Why I Don’t Assign “Cute” Projects

Helping my son with a “bottle biography” has only reinforced my decision not to do cute projects with my own students.

Why I Don't Do Cute Projects

I saw an article a couple of weeks ago listing creative book report ideas. I scrolled through them, saw a couple that my students might enjoy. Then I thought guiltily to myself, “I should really do more stuff like this, instead of just making my seventh graders write essays all the time.”

A day or two later, my son, a second grader, came home and said, “Mom, look in my homework folder. I’ve got a real big project.” We had to use a two-liter soda bottle to make a bottle biography for an important African American in history. Notice I don’t say he had to do this. This was a family endeavor.

We did the project. He wrote the report, and mom, dad, and baby sister pitched in to create a two-feet-high crime against nature with a Brooklyn Dodgers hat and a somewhat disturbing smile. But I learned a few things about “creative” and “cute” projects during the process, things that led me to feel a lot more comfortable with the boring assignments I give.

“Cute” projects require a LOT of time.

I don’t mind helping my kid study for tests, or practice subtraction with regrouping, or figure out what adjectives are. But this project required several hours of my time and, I mean, look at it. That monstrosity required a trip to the craft store, multiple rounds of painting, a follow-up trip to the craft store to buy the right size hot glue sticks, multiple rounds of gluing, a panicked call to the vet when the dog ate the uncooked rice we spilled while trying to give the project a more stable base. It was an ordeal.

And okay, maybe you can chalk some of that up to incompetence. But I’ve got a car and a driver’s license and only two kids, and this was still a serious trial. If I’d had to drag four kids to the craft store on a city bus, like some moms I know, I’d probably have decided that two-and-a-half years of public education were enough for my son and it was time for him to drop out and start learning a trade.

“Cute” projects are expensive.

Baby T-shirt: $3

Toilet plunger (used for baseball bat): $4

Fabric paint: $6

Yarn: $2

Foam head: $6

Dodgers hat: $10

Marriage and family therapy to recover from the trauma: TBD

Could we have just bought some construction paper and hoped for the best? Sure, I guess. But don’t forget about point three …

“Cute” projects often assess the parents, not the kids.

My son is pretty competent for a seven-year-old, but I’m still not putting a hot glue gun in his hands. His X-Acto knife skills leave something to be desired, too. This was a project that could not possibly have been done independently by a second grader. To make matters worse, the rubric included pictures of example projects. I had no idea Martha Stewart’s child went to school with mine, but apparently that is the case, because the quality and detail on some of those two-liter bottles made them look like something you’d find in the American Girl catalog. Ours looked more like something you’d find in the Museum of Modern Art. But, like, not in a good way.

I get the point of projects like this.

Teachers want the parents to be involved, and that’s not a bad thing. They want to give kids ways to use artistic and spatial reasoning, not just linguistic thinking, and to do some hands-on learning. But I’m convinced that there are ways to do this without requiring $50 and a trip across town to the craft store.

One-pagers do a great job of allowing kids to express themselves artistically and think symbolically. Heck, just having a kid draw a picture of whatever they’re writing about or create a comic strip can activate different parts of their brain and enable them to demonstrate their understanding in a different format.

I give assignments on a regular basis that require kids to interview their family members. I want parents involved in what’s going on in my classroom, and I want them to know what their kids are learning about. We read Junot Diaz’s Islandborn, and kids interview their parents about their childhoods and write stories. Or we read We Should Hang out Sometime, and they document hilariously awkward conversations with a family member about their own romantic adventures.

If you absolutely have to have something cute to show off in your classroom, there are ways to manage that, too.

Supply all the materials your students need, if your school will spring for that. Or require kids to use only stuff they already have around the house. Or provide a menu of options so the crafty parents (or nannies, whatever) can do the cute stuff and my kid can write his report and draw a picture.

“Cute” projects look great displayed in the hallway, but they don’t provide all kids equal access to the curriculum, and they often don’t assess the work actually done by the kids. After our Jackie Robinson fiasco, my students will keep writing reports for my class, and I won’t feel even a little bit guilty about it.

What’s your take on cute projects? We’d love to hear in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.

Plus, why cute classrooms are overrated.

Why I Don't Assign "Cute" Projects

Posted by Captain Awesome

Captain Awesome teaches seventh grade English at an urban charter school for refugee and immigrant kids. She is a big fan of books, social justice, holiday-flavored coffee creamers, righteous indignation, and Friday Night Lights.

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