Most teachers would probably naturally intuit this, but carting 20 students to downtown Boston so they may throw paper airplanes at strangers is probably not a good idea. Too many things could go wrong, and why, exactly, would they want to do this in the first place?
I was cautious, but I really care about putting students’ ideas at the forefront of learning, so we executed this harebrain idea anyway. It did not go so well. And, it was a huge success.
How can it be both? First some background….We used CNN’s Freedom Project throughout the term as one source for our research on modern slavery. One posted assignment, Paper Airplanes for Freedom, intrigued us. It is pretty simple: make a paper plane, write messages of solidarity on it, launch it, and encourage those that pick it up to do the same. It’s a novel way of spreading awareness. More slaves exist in the world today than at any point in human history….27 million by some counts.
As we brainstormed our own ideas for raising awareness, the students had an overwhelming urge to create a public action. During the idea generating and iteration phases, “Paper Airplane Flash Mob” rose to the top. The students and I thought it represented a chance to grab people’s attention and make a lasting impression. We also thought we could execute it relatively easily.
After several practice sorties at school, we launched the mission on Friday, Oct. 26, 2012, traveling to the start of the Freedom Trail in the Boston Common, armed with matching t-shirts, and hundreds of paper airplanes that, when unfolded, contained QR code links to six of the best abolitionist sites we found.
A beautiful picture, right? Notice the typo? I do. Despite a system of checks and balances, many mistakes were made. In list the current average “prive” of a slave at 90 dollars. Now, I am a high school English teacher with sixteen years’ experience. Spelling errors don’t faze me. I even make some. But, when taking work public, I feel extreme internal pressure to make things as perfect as possible. My students don’t always seem to share my concern.
Success #1: We made a bunch of mistakes.
Of course, we learn from mistakes. The process of revision (a.k.a. iterations) becomes more powerful and “sticky” if the students truly care about the finished product. Helping students find a real world audience is one of the most “rigorous” steps I can take when seeking to improve their communication skills. If I want a student to sweat over the finer details, reshaping her language until it is as perfect as it can be, I have to get her to write for someone other than me.
The students are also writing articles (some are creating videos, too) about various modern slavery topics, and we want to publish these on CNN iReport. During the looooong revision process of these articles, all the mistakes we made during our public work add up; the students are now more likely to catch the small errors on their own. (By the way, all of the “typo” planes were grounded before our public launch.)
Steps like creating a template for the planes turned out to be trickier than we thought, but luckily our resident Photoshop guru (a student…not me) was patient and willing to make last minute changes. Organizing all the minutia of the “day of” jobs was tedious, but the Type A students put their personalities to good use.
Getting site permission was insanely complex, too. Internally, we exchanged a slue of emails, and the school’s lawyer scrapped many of our initial sites. Faneuil Hall, it turns out, has a specific clause in its code of conduct for the property that excludes “throwing missiles of any kind,” just in case you’re curious. In addition, we left many, many voicemails that were never returned. Luckily, Mayor Menino’s office turned out to be very helpful and directed us to the proper person in the Boston Parks Department. He was flexible, affable, and quick to reply to emails, so the morning of the event we were finally able to receive official permission.
Success #2: It wasn’t easy.
Because this task wasn’t easy, my students and I were forced to rely on each other. We were also forced to ask for help. Our school’s marketing department was invaluable. Administration was supportive, creative, and instrumental in problem solving. Parents weighed in with advice. I’m a pretty creative and organized guy, so I am sometimes guilty of doing too much of the “heavy lifting” for the students. With a project this complex, I was forced to delegate. Students did the majority of this work, and while it might have been faster for me to jump in and get things done, it wouldn’t have been as effective.
In the end, we didn’t change many minds with our paper airplane bombing idea. Many people ignored or avoided us. One sweet girl was kindly told to, “Go to hell!” by an adult walking by.
We attempted to generate media coverage of the event, but we couldn’t get anyone to bite. In addition, many of the students were very shy in public. We practiced role-playing beforehand, and I warned the students the most difficult part of their idea would be approaching strangers in the streets. In reality, we should have planned for this obstacle much more thoroughly, as I spent most of my time coaching, modeling, and cajoling—encouraging students to engage others. Yet, they struggled. If we’re honest, we had little effect.
Success #3: Who cares?
This project, though, was never really about changing public opinion. Inspiring action on a mass scale is incredibly difficult, even unpredictable. My students, however, will never forget this work. I am quite certain that when they are my age our crazy little idea will be something they will tell their kids about…and they will also teach their kids about modern slavery.
If I show my students I care about their ideas, they begin to care about mine. In the end, these kinds of projects profoundly change the students I teach, making them more empathetic and proactive. Even in failure, then, we can find meaningful, long-lasting success.
Learn more about our Modern Slavery Project: