Lesson Learned: You Cannot Assign “Change the World” as Homework

April 11, 2019
Aimee Ross

“Well duh,” you’re thinking. You might even be snickering.

But I honestly thought it could work.

Yes, really.

Let me tell you how it happened.

More than 20 years ago, I created an English elective course called Holocaust Studies. I based the course on the curriculum of the Ohio Council on Holocaust and Genocide Education, supplementing with other Holocaust literature, primary sources, websites, and film. Against other Holocaust educators’ better advice, I usually showed the entire movie of Schindler’s List, too.

If you’re wondering why showing the whole movie is frowned upon, it’s because 1) students today already live in such a video-driven world, that a three and a half hour movie may just be too much; 2) short clips can and do produce great results in the classroom; and 3) proportionately speaking, not many people helped Jews during WWII, thereby making Schindler a bit of a stand-alone—only one half of one percent of the people living in Europe made conscious choices to help Jews.

But my students always loved the movie. And they saw, as they told me, that one person can make a difference. A few years ago, after finishing the movie, I wanted to do more. I had been teaching the course for so long that I felt like I needed to—but what?

Then I thought of another movie: Pay It Forward (I love movies). Could I pull off something like the teacher in it did?   

When students came into class the next day, I had written this on the chalkboard:

CHALLENGE: Develop Moral Leadership Through a Holocaust Studies Project

“What’s that mean, Mrs. Ross?” someone asked, as others read the chalkboard words out loud to themselves.

“Well, come in and sit down, and we’ll talk about it,” I replied, eager to get started. “First, I have a movie clip to get you psyched and thinking about the project.”

Then I showed the scene from Pay It Forward where Kevin Spacey, the teacher, explains to his seventh grade class their all-year extra credit project, which is also written on the chalkboard of his room. “Assignment,” the board says. “Think of an idea to change the world—then put it into action.”

And that’s where I paused the movie.

“Write that down,” I said. “Get that assignment in print! Your project is to change the world in some way.”

No groans. No questions. It was completely quiet.

I could tell they were a little freaked out, but in a good, overwhelmed way.

We discussed Oskar Schindler some more and moved into moral leadership and what that meant. We also discussed my teaching the Holocaust Studies course in our little town, and why I did, which also helped. They were at least interested, though also skeptically cautious.

“But there have to be rules, right?” I asked them. “I mean, it wouldn’t be fair if someone just went out and picked up trash, while someone else did something much more elaborate. Know what I mean?”

I still wasn’t sure I had them yet—I was worried. This project could be, to the insightful and cynical teenagers of today’s world, either very, very hokey or very, very worthwhile and exciting.

“How about I give you guys 15 minutes to get in small groups and decide on a set of class protocols for everyone to follow?” I asked. “Then we’ll share those and work them into a common list.”

After five minutes, though, they hit a wall. They had stopped talking, and worse yet, they had stopped writing. They were at a creative standstill.

Maybe the whole thing was a bust and wasn’t going to work, I thought, but I decided to keep pushing forward.

“Okay, choose the best rule on your list that you feel everyone in the class should adhere to for the project,” I said. “Let’s start with those.”

When I asked who wanted to go first—and this is the moment that gave me hope—about 12 hands went up. Their ideas and rules were amazing, humbling even, and I was overwhelmed.

  1. TRY TRY TRY to put your plan in action.
  2. Make it personal.
  3. Take it seriously.
  4. You must provide evidence or proof of change.
  5. Think outside “the box”—be creative.
  6. You may not do anything illegal.
  7. You must keep the project school appropriate.
  8. Sending text messages or forwarding text messages can NOT be your entire project.
  9. Do not lie or exaggerate to get your project to work.
  10. Help people outside of your family.
  11. Create a project from which you will learn something and try to learn something.
  12. Keep spending money or financial aspects out of the project.
  13. Your project must encourage others to make a difference in the world.

I was so excited! They wanted to try it—at least it looked that way from their rules. I was close to crying. We underestimate the teenagers of today—some really do care—and I couldn’t wait to see what they came up with.

“How long do we have to do this?” someone asked.

“One month,” I answered. “Go out and change the world!”

Fast forward to one month and one day later.

Disappointment. Utter disappointment.

I almost hate sharing the depressing news. The students had great intentions, I know they did, but let’s face it: they’re teenagers. They had an entire month for the assignment, and most waited until a few nights before it was due.

How do I know that? Because half the class—only a slight exaggeration—was on the drill team I coached, and I overheard the girls talking while warming up one day.

So what happens when students wait until a few nights before a project of this magnitude is due to actually try to make it happen? Students turn in assignments with results that claim they’ve changed the world by:

  1. Telling their friends about a book to read
  2. Registering to vote back in November (this assignment was given in early December)
  3. Simply thinking about how to start their project
  4. Going out into the neighborhood and collecting $ door to door for an unspecified charity (Seriously?! Who’s crazy enough to just hand money to a kid collecting door to door?!
  5. Getting their parents to quit smoking, which didn’t actually work.

Yes, there were other great ideas for changing the world, but the truth is, I highly doubt that any of those students carried out their plans.

“Are you really surprised, Aimee?” you’re asking now. “Why’d you even try?”

Well, I was hoping. And, why not give it a try? Just because something doesn’t work, especially in the classroom, doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth learning from. And I guess I’ve decided that simply having students consider how they may possibly have an impact in changing their world was worth making the assignment.

In fact, there are still two months of school left.

Maybe I should try it again.

Posted By Aimee Ross | High School ELA Teacher

Aimee Ross is a nationally award-winning educator and writer who teaches secondary English at her high school alma mater in Loudonville, Ohio. Her first book, Permanent Marker: A Memoir (KiCam Projects), came out last March, and she has had numerous essays published online and in anthologies. Aimee is a former regional educator for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and teacher consultant for the National Writing Project at the local level. Learn more: https://theaimeeross.com/.

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