One response to “My Students Rock

  1. Josh,
    Fantastic! I like your having the kids raise questions. Cool. Lots of hard work, yes–students, teachers, parents–it’s worth it, but oh so consuming 🙂 The genuine feedback as you know has to be there and I know no shortcuts in that department. I received inspiration for a good portion of this project from Carol Bland, former LHS teacher and colleague. The invitation to share conversations based on explored readings is always rewarding. Good luck with your event. I know it will be fun and memorable for the kids and their guests. sue

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