Thirty years ago my students felt a C was average. To earn an A was an accomplishment. Today, when I state to my students that the average on a test was 85% I am thinking it was an easy test. A different reaction is from my students who are worried why the average is so low. What happened to having a few students excel? When everyone is rewarded as if they excelled, it takes away from those that worked hard to be the best in the class.
In judging art and student writing, we put in literally thousands of hours reviewing the entries. Entries are viewed by more than one person and then the ones that we feel are worthy are invited to be published. The final winners come from these entries. When we do not accept an entry, we are not suggesting that it is not art or that is is not a poem or an essay. Not being accepted simply means that our judges thought other entries were more deserving to be published.
In working with student contests, we often have parents and teachers contact us and ask if we accept everyone who sends in an entry. There are some publications that may do that and have as their sole purpose to sell books. That is not who we are. Our goal is to be selective enough that it is an honor to be included. We want the “A” and “B” entries, the best entries, to receive recognition. If everyone is accepted, the accomplishment is diminished.
Sometimes entering a contest is discouraging. You may not be accepted. And then when we see the winners, we don’t always know the history of their success. For every success, that we see, there are often many struggles and failures that we don’t see. We all know the story of JK Rowling, and her many rejections before Harry Potter was accepted. But she kept trying, took the risk of rejection and we all know the result. Never limit your own opportunities. Take the chance and let others make the decision. If you don’t take the risk, you are limiting your success.
In my last blog, I talked about the challenge of “Doing Hard Things.” I have found in being a parent and a teacher, that when a student pushes themselves a bit farther, the result is a greater pride in their work. As teachers, it is often tough to balance between trying something too hard that leaves the student frustrated, and something challenging that leaves the student with a sense of pride. We don’t start with formal portraits or sonnets. We follow the guideline from the movie “What About Bob.” We take baby steps. Build on small successes, but keep moving forward.
However, if you don’t challenge your students, they often don’t take pride in the project. Each year my children compete in the National History Fair. In viewing the competition, the students who stand a little taller by their displays are the ones that have a sense of personal pride. These students were not minimalists, These students pushed themselves a bit. I am the director of Speech and Debate at Utah State. We compete in a conference against 25 other colleges and universities. We are a state school. Our competition is often the larger and more prestigious Pac 10 Schools or the small private liberal arts schools. However, my students have taken the conference for eight straight years. Are my students any different than our competition?
In reality, their ACT scores are probably lower than those of our competition. The difference is what I expect of my teams. I expect excellence and they rise to the occasion. Whether we win or lose, my expectation is that each student do their best. When I teach the same contest to my middle scholl debate teams, the result of teaching hard things?
We have taken the Utah State Championship two out of three years. So often, we have packets of poems or selections of art, where I know that the teacher did not attempt to “Do Hard Things.” The teacher did what was easy and comfortable. I challenge you to work with your students and push them just a bit farther that they thought they could achieve. You would be surprised by what they can do. Create projects that they can look back and say “It was hard. But I did it!”. Those moments often transcend the classroom and create successes that are carried throughout life. Have an awesome day.
For Christmas, I gave my daughter the book “Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations” (http://www.therebelution.com/book). She shared with me the book’s philosophy that often society does not expect much from our youth and that in response, youth often meet that lowered expectation. I thought of the thousands of teachers that we work with each year with our writing and art contests.
Many times I will receive a packet of poems or view images of art that have been submitted by a teacher and my first thoughts are “Get a new teacher.” When an entire class of high school students enter poems equivalent to “a cat sat on a bat” or enter art with crayons on lined paper, I know that it is not the students who are failing, but the teacher. Raise the bar and students rise to meet the expectation. When we expect little, we receive little.
My students go to a charter school that has a curriculum that is always one grade above the norm. In 1st grade they are taught 2nd grade math and writing and this continues like this to 8th grade. At first my reaction was that will just frustrate the student. But I found that when expectations rise, the quality of the student rises to the expectation. I have taught at the university level for 30 years. During that time I have taught the same classes at the high school and middle school level. When I say the same classes, I really mean the exact same content. For both my university students and my 7th/ 8th grade students, I teach them difficult concepts, and in both classes they master them.
My challenge to parents and teachers is to higher your expectations. The youth of today are capable of great achievements. The book “Do Hard Things” is written by two teenagers. These are kids who want the challenge. In working with your students or even your own children, raise the bar, create a challenge and you may find it more rewarding for them and you when they “Do Hard Things”.