As I sat in line waiting to buy some blue paint and Goo-b-gone, the time creeping past 8:00 p.m., I thought, “Does any of this really have anything to do with English class?” This year I began my sophomore English classes with a project on modern slavery, and even though we moved on to topics like Gatsby’s impossible dream and the nuances of parallel structure, the Modern Slavery Project is still going, taking more and more of my time.
This re-occurring unit is one of which I am very proud. I have written about our work in the past, and every year I attempt to reboot this project, I start by showing past work and asking, “Now…what do YOU want to do?”
For the past two years this has meant tweaking the basic pattern from previous years: students research an aspect of modern slavery, create a video PSA, and write letters to various organizations and individuals, all the while making connections to Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. This work is always engaging, interesting, and original, but this year I pushed my students to think about ways to amplify their voices and increase their impact.
I utilized some design thinking training that is part of Beaver’s in-house professional development. I built in more time to INSPIRE (a research stage of the design process), and we took our ideas through a longer process of iteration. My students were particularly keen to take our work beyond the classroom walls, and they devised some novel ideas to do so:
27 Million Dots: Make Your Mark
One section transformed a three story hallway in the building by painting 27 million dots to represent the total number of slaves in the world today. This idea is inspired by Paper Clips, the documentary about children at a Whitwell, TN middle school collecting six million paper clips to represent the six million lives lost in the Holocaust. The students generated many ideas about how to best create a physical representation of such a large number, but the plan that emerged as most “doable” and having the most impact was the dots.
The morning of the dots experiment, I winked awake at four a.m., my brain crackling. I wasn’t falling back to sleep any time soon. I was second-guessing our decision to paint a public wall. I have seen my students’ handwriting, how could they possibly create an art installation that was professional? Also, I’m a teacher, which means I have control issues.
I was quick to calm myself. I began thinking about a Daniel Pink mantra we hear often at Beaver, “Make excellent mistakes.” If this idea turned out to be a failure, it would be an excellent one. We would mess up while implementing an idea that the students created, organized, and executed. I have been a true “guide on the side” during this process, and I just needed to have a little faith.
Of course, I needn’t have worried. We spent two hours painting dots and a significant transformation occurred. There were spills; there were drips; there were imperfections and smudges (some by me). Yet, there was beauty and learning, too. 16 students were able to create 54,440 dots in two hours, and they were engaged the entire time.
They worked out systems to streamline their work, they had fun, and they found moments of quiet reflection. The monotonous motion of applying dots gave them an echo-of-a-notion of the work slaves perform every day. They also prepared facts, quotes, and anecdotes about slaves’ lives. At various times we stood back, silently reflected, and then listened to one voice filling the quiet space with a sliver of truth about modern slavery.
In future posts I’ll share the students’ reflections on our 27 Million Dots work. Also, I took my other section to the start of the Freedom Trail in the Boston Common, where we created a flash mob, bombing a public space with paper airplanes for freedom. I promise more on this idea, too.
I am convinced such moments shape my students in ways that an essay, test, or presentation never could. My students still engage in more traditional modes of learning in class. I’m always grading piles of essays in my spare time, but I am most excited to chase more moments like these. For me, these ideas are exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. Teaching this way takes more effort, but I know the ideas that students generate, develop, and execute are the ones that really matter.