inspiration – vs – low expectations

When I was a little kid, I was inspired by the science fair project of a kid who actually knew science and tried to create something of my own. His project used battery power to light up parts on a plywood board. I used poster board and paper and glue and no understanding at all how to generate the light. My brother laughed at me. I’ve been thinking of that project a lot since starting to read The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (Young Readers Edition). Everyone called William crazy while he scavenged through the scrapyard and welded pieces of junk together. He, too, was inspired by other scientists, but in his case he knew what to do with the inspiration.

William Kamkwamba made a windmill to generate electricity for his village.

In this story, the kid lives through famine and the disappointment of being kicked out of school for not paying his fees. He works for hours each day on his project, while at the same time reading to learn what needed to be done – reading in English, not his first nor his strongest language, which meant constant translation to really make meaning from the text. If nothing else, this is the story of perseverance.

William was not put into one of the elite schools, his exam sores were too low, so he was not one of those “smart kids” you would expect high achievements from. But he never let that stop him. When he was accepted to the less prestigious school, he excitedly prepared to further his education. When he was sent home for not paying the fees, he started going to the library to read on his own. He didn’t just accept judgement from others to determine his fate. He stepped up.

For teachers, this story is a reminder of the harm of low expectations, and the amazing potential of effort. When I cut my kids some slack because they have a hard life, I limit them. They do have hard lives, with more stress and adversity than I could ever truly understand. But that can’t determine their fate. With effort, with time, with a compassionate environment, with some focus, each one can accomplish what they want to, whatever that is. In my room now I should expect to see future engineers, carpenters, filmmakers, web designers, business owners, parents, teachers, and whatever else strikes their fancy. I need to show I value their passions and help them learn how to work toward them.

I gave up on my cardboard electricity without ever trying to find out how a battery could light it up. The mockery certainly had an effect, but the truth is the science didn’t excite me enough to pursue it. My inspiration would come later, in words, in stories.

I cringe thinking of the time it will take to get to know each student well enough to sort through short lived fascinations and get to the sparks of lifelong passions. What is it about MindCraft that Maddy loves? How can I use her obsession to push her writing or her scientific observations? What will this lead her to and how can I help? And once I figure it out, when in the learning day to I do the same investigative work for the other 43 students I work with?

For today, my inspiration comes from William’s story, from a short meeting with my teammate about our Social Studies curriculum, from how rapt my students were by a video of a dancing robot, and by the thought of becoming a literacy coach and a teacher of teachers. With that end in mind, I have a lot of work to do today.

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