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The Answers Aren’t In This Classroom

Session 5
Jesse Downs — Providence Day School (Charlotte, NC)

This is a conversation about our students’ capabilities and seriousness of purpose when they are working on something that truly matters. It’s about what they can do when faced with a client or partner or responsibility to another that isn’t going away. It’s a conversation about the difference our students can make when failure isn’t a choice or even a comprehensible possibility. It’s an opportunity to talk about hopes and dreams for our students’ futures, and how we might eliminate the distinction between classrooms and real-world complexities.

In January of 2015, I handed my students a dozen handmade paperclips and told them they had to use them to make a positive impact in the lives of others. They could only barter (no money or donations) and could not trade with each other or their families. They were on their own and had to wade beyond the secure classroom environment and into the messy real world beyond. Hundreds of trades and countless surprises later, they gave nearly $14,000 in goods and services to individuals and organizations at home and abroad. Along the way, they discovered the value of values and the power of collaboration.

Early on, students asked how they would be graded. “According to the depth and duration of your impact on others,” I said.

“Is there a rubric?” they asked.

“Not one that I can give you,” I replied. “The answers aren’t in this classroom. You’ll have to go out and truly understand others’ needs in order to know what you should do. They are the ones who will tell you what the requirements are. Not me.”

These were clearly not the answers that they wanted to hear. But, alongside others’ needs and the good that they were trying to create in the world, my students quickly stopped concerning themselves with my alphanumeric assessments of their academic performance, and began to place emphasis where it really mattered—making a positive impact on others.

Participants in this conversation will discuss the myriad challenges to pursuing and measuring impact while also remaining accountable to the “game of school.” What impact do you hope your students will have in the world beyond the classroom? What are the structural, temporal, spatial challenges to focusing on impact? How might we measure impact in (your subject area or grade level)? These and other questions will drive the conversation, as participants seek the inspiration they need to let their students lead the way toward our future.

Conversational Practice

After briefly sharing the story of sixty-one Providence Day School students’ successes, failures, challenges, and determination to positively impact others, and their teacher’s attempts to measure that impact; participants in this conversation will use a version of the focus/framing question exercise to develop the questions that will provoke the very best in their students. They’ll leave with the questions that will drive the pursuit of impact and catalyze students’ learning in and beyond their school walls.

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