Thursday, January 23, 2014

Shark Zone

A friend of mine has a son in 6th grade. Let's call him Jacques. Bright. Curious. Cautious, but not risk averse. A bit shy, but not withdrawn. The type of middle schooler who takes awhile to warm up to people, but once he does will engage in great conversation.

Recently Jacques was given an independent research project. Something with sharks. In his wheelhouse. His research was thorough and excellent. He actually read books, not just wikipedia! My friend said he went at the project with enthusiasm as well as intellectual wonder. So far so good. No sweat.

Part of the assessment was a formal presentation to his classmates and teachers. Jacques had to dress up. Create a powerpoint. It was video-taped. Not as easy as actually doing the research and writing a report, but doable even for someone a little on the shy side. The internal resources were available, they just had to be mustered. A little perspiration can be good for kids.

But another part of the assessment was a presentation in front of parents. Note, this was not "extra credit." There was no choice or flexibility. This was part of the rubric the teacher had created that would be included in the final grade for the project. A presentation in front of mostly strangers. Nice strangers, no doubt, but people Jacques didn't know. He sweated this big time.

Not every challenge is appropriate for every student. The effective stretching of our students depends upon knowing them well enough to begin from where they are and tug at them with expectations just enough out of reach that they grow. Students--like all of us--have a Comfort Zone, a Challenge Zone, and a Panic Zone. Part of teaching is making sure students do not work only in their Comfort Zone, absolutely. We hear a lot these days about the importance of "grit" in education. I am all for it. But learning cannot take place in the Panic Zone.

In the comfort of the research, Jacques learned about sharks. In the challenge of the classroom presentation, Jacques learned an even more important lesson about himself. In the panic of the seemingly shark-infested parent presentation, through which he fumbled and stumbled and nearly shut down, Jacques learned nothing.

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