In my last post, I asked the question, what would you do if you got to be a substitute teacher in a middle or high school for a few days, and got to teach whatever you wanted? What’s the most important, most impactful thing that would make a difference in the lives of your students?
I guess it’s only fair that I take a stab at answering it. (I still want to hear other people’s answers… if I hear any good ones I’ll post them in a follow up). It’s a little scary to imagine myself responsible for making a difference in the lives of a roomful of kids, but here goes…
For me, I think the number one most important lesson is the power of taking responsibility for your own life. There’s two parts to this lesson: 1. nothing is going to change unless you say “I am going to make it change”. 2. You’re not on your own — once you take responsibility for making something change, it’s fair game to bring in others to help.
Those two beliefs are basically acts of faith. You can go through life not believing them, and maybe things will turn out okay, but you’ll be at best a passive spectator in your own life. When I think about the kind of person I want to be, and the kind of person I want to share the world with, this is where it all starts.
Standing up in a classroom and talking about this idea is worthless, though. This is the kind of thing that has to be shown, not told. I don’t know if this would work, but what I would try is walking the class through the steps one by one for things in their own lives:
1. Identify that there are things I want changed. This can be really hard, because it’s easy to get used to problems and become blind to them. The strategy to deal with that is to put aside the thought of solving the problems until I’m done identifiying them — keep it purely hypothetical.
Lesson plan: Have the students take out a piece of paper, and write a list of problems that they are having with their lives. This could be anything from getting bad grades in math class, to not being as popular as they would like to be, to being worried because their mom was diagnosed with cancer, to hating their hour-long bus commute to school, or anything else.
2. Figure out what I want. It can be hard to be honest with myself about what I really want in a situation! Also, I need to balance realism with ambition: I need to set my aspirations high, but not so high that it really does become impossible.
Lesson plan: Have each student write down, next to each problem, two things. First, what they would do if they had a magic wand to fix the problem. Become a math genius. Become the most popular kid in school. Have their mom recover. Switch to a different school. Second, one thing that would make the situation substantially better even if they couldn’t make it go away. Get good grades in a different class. Make a few new friends. Make their mom feel better and less afraid. Find something fun to do on the bus ride each day.
3. Commit to taking responsibility to make the change. This is the hard, critically important step. The thing to note here is that there is always a cost to getting what I want (‘be careful what you wish for’) and if I am not willing to pay the cost, I am not going to succeed in making the change.
Lesson plan: Have the students imagine that they have just waved their magic wand. Write down anything scary or unpleasant about the new situation. Will other kids think they’re I’m a nerd if I get good grades in math class? If I’m the most popular kid in school, will I be under a lot of pressure to keep that popularity up? Then have them ask themselves, is it worth it? If the answer is no, cross the problem off their list. If yes…
4. Generate ideas. The question here is “What is one small action I could take today that would move me closer to improving the situation?” Or, “If James Bond / Superman / Sherlock Holmes / Barack Obama / The Man with the Iron Mask was in my shoes, what one action would they take today?”
5. Ask for help. It’s often much easier to see the solutions for someone else’s problem than it is for my own.
Lesson plan: Have students write down one of their problems along with what they want on an index card. Label it with a code that is anonymous to everyone else but that they’ll remember. Redistribute cards, brainstorm solutions for the problems on the card that you get, then mix the cards up again and have people retrieve their cards.
6. Execute! The homework assignment is to do as many small actions as you can. The class discussion the next day is, were you able to? What went well and what went badly? What did we learn? Then the homework for the following day is, try again….