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Learning: Let Curiosity Back In

It’s final exam time, the time in the semester when students in my college classes are either sitting pretty or totally freaking out. The former are those who have heeded my advice, have attended class, have actively participated and  have kept up with the work. The latter, I’m afraid, have done much less and are now sweatin’ it. 

But, it’s at this time of the semester, too, where I assign a project where students must

1. choose something that really lights them up about the language and/or what we’ve discussed in class 

2. relate it to their major field of study (if they want/are able - the parameters for the project are very loosey goosey on purpose). 

3. Create a polished product that serves as a visual (ostensibly to help them remember what to say, but also to encourage them to use tools they are not familiar with yet and/or show off skills they may have).

The objective is to make a connection somehow to something else so that they realize that language is a tool for communication, and not necessarily something to be analyzed academically (especially not for the courses that I teach which are mere requirements for graduation). The aim is to make language accessible and useful and this project allows them to “put it all together,” if you will. If they can make a connection to the themes we’ve discussed in class, create a polished product (presentation is half of it, as they say), and present to their peers with as much language - however imperfect - they have…win!

Some of my favorite projects this semester were:

  • interviews with adults in an ESL class all of whom are recent immigrants

  • a 7-minute short film (clip) that addressed the theme of undocumented immigration and friendship (and included some hilarious inside jokes from class)

  • an interview with a student’s father about his experience coming to the mainland U.S. from Puerto Rico

  • an AI-generated song about immigration (a shortcut for which the student discovered the night before the project was due after trying to 

  • a veritable feast created by three different students relating to the stories we read in class (no examples of this - we ate it all!)

  • a graphic representation of an immigrant’s journey done on Canva

  • graphic design advertisements for a restaurant (below)

  • a poster comparing a student’s life with that of an immigrant (below)

The students are required to present their projects in front of their peers, which for most of them is a request akin to swimming across the river of pus. Still, I want them to practice those skills. This generation of students is much happier with their faces in front of a screen, for sure, which makes it even more necessary for them to be forced to practice these skills; that, and to remind them that they CAN do hard things. 💪🏼😊

The instructions for the project are above in blue

That’s it. 

There is no 3-page document on the requirements.

There is no rubric.

There is encouragement to choose something that interests them AND that will be fun so they will keep in mind WHY they are doing the project while they are doing it.

Learning doesn’t always have to be so serious. It CAN be fun College students seem to forget this as they race to get their degree.

Do students earn a grade for this? Yes. Is it a “freebie” grade? You bet. 

So what? I say. From what I witnessed from the students this semester, by and large, they had a good time with the projects they chose and were interested in what their peers’ created. 

Take these two comments I received after the projects were over:

Other lessons learned:

  • time-management (from the student who emailed me the night before the project was due - I made sure to check in to ask what she might do differently the next time!)

  • the quiet student IS acquiring language, as he presented all in Spanish (and at a pretty high level)

  • students are very artistic

  • some students learned how to work in a group and take direction from someone older than them (not me, I have a student in his late 40s in my class)

  • to appreciate others’ talents

  • community (it is all about the people, man)

In the last decade or so, education has become entirely too rigid and prescribed. For students, it’s now just a means to an end; a box to check off, if you will. For teachers, it’s also about checking boxes on a rubric (or adhering to standards or pyramids) or whatever else the powers that be tell us what we are “supposed” to be doing. 

Just as laziness and apathy are climbing, curiosity is on a steep decline. We are going to have to make some changes in the approach, lest we crush interest and inquisitiveness completely. 

I welcome you to offer up a low-stakes assignment, too. 

You might just be pleasantly surprised. I am, always.

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