Two weeks ago, I asked the students in the middle school after-school robotics program to think about whether they would like to continue with the robotics club for their final after-school activity cycle this year. We are due to switch at the end of February.
Since none of them had truly opted to take robotics, and since they all were sort of roped into the club, it surprised me when one-by-one they all stated they planned to continue. I left that day a little impressed with myself. I must have done something right.
During the days that followed, I reflected on their whole-group decision to stick around. I thought about each of the kids in the club. While they are all wonderful and while each one brings a unique set of traits and skills to the club, they don’t all seem “totally into” the activities we do. There are all engaged in the activities, but only a few seem really“into them“. Do you know what I mean?
I want our students to participate in after-school activities that fuel their personal passions and truly excite them. I don’t just want them to be “engaged” in activities. I want them to be “into them”.
I started to think about why they were all choosing to stay on with me even if they weren’t that “into” robotics and engineering. Then it occurred to me.
“Maybe… they don’t want to hurt my feelings.”
I realized the kids had probably picked up on my earnest desire to share something new and exciting with them. I think they wanted more of that enthusiasm and more of those high expectations, even if they didn’t necessarily want more “robotics and engineering” .
At the start of our meeting on Monday, after reviewing our work from the previous week, I let the kids know that they would need to decide for sure by the end of the day whether they would continue with club or not. If they were excited by the activities we’ve been working on and enthusiastic about continuing, I suggested they stay. If they weren’t, I assured them that my feelings wouldn’t be hurt if they moved on. I explained that while I believe every student should have an opportunity to explore and be exposed to some of the activities we have been working on, not every student had to make engineering and robotics their passion. A different club might interest or excite them more. I promised they could visit me any time if they decided to choose a different club.
One student asked, “What if some of the stuff excites us and some of it doesn’t? Should we stay?”
To this I responded truthfully. “I can’t answer that. All I can say is that if you stay, you’re a part of the team and you have to try and bring your best even when you aren’t 100% excited about the activity we are working on that day. Some activities will be more fun for different people. The club is still new, we’re still figuring out who we are and how we operate. If you want to stick around and help me figure it out you can, but don’t feel like you have to.”
During the meeting, I watched as a few of the students dug into a design challenge I had given them with a genuine intrinsic drive to solve the challenge. They weren’t trying to get an “A” or win a prize or finish first. They just wanted or needed to figure it out.
Others did their best or at least gave it a good shot, but they were less hungry for a solution. For them, it was an enjoyable activity, but solving the challenge was neither here nor there. I started guessing who would stay and who would go.
At the close of the meeting, I asked for their final decisions. Five of the eight students chose to stay. It wasn’t easy hearing students say they wanted to do something else and I was surprised that one of them was choosing to move on, but I was glad they were able to be honest with me and able to make their decision based on genuine interest, not based on whether they thought I’d be disappointed or not.
On the way out the door, one of the students who decided to move on, ran back and gave me a big hug. She didn’t say why, but I think I can guess why and it felt good to know that she felt positive about our time together.
I sometimes have to remind myself that it’s not personal. Students are individuals with diverse interests. Not every kid will fall in love with the subject matter I teach. My job is to inspire them to be individuals, to be citizens, to be determined and persistent in their pursuit of learning, to try their best, and to explore their options. It’s not to turn them into something they are not.