“Alright, class. Those new irregular verbs I just taught? I want you to write a song about them and perform it for your classmates!” Speaking these words with some trepidation, I assign my students one of their final projects for the school year. In the short stretch of agonizingly long days between the beginning of May and the end of the school year, I am hard pressed to find ways of motivating my students to learn and retain something of what I am teaching. Weariness and impatience loom continually.
As I finish explaining and giving directions, I remember that image is everything in middle school. Having potentially embarrassing situations foisted upon them is not a favorable scenario for most of my students. I watch them leave the classroom, assignment in hand and accompanied by a chorus of groans and complaints, and I wonder if perhaps I’ve made a tactical error in assigning this at all.
I start class with my guard up, prepared for performances to fall flat. Yet one by one my groups of students trek to the front of the classroom, and as each group comes forward, not one of them chokes or refuses to perform. Instead I am serenaded with three-part harmonies, violin accompaniments, and choreographed dance moves.
What truly speaks volumes about their engagement, though, is the performance of my student Jimmy.
Jimmy is one of my quiet ones. When he does speak, the words come out hushed and crowded together, anxious for the moment when Jimmy can once more be silent. When I look up at Jimmy’s group, I am fully prepared to see him melt into the background, mouthing the words rather than making actual sounds.
Nothing prepared me to see Jimmy take center stage and begin a minute-long rap sequence as his group beat-boxed behind him.
Through the thunderous cheers and applause that ensue following his performance, I look and see my little, shy Jimmy grinning from ear to ear, and I can feel my face reflecting his as I’m filled with rejuvenating joy.