Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Driving Learning in The Résumé Project

In my second year of teaching, I was assigned to the eighth-grade inclusion team. One of the team teachers on the inclusion team was a special educator, and 40% of the students were on individualized education programs (IEPs). Although I was meant to be the math and science specialist on the team, this particular team had adopted an unorthodox structure: all team teachers taught classes in all eight subject areas. As a second-year teacher still figuring out the basics of managing a classroom, I was immediately in the weeds. We had classes for conflict resolution, organization, and independent study, but the class that freaked me out the most was English. Simply knowing how to read and write did not prepare me in any way to teach reading and writing to eighth-graders.

I created a lot of curriculum that year. While some of it was naive and ineffective, some of it was truly innovative. I developed an inquiry-driven physical science unit that wove a sequence of hands-on experiments together into a three-month long investigation of particle motion and fluid pressure. The conclusions drawn from one experiment generated hypotheses that we tested in the next experiment. If there is a single principle that has guided my curriculum design throughout my career, it’s that a good unit should be like a good story. A good unit is made up of many different threads that may not appear to be related at first but, in hindsight, all weave together to propel the unit forward; and when the journey finally slows down or ends—and we look up to breathe and reflect on the experience—we can’t believe how far we’ve come or how much we’ve changed.

Because I used to write short stories in high school and college, I wanted to implement a unit on fiction writing in my English class. I knew that it would be something that I would enjoy, and I figured that my students might learn a little more if they saw their teacher having fun instead of being scared the whole time. Fiction writing is an iterative process. Pieces are workshopped and revised constantly as we develop our craft. I wanted to implement something similar, but I didn’t want to be the arbiter of quality telling students they needed another draft. That would be unauthentic and controlling. Many teachers rely on peer editing to add other voices to the mix of criticism and feedback, but I wanted students to internalize their own standards. I needed some mechanism that would encourage students to write for an audience, and revise their writing until they had successfully communicated their vision to that audience.

The mechanism that I stumbled upon led to the unit I called The Résumé Project. What I’m about to describe now is the unit as I designed it, not as I implemented it. Lacking in confidence and struggling in my second-year, I only managed to implement pieces of the unit—and with key threads missing, it wasn’t very tight or cohesive. But the design of the unit demonstrates what we can do when we have a powerful engine and interesting places to drive.

Building an Engine

The unit starts by giving the students a little background on résumé writing. Then they create a first draft of their own résumé. Instead of producing a résumé on a sheet of paper, entries are written on individual index cards so that entries can be swapped in and out, and moved around. Unsurprisingly, most entries look something like this:

Babysitting, 1993-present
  • Watched kids
  • Made sure they ate dinner and took a bath

The students know how sad their résumés look. They complain that they’re just kids who haven’t had a chance to do anything yet. They think résumé writing in eighth-grade is dumb. This makes me smile inside because I can imagine how shocked they’ll be when they see how compelling their résumés are in the end. These students have done a lot more in life than they realize; they just need to build a stronger narrative to bring those stories to the forefront. I select a few students who listed babysitting under experience and conduct a model interview. By asking probing questions, I uncover details about their babysitting experiences, which I write on the whiteboard:
  • Maintained a roster of loyal customers for three years.
  • Designed fun arts & crafts projects.
  • Created a game out of preparing healthy dinners and trying new recipes.
  • Helped one child develop a bedtime routine that parents adopted.
  • Kept children calm when a mouse got into the house. Organized them to lure and trap the mouse in the downstairs bathroom.
  • Provided homework help and oversaw the completion of chores.
Once the students see how details can punch up a résumé and add color, more details pour out until the whiteboard is covered in them. We marvel at some of the anecdotes and students view each other with new appreciation. Reading these details, what impressions do we form about the babysitter? Is this babysitter caring? Responsible? A problem solver? We generate a list of babysitter characteristics from the list of details, and I pick one characteristic to build a babysitting entry around. Which details would we include if we wanted to show how creative we are? How would we rewrite those details to emphasize our creativity? What if we wanted to highlight our resourcefulness instead of our creativity? After creating a sample entry as a class, we break into small groups to write other entries, using the characteristics and details on the whiteboard as our mystery box ingredients. When each group shares their babysitting entry at the end of class, we try to guess the characteristics being highlighted.

