Once upon a time, there was Randy.
Randy hated to write. His penmanship was tortuous, his spelling “invented,” and his interest in crafting narrative non-existent. When my third-grade class began learning basic information about the American Revolution, Randy was initially excited but quickly became bored. His passion for US History had spurred him to pursue hours of reading and discussion with his historian mom long before he arrived in my classroom, and there wasn’t a single name, date, or event in the scope and sequence with which he wasn’t already quite familiar.
What to do with Randy? It didn’t make sense for him to work on projects and learning activities whose purpose was acquiring data he had already acquired! And regardless of his skill in recall of information, there was still that little problem with penmanship, spelling, and composition. As his teacher, I knew that simply plopping more books and worksheets in front of him would neither deepen his understanding nor strengthen his skills. He needed meaningful work.
Randy himself gave me the answer, as our students so often do, if only we are attentive!
While his peers were busy matching cards showing the names of battles with other cards showing the names of generals, Randy wandered over to where I was creating a KWL chart for our next unit and casually said, “Mrs. Imbody, I already know all those battles. But I tried to tell the kids about the strategy of Yorktown, and they didn’t know what I was talking about.”
“Randy!” I responded. “You need to help us! I don’t know what the strategy of Yorktown was, either, so I can’t offer them much in that department. Is there some way you could help us understand the thinking behind some of the most important battles?”
Randy thought for a moment. “Well, I could just tell them.”
“You could, that’s true. But if they’re anything like I am, they might need to see some diagrams or maps or something visual like that in order to really ‘get it.’ And then we also have people in our class who understand better if they can read something. Is there anything you could do to help those kids, as well?”
Again, Randy thought for a moment, fully engaged in wrestling with the problem at hand. When he spoke again, there was an energy and enthusiasm I had seldom seen from him.
“What if I draw some maps and diagrams that show how the armies moved around during that battle? What if I make it something like a . . . a scroll?”
“That would be great, Randy! Could you also write a paragraph for each diagram so the people who process information better by reading could also understand? Then maybe you could share with each of the groups and field some Q and A time. What do you think?”
“I could do that!” was Randy’s uncharacteristically eager response. Together we decided on a project that involved his creating a sequence of maps with accompanying diagrams, written paragraphs, and oral presentations explaining four battles that Randy would identify as having been key in determining the outcome of the Revolutionary War.
Over the next several weeks, Randy drew maps and diagrams. He read, and he researched. But he also looked up spellings, wrote and edited sentences to indicate the correct sequence of events, and practiced his oral presentations. When one of his peers was unable to decipher an illegible word, Randy was highly motivated to “fix it.” He wrote more paragraphs during that assignment than he had in all the previous weeks combined!
Consistent difficulties with cursive capital letters were overcome as he repeatedly wrote the capitalized names of his chosen battles and their respective generals. His social skills were tremendously boosted by his genuine desire to communicate things of importance to an interested audience.
Of course, Randy ended up learning a lot. So did his classmates. So did I. Randy’s ability to form legible letters, write effective narratives, and communicate complicated events was certainly strengthened. His peers were exposed to more compelling components of historical study than the mere linking of names and dates. And I learned to guide my class in perceiving authentic needs and providing authentic responses in service to those needs. Meaningful work makes motivated students!