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Replacing Student Apathy with Purpose

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If there’s a single word that stands out this year from everything I’ve read, everyone I’ve interviewed, everything I’ve worked on, it’s purpose. Our biggest fight these days is apathy and disconnection, and our clearest solution is to give our students meaningful purpose.

Last night I interviewed Ted Dintersmith about his yearlong trip across The United States, visiting schools and meeting with education leaders and stakeholders. He told me about a classroom in North Dakota where eighth graders had the idea to repurpose an abandoned bowling alley into a community center, fundraising and pulling their town together to make it happen. Their project gave them a fresh sense of purpose at school, and seeing their efforts did the same for their community.


A few weeks ago I was in Richmond for a conference, and I listened to Cathleen Beachboard talk about how she developed a community problems bank and turned it into a PBL passion project for her students, inviting them to develop solutions and partner with community organizations. Soon her students were visiting lonely people with dementia and recording their stories in collaboration with Storycorp.

Last week I talked to Eileen Landay, director emeritus of Brown’s teacher education program, about how to create arts integration units that lead to the performance of student work – whether that means creating a mixed media show for the whole school, performing choral readings of Whitman or Hughes for the class, or publishing student writing across the classroom walls or the school halls. Building layered units, filled with different artistic lenses on print texts, culminating in some final performance, can build such a strong sense of purpose throughout the unit.

I’ve been reading about the Remake Learning Network in Pittsburgh, that began as a breakfast date amongst a few interested community members to talk about education today and has turned into a hugely diverse set of innovative education programs, connecting and inspiring different groups to give students purpose through maker spaces, national writing project work, community mentorship, and more. This network is now spreading purpose to students across Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania by funding and supporting innovative educators without prescribing any certain one-size-fits-all approach. Check out their Remake Learning Playbook to learn more about what’s working well.

We’ve been talking about Sarah Fine and Jal Mehta’s book, In Search of Deeper Learning, over in our online book club in Creative High School English. One of their key findings after years of research into what helped students take their learning to a deeper level related to purpose – blurring the lines between the classroom and the real world, the study of the discipline and the discipline itself, made a huge difference in engaging students in real work.

Students in the semester program, Lab Atlanta, study their own city and then build and complete a capstone project that comes out of what they discover. Students in the Iowa Big program work with community partners on real projects as part of their coursework. I learned about these and many more inspiring programs that are working right now in Dintersmith’s book, What Schools Could Be.

Hearing about all this, reading about all this, seeing all this, FIRES ME UP.

When I got off the phone with Ted Dintersmith last night, after listening to him tell me that the era of the datahawk is over and everyone knows it, standardized tests are on the way out, I wanted to do cartwheels across my living room. I wanted to set off fireworks. I wanted to stay up all night figuring out how to transform education in my small town. Because as Ted said, this is the most important fight of our time. I know you know it. Millions of kids are ready to be inspired to solve our world’s problems, and perhaps at last the tide is turning away from standardized testing and towards innovation and purpose.

I think it’s time to stop repeating the old refrain, “close your door and do what’s best for your students.” Maybe it’s time we creative educators fling wide our doors and say that what we’re doing is working, and we’re ready to share our ideas and our excitement with everyone who wants to listen.

Maybe it’s time we stand up at school board meetings and request funding to create community poetry murals, writing makerspaces, and vibrant classroom libraries.

Maybe it’s time we work with coalitions of teachers to request district exceptions to testing policies.

Maybe it’s time to perform action research on how doing real work in our communities might help our students build their problem solving, literacy, and collaboration skills.

Maybe it’s time we boldly host poetry slams at coffee shops, perform student-written plays at the local elementary school, launch genius hour, and read what students actually want to read.

Maybe it’s time to take school back for the teachers and students.

It’s already happening in pockets across the country. Schools are remaking themselves with new goals – a sense of purpose, the building of skills like critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity instead of the ability to test well.

So what can you do?

Well, I know you’re already doing something really important. Teaching creatively. Now it’s time to take what you know and bravely help build a movement at your school and in your community.

Check out Ted Dintersmith’s latest project, The Innovation Playlist. Share it with your administrators and teacher friends. It’s full of small, doable steps, explained through short videos, that can help create change. Ask if your faculty can watch Ted Dintersmith’s documentary, Most Likely to Succeed, together and discuss it (now available free at this link). Keep in mind Ted’s advice, to work with the teachers who are EXCITED to create change and innovation, not try to drag everyone on board. It’s far easier to start a movement with people who want to do it than to try to force everyone into one.

Think about how you can connect your classroom to your community. This could take so many forms! It will look different everywhere. Is there a community issue that matters to your students, that they could develop a project to work on? In my town I can think of a lot of issues intelligent high school students might be able to come up with solutions for – there’s no park for the local kids to play in, the town library is open very intermittently, there are very few stores and restaurants open in the downtown, one of the elementary schools is overcrowded and understaffed, local kids get little opportunity to learn about robotics or experiment with new technologies like 3D printers, political lines are drawn starkly within the community, with little dialogue between the two sides. Can you imagine all the ways smart teenagers might tackle these issues? Can you imagine the sense of purpose it would give them and the fulfillment they would feel in solving some of them?

I was talking to an art teacher a few weeks ago from a small town where fighting is the main means of conflict resolution. She was struggling with all the fighting happening in her school and classroom, and sad knowing that it was virtually being mandated by parents, who modeled it at home. What if her art class spent the year studying nonviolent conflict resolution, studying protest art and creating documentaries about how to deal with conflict and resolve it peacefully? What if they created a community mural for peace? Or used the idea of literatura del cordel – in which writing and art are hung on a string to be read and seen by the community –  to create a community installation where people could share their feelings and reactions to violence through art and poetry? What if the English teachers collaborated, choosing a summer reading book with themes of nonviolent conflict resolution and leading discussions about ways of responding to conflict in the book and in students’ own lives? What if the history teachers showcased leaders who fought peacefully? This problem of fighting could lead to a new sense of purpose throughout the school, to transform this difficult part of their community heritage.


Start wondering about funding. Where is the money going at your school? What organizations are partnering with you and your colleagues? What might be accomplished with a few micro-grants, the help of a local philanthropist, or a redistribution of testing program money into books and 3D printers and transportation to the local elementary school once a week for a joint program? Can you fight for it? Make an Amazon wishlist. Register projects at Donors Choose. Let the community know. As you build connections through projects that work on community problems, you may discover donors as well as new volunteers and mentors from within your community. Help your students expand their network of support.

Start singing successes to the rooftops. When your kids do something great, take the time to do the P.R. Send photos to the paper. Showcase it to your principal so she can showcase it to the board. Record a video to email to the state legislature to show what focusing on something besides testing can do. Invite parents to come in for the final performance or exhibition. See if a local business wants to exhibit students’ work, or the local library wants to display it. Start a teacher Instagram for your class and your community, to show the amazing things your students are doing.


So there we have it. To quote Rachel Madden, this is my fight song. I believe that you and I are important leaders in the next era of education, the era starting now, the era of innovation and creativity, the era that will see the end of standardized testing as the flagship of our school system.


Did you know you can learn about all your wish list ELA strategies on your daily commute or walk with The Spark Creativity Teacher Podcast? Explore one-pagers, escape rooms, sketchnotes, creative annotation options, research projects, poetry workshops, and much more through over a hundred quick episodes waiting for you on your favorite podcast player!



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I'm Betsy

I’ll help you find the creative ELA strategies that will light up your classroom. Get ready for joyful teaching!







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