Indulge me, if you will, in a thought experiment: Take yourself back to when you were 14. What kind of life did your 14 year-old self imagine you would be living today? What did you imagine you might be doing on a day-to-day basis? Where did you think you would live? Why there? What sorts of things did you imagine would be priorities in your life?
For a number of years now, the initial unit of my engineering class has been about measurement and quantity. I’ve had my students fit clothes on movie stars, ship iPhones for Tim Cook, and create a plan to turn our cafeteria into a giant ball pit beach. (Sadly we’ve never actually been able to do that one, but maybe one day. Anyone have a line on where I could get the leftovers from here?)
All these projects were interesting enough, but I realized that in each case I was missing a crucial opportunity: by telling students what they were to measure/quantify I was robbing them of an opportunity to imagine themselves as people who measure and quantify.
I now ask them to answer some of the questions I asked you to think about above. Here’s the task as I assigned it this year to the 9th graders at my school, Harvest Collegiate High School:
It is 2025. You have just gotten a chance to go to another country for your job or studies. Back in NYC other folks are preparing for your 5 year reunion at Harvest.
While abroad, you find the COOLEST thing and decide that you have to ship a box of them back to Harvest for the big party. This thing is so cool that you want to ship as many of them as possible, but you only have one box to ship them in.
Inside the box you’ll include a letter explaining:
- Where you are
- What you are shipping
- The size of the shipping box
- The size of the item you are shipping
- How you were able to maximize the number of items that fit in the box
- The weight of the box in pounds and kilograms
Everyone at the reunion party is going to be odee hyped to get your package.
Students have the opportunity to imagine themselves as young adults who need to solve a problem.
Importantly, this task also provides boundaries that influence their imagination in ways that reflect my hopes for them. It tells them that they are the kind of young adult who is successful enough to be offered opportunities for adventure. It also tells them that they are are the kind of young adult who has formed strong connections with the people who went to their high school, ones which they want to maintain even as they go on adventures.
Students have “written letters” from places familiar and exoctic. Many students write that they are working in a town in the Dominican Republic or Mexico where they have family. Others explain that they are doing scientific research for a graduate degree or working for the UN in a place that they’ve only read about. In both cases they are thinking broadly about the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?”
I have noticed a trend in speaking with 9th graders over my career: it seems that today’s 9th graders have a strong idea that they are “going to college” in a way that 9th graders (at least the ones I worked with) in 2005 did not. Some of my students this year even go as far as to refer to their class as the “Class of 2024" (ie the year that they would graduate from college if they graduate high school and college in 4 years).
I have some ambivalence about this trend. It seems wonderful that students (particularly the low income students of color who I teach) see college as something that is accessible. Yet, so many of the people I know, love, and admire didn’t follow the educational path that is prescribed by “go to high school, go to college, get a job.” I wonder if the focus on “college going culture” implicitly (if unintentionally) makes their choices seem inferior. At a minimum, we should recognize that “a four-year degree should not be the only path to a good job” (as Hillary Clinton has been saying on the campaign trail this fall).
What I do know about the emphasis on “college and career” which so dominates our thinking about students’ post-high school lives is that it excludes a lot: we are so much more than where we went to college and what we do for a living.
I try to get students to more fully imagine their lives after college by asking them to send a gift to their friends at their 5 year high school reunion. What are some ways that you are asking students to envision themselves as adults?
Photo 1 by geralt https://pixabay.com/en/board-school-immediately-soon-1647323/
Photo 2 by Mary Conroy Almada
The opinions expressed in Prove It: Math and Education Policy are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.