Developing Purpose

One of the most commonly asked questions about the ARCTIC Zone is “Who is your target student population?” As in – which kinds of students benefit most from our learning environment and structure? We have been guided and encouraged by many people to try to narrow our answer down to help students and families make decisions about registration or to help the community better understand our goals. The truth is, though, we don’t have a good answer for that question, and I don’t know that we ever will.

We have students across the board, of all different skill levels, from all walks of life, with varying degrees of academic achievement leading up to middle school who absolutely thrive in the AZ. We also have students from each of those categories who flounder. We see students who start out really rough until one day, something clicks, and they are off and running. We see some who start off really strong and motivated but for one reason or another fall into poor habits and struggle to correct them.

What’s the difference? What makes one student successful in the AZ and another not? Honestly … I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ll ever know the answer. Perhaps after a few more years, it will become more clear. Until then, though, I will continue to work on reaching each student at their level, on their terms, and to build the necessary skills and habits for success in and out of the AZ.

Once in a while I like to do a read-aloud in each of my classes. It’s something I never tire of, and regardless of their ages, students love to be read to. In one of my classes, we’re reading a book by Gordon Korman called The Unteachables. It’s about a bitter teacher counting down the days till his early retirement being placed with a small group of self-contained 8th grade students who have been removed from a general education setting for various reasons. We’re nearing the beginning of the end, and despite earlier events in the book, a positive relationship has been growing between the teacher and students.

In the chapter we read today, they took a field trip to a local automotive shop. One of the students, who struggles with Dyslexia, which is mentioned nearly every time the character is discussed – clearly a major hardship for him, has an emotional aha moment at the shop. He has his hands under the hood of a vehicle and just finished replacing a gasket to fix an exhaust leak. In this moment, he feels like he has a purpose for the first time.  He mentions how dumb he feels at school not being able to read as quickly as those around him, but that here, he’s found something he is good at, something that feels meaningful and right.

I stopped reading at this point and went off on one of my many tangents – another great reason to read aloud. You never know where a book might take you and your class discussions. Quick tangent – in another class, we watched a video about Emmett Till today off the cuff because he was mentioned in our read-aloud for that class. That’s for a different post, though. Back to my first tangent – we talked about how school, in many ways, focuses on a few things it values in students… reading, writing, math, test-taking, etc. If you’re not great any those things, the first 18 years of your life can be a real downer.

That’s why, in the AZ, we try to bring out the strengths of each student, even if they don’t realize them in themselves yet, and to apply those strengths to projects that can incorporate all the other stuff “school” wants them to know and do. By starting there, we work to develop weaker skills to apply to future projects and life endeavors.

Yesterday was not a school day. Teachers had professional development and instructional planning time, so students had the day off. At the end of the work day, four of my AZ students showed up to work on a current project. They showed up on their day off, to spend two hours with me, building wooden flats to be used for the set in our upcoming school play. One of these students is my stage manager for the play and another is a cast member and student who plans to use the time as volunteer hours for National Junior Honors Society.

The other two created this as a 3rd quarter project. They have applied science and technology standards and conducted research regarding supplies and pricing. For one of these students, this is HIS thing. School is definitely not his thing. But he showed up … at school … on his day off … to work on a school project. Everyone has a place and a purpose in this world. School’s job should be to help them find it and develop it.

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