Saturday, October 29, 2016

Underestimating Your Students- Don't Be Surprised When They Blow Your Mind!

It's been far too long since I've had the chance to write, and I can't begin to tell how much I've missed it.  Blogging has become a tremendous outlet for me, and has increased my connection to some of the fantastic teachers around this country!  Honestly the past few weeks have been a whirlwind for me as I've spend time with the amazing Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History as their honoree as National History Teacher of the Year, and while that has been a life and career changing experience, I'm so glad to be back to talking about the purpose behind my passion- my students!

I love the quote above, and believe it sums up how teachers should approach their students.  In 12 years of teaching I have never regretted pushing my students, and have yet to see a student truly push back.  We need to realize that our students not only need the encouragement to step beyond pre-conceived limits, it is the only way any of them will grow.  And I am constantly impressed with my students when I give them that kind of challenge.

This was never more evident than in the last week of an immersion project in our Dual Credit/AP US Government class.  The students who take this class are seniors with one foot in the school, and one out the door into the "real world."  They are, essentially, adults, and I have always tried to treat them as such.  The class is built on the notion of the "real world", meaning lots of research-based discussion, lots of unanswered questions (which are not a bad thing; they provide impetus for further research), and experiences which are designed to immerse them, as much as possible, in the real workings of American government.  One such endeavor, which has become a yearly tradition, is the campaign.

         (Campaign Speeches)

This project is a mock election, but is not connected to any actual campaigns (otherwise we would only be doing some every four years).  Instead the students are separated into groups which would be visible during an actual national campaign.  Leading up to the project start date, time is spent in class speaking with legislators and political party heads, studying and discussing elements of campaigns, and considering how elements such as campaign finance can help/hinder the process.  Once the project starts, groups are working towards "electing" one of their own as the faux President of the Independent Sovereignty of Frankton!

The groups often differ, but this year we had enough students to feature two major political parties, a third/minor party, and a SuperPAC.  Each of the major parties were given a financial head start, but had to join the other two groups in fundraising.  Several teachers acted as "donors", given money to dole out to the groups in any way they saw fit.  I give the donors zero rules, and I love it when the students come back to me and vent about a certain teacher who promised them money, and didn't deliver, or who is being stingy.  The major parties are required to conduct polls, from which platforms are created.  The third party and SuperPAC were allowed to coalition around a singular issue, as many real versions do, and then given the option to merge with one of the major parties if they saw fit.  The SuperPAC, of course, was not allowed to have any contact with the candidate they supported. The students were required to give speeches in a convention type atmosphere to their electorate, and on campaign day aired televised ads in an attempt to sway voters.  Needless to say, by the end of the week, students were tired, stressed, irritated, angry...and I was ok with all of that.  I know that sounds mean; feel free to berate me for it.  But if the students were to know even a microcosm of what a real campaign feels like, there was no other way.

(Polling Booth and Campaigning Outside Polling Place)

I threw a lot at these kids, and guess what, they survived.  Not only that, they thrived!  These kids worked so incredibly hard that I couldn't help but watch with pride.  Every year I worry that I've put too much on the kids, I worry that I've pushed too hard.  And every year these kids make me feel foolish for underestimating them.  How many of us are guilty of this?  How many of us treat our kids as though they are these fragile things that will break at the first sight of struggle?  How many of us underestimate what these kids can do?  It is clear that teachers must be there to support, but we teach remarkable people.  Push them!  You won't regret it!


  1. totally agree--we should never underestimate our Ss. I love how many cognitive tools are being used here with your studetns--I have no doubt they are engaged! Role play, sense of agency, narrative/story-shaping, humanization of meaning, revolt and idealism....sweet assignment and even better group of kids!

  2. Love this lesson. We've held mock elections but we've never given teachers the role of donors the way you did. Such a great idea...I'll be stealing this one! :) I agree with you 100% - it's so easy to underestimate our students and in doing so we rob them of the opportunity to discover their own capabilities. Thanks for this thought provoking post!

  3. What an amazing, immersive experience and lesson! I am sure this will be something they will remember for a long time. I, too, have to constantly remind myself to not shy away from asking a lot from my students, and I'm always amazed at how they deliver more than I expect!