Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Projects: Past, Present, and Future

As a teacher, I totally "get" the idealistic thinking behind assigning projects to students. I completely understand the lofty goals that accompany the standard "Dear Parents" letter, detailing the project guidelines, due date, and scoring information.  After all, projects are authentic learning.  They give students choices.  They close the gap between home and school.  They are directly linked to standards.  The possibilities are endless when you truly unleash your little learners and say, "Go!  Be free and LEARN!!!"

As a student, I often shared my teachers' glorified visions of excellence.  I'm sure I secretly (or perhaps not so secretly) strived at times to be the best:  turn in the fanciest diorama, write the longest report, or build the biggest balsa wood Aztec dwelling.  I do not doubt that I (at least internally) wanted my speech to get the most laughs, my science fair project to win the blue ribbon, and my work to receive the highest honor.  I WANTED that 100/A+!

Now, enter phase two of my life...parenthood.  In many ways, projects are a curse.  They take over my life.  They cost money - money for which I had plans.  Plans that didn't include buying jiggly eyes and felt.  My evenings are quickly consumed by cracking the whip over BigGirl while repeatedly turning BabyGirl away.  Trips to libraries to hunt down juvenile nonfiction books.  Hours pouring over the internet researching the topic and sifting through websites looking for age-appropriate and applicable content.

However, projects as a parent aren't all bad.  With each project, I fall in love with BigGirl's love of learning all over again.  I am continually amazed by the wheels in her head.  Her inquisitive nature and knack for piecing together random knowledge with memories is unbelievable.  I love the time we spend together and, inevitably, I learn something new.  And, for that, I'm always a better person in the end.  It is during the hours of toiling away over these school projects that I am reassured - she will be OK.  She will succeed in this rat race of a world.  She will rise to the top like cream in milk.   This girl of mine, she's going somewhere.

I also am reminded by my friend that these moments are memories in the making.  Just as I will never forget the night I stayed up till "the middle of the night" (probably 10:00!) with my parents creating the greatest solar system model of all time, she will never forget the hour we spent interviewing a couple in Scotland via Skype.  I will never forget how cool it was to use that awesome leftover silver metallic wallpaper (No, it was not from my own home. Daddy was a custom homebuilder.) to cover the outside of the moving box that housed my painted styrofoam planets suspended by fishing line.  And BigGirl will never forget painting paper plaid and pleating it into a miniature kilt.  Just as I will remember with a smile the pride I felt walking down the fourth grade hallway and seeing my solar system stand out in the row of models, I'm sure she will never forget the awkward pride she felt as her class watched her VoiceThread, and listened to her own voice teach her classmates about her heritage.

This project is not the first we've done together, nor will it be the last, I'm sure.  We've made a gingerbread girl, a leprechaun trap, costumes for literary parades, a Hopi doll, and - the first projects ever - family books.  (A tradition at our preschool.)

My heart swells as I compare these moments with my budding student to the moments from my own childhood.  My diagram of a flower received special praise from my fifth grade teacher (the meanest teacher in the world) because I outlined everything in black to make the edges stand out.  (I'm 99% sure she hated me and that was the only praise I received from her all year.  That's why I'll never forget it.)  That was also the year My Daddy helped me build the balsa wood Aztec dwelling.  The next year, my mother drove me around to shoe stores searching for the perfect pair of lace-up ankle boots to accompany my Laura Ingall's Wilder era project.  To be honest, I really don't remember that presentation, but I'll never forget the costume or the time spent preparing it with my mother.  And I'm pretty sure she returned the boots immediately afterwards.  We didn't have the money to be spending on those boots right then.  Believe me.  My mother helped me again soon.  She helped me write an "award winning" speech in sixth grade, just after we moved to Florida.  I even went on to the semi-finals - which was a big deal for "the new girl", who, prior to that point, was mostly known for talking with a Texas Twang.

At some point, probably high school, the time working with parents began to fade...as it rightly should.  Projects became my own procrastination, and the memories changed.  I can recall sitting in my bedroom for hours memorizing poems in French for Le Congr├ęs, building my repetoire, line after line after line.  My senior year, I remember sitting at my desk, staring at my bulletin board, searching for the inspiration for yet another speech. This one was about my great grandmother.  I remember clearly the moment my eyes stumbled across the words from this Nike ad* (circa 1990) hanging there.  It all fell into place.

"You don't have to be your mother unless she is who you want to be.  You don't have to be your mother's mother, or your mother's mother's mother, or even your grandmother's mother on your father's side.  You may inherit their chins, their hips, or their eyes, but you are not destined to become the woman who came before you, you are not destined to live their lives.  So if you inherit something, inherit their strength.  If you inherit something, inherit their resilience. Because the only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be."

And tonight, as I enjoy the relative calm in my home before the next project is assigned, I will remember that those moments spent on projects with my girls are irreplaceable.  Those moments are a gift I give my BigGirl - and one day, my BabyGirl.  It is in those moments that they will inherit from me, just as I inherited from my parents.  It is on those moments that she will one day look back and smile.

Pssst! If you haven't seen it yet - you have to give my girl props. :)

And just for fun, check this out from last spring**.  Heh, heh, heh.....

* I still love that ad, even today.  Probably more than ever.  
** Just so you know, I couldn't let BigGirl turn the project in since FireDaddy did it completely without her help/involvement.  Her finished project was a shoebox with a trap door that had tissue paper grass covering the top and a shiny coin glued on top of the trap door.  (Equally as ingenius, I thought...) 


  1. BigGirl did such a phenomenal job on her presentation, and I absolutely ADORE the Leprechaun Trap Project! Love this post, Jenny. TFS!

  2. Now I want to go to Scotland! What a fantastic project!!

    I remember that Nike ad! It is such a great message. I really enjoyed this post and need to keep this sort of thing in mind the next time I'm about to grumble when my kids get assigned a big project.


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