“Hey, Isa! Isa!” I call as I ride the wave of students heading to their lockers before school. Finally, she turns and stops at the next break.
“Good morning. I missed you yesterday and thought we could work on your speech for today. Maybe you can come in at lunch?” Isa was absent the day before because she and 25 percent of our students joined thousands of immigrants for “A Day Without Immigrants,” a national day of political action to show America the importance of immigrants (February 16, 2017).
Isa nodded and jumped back on the wave.
When lunch started, I made my way to our cafetorium to find Isa. I scanned the tables and found some of her friends, and they told me she was in my classroom. Sure enough, when I returned to my classroom, Isa was sitting at her desk with a Chromebook working on her research and speech.
The week before winter break was the last week of second quarter for our junior high. Every quarter, I use that final week of the quarter for two purposes: 1) to confer with students about their final grade and 2) for students to work on a project that they can do mostly independently and later present on our Friday public speaking days — every Friday for the entire school year, students present stories, poems, or research. For second quarter, students conducted research to imagine and plan the next ten years of their life. They each researched an answer to one question: What will you do with your one precious life? They reflected on their values, dreamed about what, who, and where they wanted to be, took a career quiz, read biographies, explored opportunities in high school, looked into part-time jobs, explored colleges, searched apartments, created a budget, read about philanthropic options, developed mottos, wrote a speech to synthesize the research in the voice of their future self (see an example below), and created a slideshow with images to support the content (e.g., Slides, A Life as an Artist, also see below). I set up a schedule for three students to be “guest speakers” each Friday through January, February, and March.
The deadline for the written speech was in December, before break. I considered this a rather provisional deadline because I figured many students would revise their speech as they saw others or just spend more time on it as their official speech date neared. Isa spent much of the research week trying to chat with friends while I conferred with other students about their final grade.
On the Monday of Isa’s speech week, she had about a third of her research and speech completed, so I invited her to lunch or to stay after school. She did not come on Monday or Tuesday. On Wednesday, I “invited” her to our back table away from our study of Night to guide her through the project step-by-step, but it wasn’t enough time, and she didn’t stay after school on Wednesday. Thursday, she was absent, and by Friday morning, it looked like she would miss the official deadline.
I always let students revise and resubmit work. I always let students turn in assignments until I absolutely need to submit a final grade, but the speeches were scheduled to give everyone an official time, place, and audience. There is no “next week” because those slots/commitments have already been made.
During lunch on the day of her speech, Isa told me about her love of Pixar movies. She showed me some of her drawings. She found a school where she could get a degree in digital art and animation. She asked me about GPAs, SAT scores, and philanthropy.
Our class is right after lunch, so we altered the order of speeches so she could she work through the first guest speaker’s presentation. I sat beside her coaching her through the parts she’d have to ad-lib. When we heard “please welcome our next guest speaker, Isa Gonzalez,” I took her seat as part of the audience, and she went right to the podium, which is a music stand:
Hello, my name is Isa Gonzalez, and I am a production animator. When I was in 8th grade, I valued friendship, respect, and acceptance. Someone I looked up to was Alvy Ray Smith a computer animator he was one of the founders of Pixar.I wanted to be a computer animator. So in high school I joined computer club, volleyball, and the girls soccer team. Some part time jobs I took was Starbucks. I wanted to prove I was responsible. I talked to my counselor to make sure I was taking the right classes like Architecture, animation and engineering and to be sure I was ready to go to a University. I wanted a GPA of 3.5 and test score like 1000 for my SAT. I am proud to say that I attained my goal. I graduated high school in 2021. Junior Year of high school, I applied to several colleges, I got into DigiPen Institute of Technology University. Shortly after graduating I got my dream job at Pixar and work at the Computer Animation. I love my job because I get to do what I love. One way I give back to the community is by volunteering at art clubs in local schools. Here’s what I think 8th graders should know: do your work. Thank you for listening.
As Isa returned to her seat, I got up and shook her hand.
“I want to finish this,” she said smiling.
“You can. And in your slide show, I hope you put some of her own art work. We can organize a lunch time presentation. You can bring some of your friends to be your audience.”
Isa wasn’t looking at me. She was adding to her speech until the next speaker began, and she closed her Chromebook to listen.
Deadlines are important. Much of the “real” world works around and, in part, because of deadlines. When teachers have 170 students, a deadline is a contract between the teacher and the student to submit work or evidence of learning by a certain time and date. The teacher has, likely, adjusted her calendar to free up time to write feedback to honor her part of the contract with timely feedback (and even plans to make time for revisions).
But readiness and willingness are two features of learning that may just happen because of deadlines which complicates the teacher-student contract. This view frustrates teachers and students because the report card deadlines are always looming and pushing against the true nature of learning through experience, which is rarely linear and not at all compliant with the neat measurements of points and letter grades.
I think that the “lesson” of deadlines is that while they exist for the sake of order and accountability — part of schooling’s systems — they also have potential to stimulate and in some cases agitate learning. For this reason, as much as possible, then, I try to see deadlines for assignments or projects as provisional in that the deadline serves for the time being, existing only until readiness and/or willingness occur, which may or may not occur by the deadline. Essentially, the only firm deadline I follow is the one from our district office that says “grades are due by 11:59 pm on Tuesday.” For me, reframing deadlines in this way has allowed me some peace and made me more patient with the Isas in my classes; this has required in me a shift in thinking about learning — how, why, and why learning happens — but also a shift in how I envision assessment and grading.
Isa’s “grade” for the speech and public speaking was not so good. We evaluated the detail of her research, the slides for how well the media supported her message, her eye contact, and her volume, and her professionalism in the delivery of the speech. She essentially read her speech, which was enough for me that day, but it was not enough for her. In that moment, she had a sense of readiness and willingness that was not realized until she had the time, place, and audience.
When Isa told me she wanted “to finish,” I could have told her that the deadline came and passed, but the truth is that we have four more weeks for this quarter, and if she wants another time, place, and audience, and if she has the readiness and willingness, then I am all for making a new deadline.
Life is not linear. We do not plan our one precious life and then follow that plan. The twists and turns of life shift our imagined deadlines and distort our dreams; experiences in those twists often help us revise or refine our wishes. Learning is no different. As teachers, we set up a plan and do our best to facilitate that plan for all students, but the reality of it is that the plan does not work for every student — it just can’t. Yes, we have to have due dates and deadlines for our sanity, for some sense of order and time management, for report cards. However, the deadline itself is a learning experience that may just be what some students need to, in fact, learn.
I am not sure if the high of the speaking event will sustain Isa long enough for her to finish her research and redo her presentation, but I will invite her to do so, at least until the end of the quarter.