“This is hard,” she sighs at me, her body slumped over on the table, head leaning against her arm, pencil lying limp in her other hand. “It’s toooooo hard.”
“Hard is okay,” I say to her.
She raises one eyebrow at me in disbelief. “No, really,” I encourage her. “You learn when you do hard things. If we always did what was easy, we’d still have our moms feeding us, right? I mean, dang. That was soooo easy.”
She lowers that supercilious, 9th grade eyebrow and mutters, “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
I pat her on the shoulder before getting up to leave. “I promise,” I tell her, “I’ve never had a student die from writing a thesis statement.” She cracks a hint of a smile and sits up.
We are writing thesis statements for mini-TED-like talks in Health class. And I’m hearing them all sigh and say, “This is hard.”
And this is hard. Not just the thesis statement, but the whole project.
Frustrated by poor quality presentations that felt more like fact-finding than research, the health teacher and I decided to take on the usual independent health projects in a new, more meaningful way. Over the course of this quarter-long offering, working with a class of freshmen and sophomores a few half periods here and there at a time, we asked students to shift from the default Power Point regurgitated tedium that they too-often present to mini TED-like talks where they encourage the audience to look at a health topic in a new way.
Throughout the process, we watched students struggle. We had conversations that often began with “This is tooooo hard.” And we kept telling them, You’re right. This is hard. And that’s okay.
After choosing a topic, they had to decide what they were trying to prove–what they wanted their audience to understand. Writing this kind of a thesis statement is difficult and requires an abundance of conversation, processing, and many drafts. From there, they had to use that thesis statement to drive their writing, weeding through their facts and deciding which were relevant. Part of good research is knowing what is important and what is not necessary, and our students often have a difficult time weeding through all of the material they come across. We reminded them frequently: There are books out there on these topics. You are only speaking for about 5 minutes. Focus. Focus. Focus. They watched multiple TED talks, observing the craft over the content, and recognized that good presentations have attention-grabbing openings, integrate narrative elements with factual information, and have stimulating visual backdrops. Checking facts, writing drafts, receiving feedback, plowing through revisions, and practicing consumed their time. They worked hard.
Fast forward to the end of the semester.
It is last period on a Friday and the entire health class is sitting, silently, in the library, their eyes on a usually quiet girl who is presenting on what it is like to live with asthma. She stands, tall, with no note cards in her hands, looking her classmates in the eyes, speaking audibly, recalling statistics and experiences, with word-free images on the screen behind her. She is following another student who presented on how to understand peers who have social anxiety, who used personal and honest anecdotes, intermingled with haunting music, stunning artwork, and stark research. Before her, a boy who struggles with and often does not complete most assignments, stood tall and proud, pleading with his classmates to communicate with teachers the importance of standing and movement during the school day and the health implications of too much sitting. Another student, typically reserved, encouraged everyone to take precautions against skin cancer, using her own father’s experience as a backdrop to the research. Each student who stood up there in front of the class amazed us in a thousand different ways.
The health teacher and I sit, filled with pride, because what is happening this week in health class is spectacular. Our students walked away from the assignment, aware that what speaks to our hearts drives authentic research and that true research isn’t about spitting back facts, but about what we make of the facts we’ve come across. They learned that they can use research to make change, and that their voices are important. They recognized that when giving presentations, audio and visual channels will always compete, and how to balance the two. And that to communicate important research and conclusions, they always need to pull together an effective presentation.
But most importantly, this class of kids–honors students and IEP students, boys and girls, intrinsically and extrinsically motivated students–they took on something hard.
And they learned that hard is okay.