A few years ago, I asked one of my students, JC, why he kept working through the difficulties of creating experiences for a holographic headset, because I always find it inspiring when students keep working through difficult problems. Like a lot of our projects, this one was challenging, and even though he kept hitting roadblocks, he never gave up.
He said, “Publishing something is really scary. Even if people don’t hate my project I am going to get special attention and then I am going to be expected to act more professional than I am as a kid…that’s a scary thing too. I will need to talk to important people and do professional things, and that’s pretty scary for a 17 year old who’s still in high school. But I can’t look at that. I can’t look into the past. I want to change the world. I want to be someone who brings the future, and you can’t do that if you are too scared or looking in the past.”
Students are willing to look at the world and imagine how they can make it better without the fear and mental barriers that many adults seem to have built. They look at the world as if it is malleable, as if it is something that they can affect. They see through the blocks and imagine the world around them in ways that are yet to be. They believe their dreams can be made real. What’s most inspirational is seeing students who are willing to put themselves out there, who say, “I don’t know if I can do it, but let’s see!” Sometimes this is said with trepidation and sometimes it is said with bravado, but the thing about kids is that they are willing to say it regardless.
They don’t always start out that way. Sometimes they just want to know how to get an A or want to know what the step-by-step directions are. Over time there is an evolution though, and the conversation shifts from them wanting me to tell them what to do into conversations where they are telling me the problems they want to solve.
JC wanted others to see the beauty he saw in the periodic table of the elements, so he built a holographic augmented reality version of the table that would teach people by literally pulling the table off a poster on the wall and putting the power to interact with it at the tip of their fingers.
Another student wanted to bring the Smithsonian institution to students who might not be able to travel to Washington D.C. He built a small VR (virtual reality) museum with 3D scans of museum holdings, using resources freely available to the world from the 3D Digitization Office and the Smithsonian Learning Lab.
Another group of students from the history classes in my school asked why they couldn’t just step into a VR version of a Salem Witch Trial courtroom. They didn’t know how to make the experience themselves, so they partnered with my students to bring a lithograph from the 1800s to life…and then, together, they built an experience that raised that lithograph, literally.
Many of my students over the years have tackled equally difficult problems and projects, and most have done so (eventually) without the anxiety that freezes many adults.
I am constantly amazed by my students. They don’t know how hard the work is, and they don’t realize that there are barriers that should make that work impossible.They don’t know that they shouldn’t be able to do the work in the times and ways they are asked to…so they build applications during class for new to market hardware using skills and collaborative practices that should be too hard for them to tackle in high school.
Sometimes…it takes a while to get there. Kids who think that they have to be grown ups find that there is still a space for them to imagine and build the world they want to inherit. Often, they find their way back to their creativity, and being able to be in the classroom while my students build the future is as awe-inspiring as it is humbling.
At the end of the project, when I asked JC if I could share his words and work with the world, he told me the same thing that many students have told me in a hundred different ways over my career: “Sure. I mean, there’s a chance that I can do something amazing, and if I don’t take that chance because I am too scared then I’m going to have nothing. I don’t want to be the person who looks back later in my life and says, ‘I wish I would have taken my opportunity.’”
That’s what teaching is all about: creating opportunities for kids and then helping them realize their potential.
When teachers empower students to build the future, they build the future. When students show up, they show up. When they don’t know how hard something is they will do the unbelievable, and when they are guided and encouraged by a great teacher, they rise.
That’s why I #LoveTeaching.