“Nobody likes it.”

Those words, which came from a student with regard to the project we’re working on in class this week, were like a punch to the gut. It was an interesting conversation. I wrote in my last reflection about an experiment I’m doing with my juniors, in which they are writing an essay as a class. Well, after a scheduled meeting about unrelated topic, one of those juniors asked if she could talk to me about something. The exchange went something like this.

Her: “Are we going to write any more essays as a class?”
Me: “I don’t know–maybe. Why do you ask?”
Her: “Because nobody likes it.”

I probably shouldn’t have been, but I was taken aback by this. Maybe it was the bluntness of her comment (something I don’t see often enough at a girls’ school, in my opinion), but my first reaction was personal; my feelings were hurt. Here, I had spent all this time crafting an interesting and engaging project (and believe me–they are engaged), and nobody likes it?

I shouldn’t have been surprised. This project has required students to take a fairly sizable step outside their comfort zones. Once I remembered that it wasn’t all about me, I asked her why nobody liked it. (It’s worth noting that this particular student is one of the strongest in the class, and it quickly became clear that she had been appointed emissary by a group of her peers.)

She admitted that the process has been uncomfortable (the class has gotten a little tense at times as students have disagreed about both what the thesis should be and about how to best support it), and she told me that many students felt as though they would write the essay differently. “I mean, it took us two days to write a thesis,” she said, “and some people still aren’t happy about it.” Along those lines, some students apparently don’t feel that the essay–which is nowhere near complete, mind you–reflects their ideas or represents them.

My response to all of this was pretty straightforward. I told this student that I appreciated her coming to talk to me about this and that I understood her concerns and that they were all normal and reasonable. And then I told her all of the reasons why I still think what we’re doing is beneficial–and why we’re likely to do something similar again in the future. In fact, before our conversation, I hadn’t really considered whether we do do something like this again. But during the course of our conversation, I pretty much made up my mind that I had to. (At the time, I wasn’t really sure why, but I’ll get to that later.)

First, and most basically, the class is learning and practicing how to write persuasively.

History teachers often ask their students to write, and yet in my experience, they also tend to place more emphasis on the historical content, believing perhaps that writing instruction is the proper domain of English teachers. I myself have fallen into this trap, but I’ve come to believe that if you’re going to expect your students to write, you need to teach them how to do it. I’m working on this, but this project represents a major step in that direction.

Second, and most practically, the class is learning to collaborate.

I’m not sure I fully realized it until this afternoon, but there is a life lesson to be learned here. “You’re feeling uncomfortable,” I told this student, “because you’re not in complete control of the finished product.” She nodded. “Well, I hate to tell you this,” I said, “but in the ‘real world,’ you’re rarely in complete control of the finished product.” With very few exceptions, no matter what we do in life, the key to our success or failure is held in part by others. This can be taken in a defeatist direction or an empowering one, because to say that we are not in complete control is not to say that we have NO control. If we are serious about changing education in the twenty-first century, we must place our students in situations where they are forced to rely on others. If this example is any indication, they will not like that. But they will benefit from it.

Third, and most excitingly (to me, at least), the class is doing intellectual work that reflects the work done by historians.

Paraphrased, the question at hand asks students to assess the extent to which colonists identified AS AMERICANS on the eve of the Revolution. My students are not of one mind about this, and they have argued with each other, at times quite passionately. As their discussions have continued, their theses have grown increasingly complex. We went from (essentially) “Yes, they identified as Americans–why else would they fight a war?” to “Most colonists agreed about the need for certain freedoms and rights, but they were not unified in their desire for independence or as Americans.” It’s a working thesis, to be sure, but it’s a far cry from the simplistic ideas that they proffered at the outset.

As they have debated about how to support the thesis, they have consistently challenged each others’ ideas and demanded evidence. “How would you support this?” asks one. “Doesn’t this other document refute that?” The process has been one of synthesis. The answers, such as they are, have been hard-fought, and yet they are still tentative at best. This is what good history looks like, and that may be the most lasting lesson of all.

As I told my student, “This is what historians spend their lives doing. They review each others’ work and question their evidence. They write books to argue with each others’ interpretations. That’s exactly what you’re doing, just on a smaller scale.” I asked her to give it time. “Before you judge the process, wait and see what the finished product looks like,” I implored her. “I think you may be surprised by how well it turns out.”

Despite my initial surprise and disappointment upon hearing that “nobody likes it,” I’ve come to think that if my students are uncomfortable, I’m probably doing something right. After all, the frontier of knowledge lies somewhere beyond comfort. It is there that real learning takes place, and yet I don’t want to push them so far into discomfort that they resist the exercise entirely. So where do we go from here?

We shall see. Perhaps they need to be reassured that they are, in fact, on the right path. It’s going slower than expected, but their patience will be rewarded. Perhaps they need to hear that it’s perfectly acceptable–even helpful!–to disagree vehemently. It’s uncomfortable, but their ideas will grow stronger for being challenged and defended. And perhaps they need to know that no matter how much they dislike it, this assignment is not going anywhere. It’s not easy, but nothing worth doing ever was.

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