The next day, we summarize our takeaways from the babysitting entry activity:
  • We use a résumé to tell our story.
  • The details we choose to share create an impression.
  • In a résumé, we describe ourselves through actions, not adjectives.
  • Because a résumé is so dense and economical, every word counts.
  • We should read our résumés through the eyes of a potential employer.
  • A résumé should be focused to create impact.
  • We have done a lot more than we realize.
  • You can tell a lot about a person from their actions.
The students then pair off to interview each other and brainstorm. Their goal is to generate lists of characteristics and details based on their own personal experiences before narrowing their stories down to a focused résumé. Once they think they know the characteristics they’d like to highlight, they start writing entries on index cards and workshopping those entries with other students. At this point, the unit branches off onto three parallel tracks—but we will use the same engine to drive ourselves along each of those tracks. This engine starts with three nested feedback loops, which the students internalize by repeatedly asking themselves three key questions:
  1. Can I rewrite this action to make the characteristic that I’m highlighting stand out more?
  2. Are there other experiences and actions in my history that better reflect this characteristic?
  3. When analyzing my experiences and actions, are there other characteristics that could be highlighted that I have overlooked?
We ask ourselves the first question constantly while writing. We ask the other two questions in the planning phase before writing—but also when we get stuck or step back to evaluate and reflect on our work. The questions represent different gears in our engine. Shifting between those gears prompts us to change our perspective and engage in both convergent and divergent thinking as necessary. We see and approach problems differently depending on the gear we’re in. Helping each student get this engine up and running is critical to the success of the unit. Without it, the unit is simply a collection of disconnected activities that will never really weave together and propel us forward.

Track 1: Writing a Résumé

The main track of the unit focuses on writing your own résumé to highlight the characteristics you select. Most students end up completely rewriting their résumés 4-5 times in the space of two weeks before they are satisfied. At the end of the unit, a panel of adults and students will evaluate how well the résumé highlights those characteristics in a blind test. The résumé writing assignment sets up the precise mechanics I am looking for: we’re writing explicitly to communicate a message to an audience, and résumés are short enough that we can revise them rapidly over many drafts. For an assignment less personal, creating ads has similar mechanics.

I allow students to stop revising their résumés once they are satisfied because my goal is for them to develop their own standards, not try to guess mine. A few students choose to put minimal effort into their résumés, but that is their decision—they have enough feedback to estimate how their résumés will fare in front of the panel. Students who stop revising their résumés still have to participate in the workshops, giving and receiving feedback. Most students are inspired by reading the résumés of their peers. The class buzzes when we learn how one student spent a summer working with his dad to turn their backyard into a garden. Together, they designed and built a shed and small patio. It takes time for some students to realize that any action, no matter how minor, can go into their résumé as long as it highlights a selected characteristic. However, we do discuss the questions that a résumé might raise if none of the actions are recent or the actions are concentrated too narrowly.

Track 2: Character Studies

The second track is the reason why I created The Résumé Project in the first place. Taking advantage of our brand new résumé writing skills, we create character studies for characters we create ourselves and characters we find in works of fiction. Based on his actions, what can we infer about him? Based on her character, how would she act in this situation? How would a different character act in the same situation? Is it more compelling to establish a character using adjectives, a few defining actions at the start of a story, or character-consistent actions throughout a story?

We explicitly leverage our résumé writing skills and analytical engine to develop strong characters in fiction and to study people in general for the rest of the year. Along the way, we rebuild our engine by adding a fourth gear or feedback loop: What does a person’s actions tell us about that person? That’s a question we can ask just as easily in conflict resolution or social studies class. After crafting multiple résumés highlighting different characteristics for a single person, we are also in a position to discuss the dangers of trying to infer too much about a person when we can never have a complete picture of their actions. Is it possible to paint a distorted picture of a person using selective storytelling? How do we guard against that?

