The Power of Novelty Part 3: It’s a Celebration

Liz, far right, with her mom, Tammy, along with classmate Spencer, middle, with his mom and dad. 

Engaging middle school students can sometimes seem like an impossible proposition. After all, we are competing with hormones, social dilemmas, first forays into competitive sports, and pressures of performance in music and drama, not to mention the omnipresent iPhone. What’s a teacher to do? Well, in Part 1 of this series, I explained the power of novelty through the brainstorming process, as well as in classroom management and grouping strategies. In Part 2, I highlighted how real-time feedback in the form of messaging in Google Classroom can keep students engaged during the difficult process of drafting. Here, in Part 3, we’ll take a look at what happens when we turn “presentations” into “celebrations.” Is it smoke and mirrors? A little. Is it time-consuming and risky? Definitely. Celebrations, however, are the most important thing I do in my classroom.

What do I mean by “celebrations”? The short answer is that a celebration is when students present a slideshow version of their narrative for an audience of peers, family, administrators, teachers and guidance counselors. The longer answer is that a celebration is a part of an elaborate system I’ve been working on for years to create the biggest crowd of student supporters possible, all while applying the important things I know about project-based learning. If you are new to PBL, this blog from GettingSmart.com is a good starting place, or if you want a huge collection on the topic, you can view my author page with links to 45 blogs, all relating to PBL. “Celebrations” are my answer to the need for an authentic audience and public performance.

We just wrapped up the celebrations of personal narratives this past week. The “This I Believe” concept is powerful in and of itself, but couple it with the risk-taking required to share with an authentic audience, and the stakes can be quite high. Many students balk at presenting a 3.5- to 5.5-minute slideshow to a room packed with people. The trick, the smoke and mirrors here, is that it isn’t a “presentation” that I focus on, but rather a celebration of the students. I invite everyone to attend and notify parents in a variety of ways, using the texting tool Remind, posting to my website and even making some strategic phone calls. In the beginning, I receive email after email from family members saying, “He doesn’t want me to come” or “She says no one else’s mom is coming.” I make sure they know that every child most definitely wants his or her parents there, but it just isn’t cool to admit it. Yet.

The thing is, this was the first big presentation for my class. My students had yet to experience the glow you get from sharing what you are proud of with people who care about you. At one point this week, we had three administrators, a guidance counselor, a grandma, an aunt, two nieces and a few sets of parents watching the celebrations. Inevitably, when the applause begins and the student has found that there is indeed support and pride, then suddenly the question becomes “Who is coming today?,” instead of “Do I have to do this?” It becomes cool. That’s the trick. The feel-good vibe outweighs all the self-conscious underpinnings of middle school, and students soon realize the power of celebration.

Here is a video of my student Liz’s presentation, filmed by her mom, Tammy. Liz’s personal narrative was about taking risks. She shares an experience about zip lining, but anyone who knows Liz knows that the presentation was a huge risk in itself. When I spoke with her ELA teacher from last year, Sue Wilhelm, she shared with me that “Liz didn’t want to stand up at her seat to speak, much less this! I’m blown away.” I’m not claiming that I’ve given Liz anything to suddenly make her more confident or outgoing, but rather, I’m suggesting that by the fourth day of watching students be celebrated by a roomful of people, she garnered the courage to share her story.

Unfortunately, school isn’t really set up like a sporting event or a concert, and it is unusual for students to garner applause and public accolades for what they accomplish in the classroom. In a world where students’ pictures or comments can get 100 likes and 30 shares, I attempt to give them an opportunity to be seen, heard and known within the context of my classroom. These celebrations may be a crazy thing Chandler does in 255, but for the students, it is a celebration of their efforts, their finished products and, ultimately, who they are as people willing to share within a community of supporters. For this round of celebrations, I asked for eight extra chairs for guests. Next time, I’m sure it will be 12. By the end of the year, I want it to be standing room only.

To see the whole slideshow of students, visit FlexibleClass.com.

Read Part 1: The Power of Novelty and Part 2: Commenting in Real Time of this series from Amber Chandler.