Make them do the impossible…

There is an increasing amount of chatter on the internet about the value of letting kids make mistakes, letting them fail, allowing them to be wrong…throw into the conversation a giant heap of how to get them to unleash their creativity…of course the two are interconnected.  How do you get them to stop being afraid, so that they take a risk, not fear failure, and allow their creative juices to flow?

Make them do the impossible.

Seriously…the impossible.  Something that has never been done before.

Simple example.  If the kids are given the question “How democratic was Andrew Jackson?”  Come on…you know there is a right or wrong answer.  Even if you say the kid can come down on either side of the argument there is still going to be a right and a wrong for what they use support their answer.  Pretty much any question you give them, even if they are to draw their own conclusion, there is a right or wrong to the answer…and they know that.  It is not easy to take a risk when the final product is just a rearrangement of facts.

This past month I have been rehabbing from neck surgery and reflecting on the activity that my kids did before break.  They didn’t worry about making mistakes, being wrong, and were wickedly creative.  I started to try and draw connections between other activities that produced the same results.  Each seemed to have something in common…I started them off with “I don’t have any examples, I have never done this before, I don’t know anyone else who has done it, there are no directions, I don’t know how they will be graded, and I am going to do it with you.”  For each one the kids had the exact same response after the project was introduced…”that sounds impossible.”

How can you fail in doing something no one else has done…right?  Even if you can’t do it you are still just as great as everyone else that has tried.

Here’s a couple quick examples from my class…now I know as an adult you can probably see how some of these are not “impossible” but remember back to when you were just an average 13 year old.

One activity my kids did was to examine probate records and diaries of a farmer and compose music, write lyrics, and sing a song about the essence of being an early 19th century farmer.

A second activity they did was to examine primary sources on the Lowell Mill girls and do a live streaming poetry slam.

Taking a look at just one…the Lowell Mill girls poetry slam (post about the slam).  We had never done poetry, we had never seen slam poetry, a quick youtube search found some high schoolers, a couple middle schoolers, but nothing that could serve as an example.  Not one kid thought they could pull it off when it was introduced.  I certainly didn’t think I could do it.  They found the primary sources hard to interpret and difficult to read.  The one thing they didn’t fear was being wrong.  Each kid  in their mind was breaking new middle school ground, doing something no other middle schoolers were doing.  They were going to be the example.

In both cases the final product was not about “knowing” the content, but about making it come alive.  On their way to doing the “impossible” they had to play with their sources, continually go back to them, and constantly place themselves in the shoes of the historical characters.  In both cases I also became less of a teacher and became simply a coach.  Each class started off with some motivational you-can-do-it moment, maybe a pause to go over a source that was providing difficulty to many kids, and maybe most importantly each class started off with how I was handling it.  They knew I was struggling, and if I was struggling, how could it not be OK for them to struggle?  They knew I felt like I was taking a huge risk, they knew that I was struggling to be creative, they saw my pile of scratched out notes, my wrinkled sources…and I think the one thing they saw that mattered most was grit.  When doing the impossible grit might be the most valuable trait they can have.  Being creative, taking risks, not being afraid of making mistakes…they are not spontaneous.  They are drawn out processes.  Given a job to complete, it could take days of creative risk taking, constant failing and getting up to get to the finished product.  Many times in school when we ask kids to take a risk or be creative we expect them to do it nearly spontaneously…that’s not how it works.  We often give the kids a task to do and ask them to have no fear, be creative!  What good is that if they know they have 40 minutes to do it and their first choice is will probably their last?

Go ahead…think of the last thing you did with your kids in which you wanted them to take risks and be creative.  How much time did you give them to make mistakes and recover from them?  Did they have the opportunity to throw out everything they did and start all over?  Several times?