Track 3: Personal Goal Setting

The third track was not in my initial design. I designed it when I noticed that a number of students were clearly in anguish. They were hit hard by their inability to find actions in their history to support their self-concepts. They realized that other students were putting more of themselves into their actions, and making more out of their opportunities as a result. I had anticipated some soul searching, but not full-on identity crises. Shifting their engines through the first three gears and not finding the answers they were expecting slammed students into the fourth gear, triggering cognitive dissonance: What do my actions tell me about me?

Cognitive dissonance causes these students to bring forward a topic for discussion: Is the truth of me always reflected in my actions? Can I say that I’m caring if I can’t point to caring actions? Can I say I’m a leader if I never lead? Sensing that they wish they could go back in time to redo their actions and create the résumés they envision, I present another pathway: Can we change the truth of ourselves by changing our actions? Could we be the person we want to be by being that person through our actions tomorrow? We use these questions to rebuild our engines, adding a fifth gear; and we use that engine to set new personal goals by writing the résumé we would like to write in two years—at the end of our freshman year in high school—if we were the person we wanted to be.

Tracks, Catapults, Runways, and Vertical Learning

Now, we certainly could have had a discussion about self-concept and done a goal-setting exercise without writing résumés or analyzing character studies. But using our engine to drive those two activities made for a more powerful experience. The discussion was real and personal, not abstract; more students participated and had something to say; the stakes were higher and—instead of talking past one another—we engaged, listened, debated, and changed our minds. By starting from a shared understanding, we were able to revise and extend that shared understanding together. And in writing future résumés, we didn’t start from a place of wish-fulfillment. We asked hard questions: Who do I want to be? What would that person do in the next two years? How would they cap off middle school and get a running start in high school? This was an opportunity to be thoughtful and intentional, and students took it.

In Why We Should Learn Vertically, I lay out the case that, given the necessary materials and culture, we are all capable of developing active sense-making mindsets that enable us to act coherently and strategically. The key is:
  • Building an engine (grounding mental models)
  • Rebuilding the engine with new gears (scaling mental models)
  • Using the engine to take us places (leveraging mental models)
  • Driving into the unknown (seeking out cognitive dissonance)
When writing this article, I debated using “tracks” to describe the structure of The Résumé Project. Some people will take that the wrong way. But in the end, the contrarian in me won out. There are a few experiences within the unit that build sequentially. If you take them out of order, there won’t be enough momentum to propel you forward. I considered describing the tracks as catapults because a catapult is basically a controlled chain reaction that can move things, but I thought that might seem a little abrupt and involuntary. If I wasn’t so contrarian, I think I would have settled on using runways—sometimes we need a long straightaway to take off for distant and unknown destinations that expand our horizons.

Here is the engine we built in The Résumé Project:
  1. Can I rewrite this action to make the characteristic that I’m highlighting stand out more?
  2. Are there other experiences and actions in my history that better reflect this characteristic?
  3. When analyzing my experiences and actions, are there other characteristics that could be highlighted that I have overlooked?
  4. What do my actions tell me about me?
  5. Is the truth of me always reflected in my actions? Can we change the truth of ourselves by changing our actions?
We tuned and rebuilt our engine by using it take off from three short runways. Where might it take us next?

As a curriculum developer, my use of runways is strategic, intentional, and judicious. We built the initial engine in the The Résumé Project in two days, and then tuned it over a couple more days. Each rebuild was another day or two. For most of the unit, students were driving and learning where their engines could take them. Unfortunately, because this was in a traditional school setting, almost all of those destinations were of my choosing, but it doesn’t have to be that way. This is an engine that we can use throughout our lives, and it’s not an engine that most people build on their own. I know that some people see any form of direction as evil, but I honestly believe that runways can be empowering. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

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