Mentored Freedom

Although I'm only a third year teacher, I've been working with middle school students since I stopped being one. And every day for the past 10+ years, I've been reminded that middle schoolers are the most highly underestimated people on the planet.

When I tell people I teach middle school I hear a variety of responses. "Yikes," they say. Or "You must be a very special person." And most often, "I could never do that." Now, I'm not arguing that middle school students are not peculiar specimens of the human race, but I do believe their nuances often prevent people from seeing their true potential.

For the past year, I've been working on offering more projects and more options in my classroom. Some students love this; some students hate it. For some, freedom is paralyzing, while for others it's quite liberating. However, for both of these groups of students, I find that freedom with mentorship allows students to thrive. As an educator, I believe it's my responsibility to provide these opportunities of mentored freedom in order to change the lives of my students and to change the perception the world has about them.

I just finished my first day of student-parent-teacher conferences, and I was reminded of the effect these opportunities are having on my students. Last quarter my seventh graders wrote, filmed, and produced their own short stories. My only requirements: include the elements of short story and make it a story worth telling. Beyond that, it was up to them and their imaginations. They had creative freedom in their story, their filming, their groups, everything.

However, that's not to say I didn't mentor the process. Students needed to create a story map. Then, like good movie producers, they created a story board. Throughout the entire project, I never had a quiet moment in my classroom. I answered questions. I troubleshooted. I gave suggestions. I debriefed. I acted. I did whatever my students needed to be successful. And although these class periods were slightly stressful and exhausting, they were the most fun periods I've ever taught.

And the results were stunning. Minecraft became a tool for hilarious storytelling. Quiet students became astonishing actresses. Teachers became superheroes. Students renamed literary genres, creating A New Kind of Fairtyale. Fan-fiction came alive. Legos became elaborate sets. Each video clearly communicated a story while reflecting its authors imaginations and passions.

Never underestimate what a middle schooler (or anyone) can do with some mentored freedom. And when they create something awesome, praise them like crazy and share it with the world.