My kids recently had a great opportunity to do the “impossible”  and it was during this experience that this post came alive.  We were lucky enough to be chosen by the folks at Conde Nast to test out a new iPad app called Idea Flight.  We were one of three classes to give it a test run.  They let us borrow 15 iPads, gave us a few weeks and simply wanted to know what we thought.  The way the app works is that there is a pilot and passengers.  So in a “normal” class the teacher would call up their presentation and all the kids would become passengers and be able to view what I would be seeing on mine.  So for example when we first got them I put together a preso on the “truth behind Thanksgiving” and each time I would switch a slide on mine it would switch on the kids.  Of course after that one I was done and the next project we did the kids created their own.  When it was their turn to present, each kid in the class could call up the leader’s preso and watch it on their iPad as the student leader changed slides and narrated.  Each kid presented one section of the Constitution and Idea Flight worked as advertised.  Many students remarked how much easier it was to stay focused and how much easier it was to present with the preso “in their hands.”  I think it was awesome with many special ed students, but that is another post…  When we were done with that preso we knew our time with them was almost over and so we decided to do the impossible.  I believe the sentence someone used was “let’s do something with them that they (the Idea Flight folks) don’t even know is possible.”  For the next two weeks they explored not just Constitutional issues, but how to bring them to life for people visually.  The kids were not stuck on being the best in the class, or getting the most hits on youtube, or getting a good grade…they were enchanted by the fact that they were going to do the impossible and how fearless at something that had never been done before (OK, honestly, there was one group in one class that fell apart).

There were many neat ideas.  Most groups came up with ways to not just use one iPad as the pilot controlling one presentation, but multiple iPads as pilots.  So take a look at the photo below:

The students put four iPads together–each controlled by different students in the audience. Four presos had to get made so that when each slide was changed it fit in flawlessly with the other three.  In this preso on Shay’s Rebellion above the students coordinated their four different presos to make soldiers walk across from the first to last iPad, to have a list of demands show up simultaneously, and then one at a time as they were described.

Another group took six iPads and put them together on a table and had the audience stand around them:

In each square above is a separate iPad controlled by a separate person(hard to tell from image).  As the presentation on the Bill of Rights started each iPad flipped to an image that helped the audience understand each amendment.  What was neat is that eventually each iPad held just a part of a single image and near the end of each explanation the images slid together to create one large image that really symbolized their point.  Again, it was neat to see how the kids all meshed their ideas together and played with the written content to make it visual.  (((My wife read this post prior to posting and told me to I should include video of the presentations because my attempt at describing them is not very clear…I would…except I accidentally deleted them….grrrrrr))

One group imagined themselves in the lobby of the White House and created a preso that could be used to inform visitors on the history and importance of the White House.

They had five iPads, each being controlled by a separate person, and depending where you were standing you could get a different view of what was being narrated.

I’ve just scratched the surface of how the presos worked and can’t nearly begin to describe how complicated they were to put together.

It took so much coordination and understanding of how each person’s preso meshed with another.  It would be the equivalent of 5 people flying 5 remote control airplanes in perfect formation as they turn and twist through the sky.  The teamwork, communication, and collaboration that was necessary to pull off the impossible was awesome.

Again, “impossible” has to be put in perspective.  What is impossible for one student will not be for another.  What is impossible for my 8th graders might be simple for yours.  It’s all a matter of perception and framing I suppose.  But magic does happen when I can frame something as impossible and provide them with the support to take it on.  And when it can be for something totally authentic, as in testing out the Idea Flight iPad app and sharing their results with the development team at Conde Nast, well that is icing on the cake.

When kids get caught up doing the impossible, they treat mistakes as part of the process, failures as building blocks, risk as the natural next step, and use creativity as their fuel.   None of the projects had an end.  Each group wished they could have turned around and done it again, applied what they learned, and perfected their process.  In school, time is very, very limited.  We had to move on.

The reality is that most kids do not take risks or like to make mistakes.  Most of them are afraid of being creative.  Maybe it is because most of the time they are doing things that are not worth risking failure for.  The tasks are not important enough to take the chance of making a mistake.  They do things all day long in school in which success or failure in completing them really doesn’t make a difference.  Why bother being creative if just going through the accepted school process will lead to a safe grade?

Attempting the impossible can be scary…not just for the kids…for also for us.  We create airtight lesson plans that are well thought out with carefully chosen primary sources.  We have the kids start their writing with incredible organizers that we prepared for them.  They display their learning with tests that have carefully crafted questions to get to answers we want them to know, and projects for which we have shown them exemplars and given them guiding rubrics.

We cannot be afraid of letting them try the impossible–let them try things that we have no rubric for, answer questions that we do not know the answers to, and solve problems that do not have pre-set solutions.  But the first step down that road must be made by us, their teachers.  The road to accomplishing the impossible is sometime short, and sometimes long, but it is often winding.  We can’t be afraid of doing what we think is impossible. We must give them something that is worth taking a risk on, something that will make a difference.

Make them do the impossible…but you must take the first step…and they will hold your hand.






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