Audrey Cordova looked around at her 8th grade WhyTry class, notebook and pen at the ready. For the first time in her teaching career, she was relinquishing control of her classroom and letting the students take the reins completely. So far, it wasn’t going well.
The students’ assignment was to design a mural representing the principles of WhyTry as their final project. Some students rigorously huddled at the whiteboard, making lists and writing plans, while others arm wrestled, sat quietly at their desks, stood on tables, or passed around mints.
Defense mechanisms were being used as students realized their ideas weren’t being acknowledged. If they were excluded, they found other activities to distract them and show that they didn’t care. “The class has now split into three groups,” wrote Audrey in her notebook. “One group is having off-topic conversation, and one group is just sitting. I think the group that is planning thinks they are the only ones on task, but in reality, it is their exclusiveness that has left the others feeling unheard. So the others resort to their defense mechanisms of acting like they don’t care or just being off task, or sitting silently to protect oneself.” Frustration and anger became increasingly evident as the day wore on.
Watching this process unfold was a huge learning experience for Audrey, who generally runs a structured classroom. “I’m questioning my own teaching strategies this year and have to wonder if we had had several chances to try this where students led the classroom, would they have learned to be more productive now?” wrote Audrey. “I’ve taught enough years to know the answer to that is of course. They need opportunities to practice and apply what we learn in WhyTry in ‘real-life activities.’”
Finally, the students came to Audrey to announce that they had finalized their idea. But when Audrey inquired further, it was evident that not everyone had contributed. She shared the observations she’d made in her notebook, and a profound silence fell over her students. “Every person in the room knows they have to take accountability for why this day, in the end, was a failure when it came to one group coming together to accomplish this challenge. No one was perfect today,” Audrey later wrote. She challenged her students to go home and think about how they could truly apply the principles and tools of WhyTry to come together and create their project. They agreed, vowing to do better tomorrow.
At the end of the day, Audrey wrote in her notebook, “Although today’s objective of getting a group plan down on paper that everyone was involved with, failed, I feel the students and I learned a lot from today, and I will consider this one of the best teaching days in my career… even if I stumbled into it by accident.”
Despite her usual insistence on deadlines and order, Audrey let the students run the show again the next day, and was impressed this time. She wrote, “Students are way different today, and in a good way… All of them seemed very aware of their behavior, and this introspective way of thinking is allowing for progress. 35 minutes into class, everyone agrees on a plan and wants to get to work.”
There were, however, still roadblocks. Five days into the project, the students decided they weren’t happy with it and voted to start over. Audrey wrote, “My mind is racing as to ‘now they will never finish.’ However, how can I stop them when all they want is to create something of the highest standards? … They clearly don’t want to let me or each other down. They are 8th graders who typically only care about just getting the assignment done as quickly as possible, and today that is not the case.” The students spent the rest of Day 5 formulating a new plan.
Finally, in the last few minutes of class on Day 10, the class proudly finished the mural. They wanted to march it outside and show it off immediately. “I wonder what happened to my 8th graders who shy away from looking smart and wanting others to see how hard they worked. It excites me to see the level of pride they take in their mural,” wrote Audrey.
Audrey told the class she was proud of the ways they had used the tools of WhyTry during the planning and executing of the mural. Afterward, they held a well-deserved celebration party. “Interestingly,” wrote Audrey, “They tell me that had they not fallen on the first day of working together, they didn’t think they would have accomplished the challenge.”
Audrey’s class is living proof of one of the fundamental messages of WhyTry: that the process of tackling a challenge can be just as valuable as the end result.
The description of the mural, as written by the students, is below:
“Our mural has two sides. One side represents what life is like when you use Why Try and one side represents what it is like when you don’t use Why Try. (They call them the good and the bad side.) It begins with the words “Why Try” on each side. On the good side, the words are clear and easy to read and on the bad side, the words are being torn up. The bridge is central to the theme. The first mural did not have a bridge. We added the bridge to show that a person can travel to either side depending on whether they use the tools of Why Try or not. The bridge is also slanted upward to represent that getting to the good side is an uphill climb, as we learned in the Reality Ride. It is much easier to slide down to the bad side. On the good side, there are paths that can lead you somewhere. On the bad side, people are just left roaming aimlessly with no real direction. This is symbolic again of what Why Try does for you. The mural itself is very representative of the lifting the weight in that it is split and one side is better for you than the other. On the good side, the playground offers opportunities to play and have fun. The opposite is true on the bad side. The people on the good side have made good choices to keep their river clean and therefore have the opportunity to fish. You cannot do this on the bad side. The sky is clear and the view is clear on the good side whereas on the bad side, it is cloudy and dark. In general, the overall climate is just better on the good side. The view is clearer because you have climbed the wall. You have freedom, opportunity, and self-respect.”