Authored by Julie Rust
When I was a fresh-faced 21-year-old middle school ELA teacher with big ideas and way too much confidence, I knew I was going to crush my admin’s class observation and evaluation. I loved these kids. They loved me. We were whirling through novels and grammar concepts and writing projects like nobody’s business. I had high standards, but also tons of scaffolds and high thresholds for fun. The morning of the observation I can still picture my principal sitting in the back row. We’d just had a robust conversation about a quote of the day, and I had rocked a mini lesson on sentence fragments versus run-ons. As I passed out a quick worksheet to serve as a formative assessment on the concept, Jimmy, a particularly brilliant and ornery 8th grader (my favorite kind of adolescent challenge), sighed loudly. “What’s up?” I asked. “I feel like there’s so much busy work in here,” he said, rolling his eyes. “What does this class have to do with my future, with the real world?”
I thought it was a great question, and it provided the perfect segue for me to provide some real world examples of grammar mistakes in resumes that didn’t result in an interview. In other words, as I expected, I crushed my evaluation. Except, according to my principal at the time during our debrief, I didn’t. I got major marks down in the classroom management section of the rubric. “What Jimmy said … that was blatant disrespect,” she said. “You shouldn’t have taken his comment seriously. You should have punished him and moved on.” My face flushed hot and red as I walked back to my room. “She’s just super traditional,” I thought, “responsive teaching is more important than silencing kids.”
Now with nearly twenty more years under my belt, I think we were both right. I think kids need direction on how and when to share their opinions and beliefs in appropriate, respectful, and positive ways. And I think they deserve constant reminders about how what we are doing in our classrooms links up to their past-present-futures. That’s why I am so excited to share with you Val Prado’s super-dope $450,000 Project.
Val knew her students needed practice with determining the value of a percentage of a given number, but she didn’t want to give them more rows of artificial math problems. By fake-gifting her sixth grade math students with a $450,000 inheritance and then asking them to responsibly spend the sum among charity, housing, transportation, education, vacation, and savings, she provided her students more than just numeracy practice; she helped them begin to think about spending, shopping, finances, and budgets. Sure, the work in creating the assignment far surpassed creating a worksheet, but so did the benefits gleaned by the students working the project.
I have a feeling Jimmy would have approved of the $450,000 Project. In fact, he wouldn’t have even needed to ask what math had to do with the real world; the connection is in-your-face blatant. More importantly, Val’s sixth graders gave this assignment a big seal of approval. While I was doing carpool duty about a month or two ago, a sixth grader, unprovoked, shouted something into the wind as she made her way to the flagpole. “What?” I said, buttoning my coat to cut the chill. “I said math was SO FUN TODAY!” she said. She went on to describe the $450,000 project, not knowing that I was already planning on blogging about the thing and had been in touch with Val about it.
Sometimes our students need relevance. Sometimes they need fun. And when we are really lucky, the two things, the work of relevance and the play of fun, swirl together to coalesce into an assignment that is really meaningful.