Adapting in the Classroom: The Tale of the Trashed Final Project

 Ann Lambert is a Second Year Teaching Fellow at the Irving Middle School in Roslindale, MA

Apprenticeships are like the golden child of Citizen Schools.  Because they’re the cornerstone of our program—our secret weapon that makes our model unique—we tend to favor them.  We brag a lot about them to our friends and other community members.  We put their pictures front and center on our walls.  And, especially around Christmastime (aka WOW! Season), we dedicate most of our attention to them.  It’s no wonder, then, that coming into this organization I expected that the golden child could do no wrong.  That they were always high quality.  That they would always deliver optimal results: superstar Citizen Teachers, engaged students, impressive WOW!s, and happy Teaching Fellows.  Not the case.

My first semester with Citizen Schools, I was assigned to be the Teaching Fellow liaison to the Project Re-Runway apprenticeship.  A witty play on words, this apprenticeship effectively taught a group of girls the basics of environmental sustainability, carbon footprints, and how to create something of value out of discarded materials.  The WOW!—or final performance/presentation—was to be a fashion show of the students’ recyclable outfits.  Call me crazy but I was extremely skeptical about how I could convince a bunch of pre-pubescent fashion-obsessed young women, immersed in a world where physical appearance at school was more important than world peace, to parade around wearing a combination of yesterday’s obituaries from the Boston Globe, a plastic bag, and some duct tape.  And so the semester from hell began…

With surprisingly little initial prodding, the young fashionistas dove into the activities with excitement as they sketched out their elaborate ideas for mini-skirts, belly shirts, and the most hip accessories made of soda caps and paper clips I’d ever seen.  As they dreamed up clothing articles for themselves, they critiqued the ones I wore: “Miss Lambert you need HELP,” they would say as they gave me and my J. Crew outfit the judgmental ‘once-over’.  Despite the challenges they faced creating cute clothes out of yesterday’s dumpster deposits, they forged on, leaving scraps of magazines and my dignity to sweep up at the end of each day.

As I began to mentally prepare for the apprenticeship one Tuesday—the worst day of the week—I took a deep breath and resentfully moseyed over to the corner of our office reserved for Project Re-Runway outfits and materials.  Nothing.  Not a trashy outfit in sight (pun intended).  So, you know that age-old expression “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”?  Well, our trash-turned-treasure went full circle and became the school janitor’s trash…again.  AND (get this) it wasn’t even recycled!  Yes, Alanis Morrissette, it IS ironic.

However, with every experience comes perspective.  In a perfect world, every apprenticeship would challenge our students with rigorous material.  Stimulate them to explore the depths of an unknown field.  Inspire them to ask questions and return week after week excited to discover the answers.  But the reality is: things aren’t always perfect.  Some apprenticeships are going to soar, and others are going to flop; some Citizen Teachers will be autonomously fabulous, while others will need more coaching and collaboration to be a success; sometimes things go exactly according to plan, and sometimes…the janitor throws away your final product.  It’s our job as masters of Citizen Schools not to give up, but to take what we learn, turn around, and approach the next one from a different angle.

Yes, my first apprenticeship experience was somewhat of a dud; but as a result, I learned to prepare for the worst, come up with innovative ways to motivate students through challenges, and bring energy and creativity to make dull material seem cool to the average 12 year old.  And since Project Re-Runway, I have witnessed several success stories, seen students shine, and been WOW’d by impressive displays of teamwork and knowledge.  There’s no denying it…despite ups and downs, valuable lessons are learned and apprenticeships still come out on top as the most remarkable, inspiring aspect of our program.  Wonders never cease with the golden child.

When have you come up against a reality that changed an idealistic viewpoint? How did you overcome?