How One Project Completely Changed the Way I Think About Teaching

How this sixth grade teacher learned a valuable lesson about offering different approaches and perspectives when it comes to education.

It was my first year as a teacher. I was in a Catholic middle school, teaching students social studies. I was so enthusiastic, and my creative juices were really flowing. My students seemed to really love it.

Around Christmas time, I gave an Ancient Egyptian scrapbook project to my sixth graders. The students had to pretend they had gone on vacation to Ancient Egypt and create a scrapbook depicting their trip. It was a huge project—worth fifty points.

Immediately after I assigned the project, I regretted it. You see, this project was due on one of the last days leading up to our holiday break. I didn’t want to grade these projects during my time off. As the piles of paper on my desk grew, I was getting angry. I told my co-workers that I would never assign this “silly scrapbook project” ever again. Ever!

A Surprising Turn of Events

One of the students in my class came from a particularly challenging background. Her parents weren’t around and she lived in a group home. She never completed any of the homework I assigned—not one thing the whole school year. So I certainly didn’t expect to see a scrapbook project from her.

To my surprise, one of the first scrapbooks I opened was hers. She had turned it in on time, and it was clearly ‘A’ material. I couldn’t believe it.

I was really proud of this student, so I called her over to my desk to show her the grade and give her my praises. I told her this was the best work she had ever done and I was really proud of her. Right then, she began to cry. They were happy tears, and then I started to cry, too.

When I spoke to some of the other middle school teachers about this, I came to find out that she was very interested in the project. She had carried it around with her all day, and she even told the other teachers how cool she thought it was.

After the break, this student started completing every homework assignment I gave. I could not believe it. I wondered how long she would keep it up. She turned in every assignment in my class for the rest of the school year. Those first five months of the beginning of the year were quickly erased.

A Different Way of Learning

I thought about this student and scenario for a while. And I finally realized that I tapped into something she truly loved—creativity. It made me realize just how much differently students can learn.

In college they constantly talk about this. You have to read what seems like a million articles about differentiated learning and how you have to modify your instruction to accommodate different students. But until I experienced it for myself, those were just words. It is so very difficult to understand what “every students learns differently” without experiencing it firsthand.

This student of mine was projected to fail my class until this one project brought out her creativity and turned it all around. And this experience has changed the way I think about teaching to this day.

I know that teachers preach “all children can learn,” but some days it sure doesn’t feel like it. Or you wonder if your students really want to learn.

I still try to do all different types of activities for my students. At the beginning of the school year, I now ask my middle school students what they prefer to do in class and as an assessment. Some students like tests and workbooks, while others love papers and projects. When you have almost 200 students, it can seem challenging to accommodate different learning styles, but it’s really not that hard when you break it down. Plus, the rewards can be incredible, especially if it helps reach more students.

Even today when I feel like a student is wearing me down or hope is running low, I think of that first year of teaching. It might have started with a “silly scrapbook project” that I vowed to never assign again, but it ended with a sixth grader giving me a whole new perspective on teaching.

Join our Facebook group WeAreTeachers—First Years! to connect with other new teachers, and learn more about how you can navigate your classroom and life.

Amy DeRossi

Posted by Amy DeRossi

I teach middle school reading and writing in a small neighborhood school in Chicago. When teaching middle school there is truly never a dull moment.
I enjoy writing in my spare time and sharing my love of teaching. I have not been teaching for a very long time but I have a lot of stories to share!