Pumpkins and Princesses

Unfortunately, the moment in my teaching career that left the most enduring impression is not a happy story. Fortunately, as in “Cinderella,” even though my carriage turns into a pumpkin, there’s also a glass slipper in my story. In the end, everyone lives happily ever after.

In my first year of teaching, I was teaching in an urban middle school. My tech lab contained sixteen modules where the students would learn about all sorts of different technologies. The modules had professionally designed curriculum, “backed by years of research,” that was prepared by a vendor. There were pre-tests, daily exercises, instructional videos, and step-by-step directions for every project in a module binder. That year, I had two wonderful, bubbly, freckle-faced girls. Normally, a student was not allowed to repeat a module because there was no sense in repeating activities a student had already done. But due to a strange set of circumstances surrounding a schedule change, my adorable freckle-faced duo ended up at Desktop Publishing again. This was their favorite module. They begged and pleaded for me to allow them to do the module again, promising to “learn new stuff.”

They were good students and great kids, so I agreed. I said that I would call upon them to make some safety and instructional posters for the class and for other teachers if anyone asked. They were so excited to be able to create posters that would actually be used in other classrooms on permanent display.

Two days into the project, a teacher asked me for a poster with a nice background and colorful text. She was the peer-counseling teacher and wanted to post office hours on her door. I gave the project to the girls. They were so tickled with excitement you could hardly see their freckles! They hurried back to their computer and got started.

Thirty minutes later, I checked on the girls. They hadn’t finished. Even worse, they hadn’t really even started! They were disappointed, confused and frustrated. I asked what happened and how I could help. They explained to me that there was no video or step-by-step instruction in the module binder on doing an “Office Hours” poster, but only on doing a “Happy Birthday” poster. The clock struck midnight and my curriculum turned into a pumpkin. And my two little Cinderellas were devastated. I needed a glass slipper, and I needed one fast.

I needed a glass slipper,
and I needed one fast.


The problem was not the software. The problem was not the girls. The problem was the curriculum. The instructions were so simple that all they had to do was follow directions. They didn’t have to think about what they were doing, they just had to follow the instructions in front of them like a rent-a-donkey on a mountain pass. So I scooped up the module binder and the videos and I dropped them right in the trash can! The girls were in shock–  mouths agape… “MR. SCHWARTZ! THOSE WERE THE INSTRUCTIONS!”  They couldn’t imagine doing the project without being told exactly what to do, step-by-step. Monkey-see, monkey-do.

I said, “Girls, I believe in you two. I know you can do this and you don’t even need those stupid instructions. You’re smart! You can figure this out! If you need to, use the book that came with the program. All the answers are in there. If you get stuck, just think about what the next step should be. If you get really stuck, just ask me. I won’t tell you how to do it, but I’ll help you find the answer.” Sure enough, in less than ten minutes they presented me with a beautiful “Office Hours” poster with a sunset in the background, a sailboat, and bold, colorful text. They were positively beaming… “We learned it ourselves!”

From that day forward I dedicated myself to removing all obstacles from student learning, especially obstacles I created with “instructions” or “teaching.” I created a world of learning experiences. I created a place where students were given freedom to “learn, think, and do,” and were held responsible for doing so. I created an atmosphere where students felt like they were capable of great things, so they accomplished great things. And I vowed to bring glass slippers to every one of my students and set them free. And we all learned happily ever after.

The Moral of the Story (and a few important points):

So the moral of the story is that students will rise or fall to meet your expectations. If you give them easy projects with simple instructions, they won’t be challenged. Buy good equipment and save money on curriculum. If you only expect them to follow simple directions out of a book, then that’s all they’ll learn: how to follow simple instructions out of a book. If you want your students to learn how to solve problems and think for themselves, then allow them to do so. And while you’re at it, might as well buy the industry standard software and hardware if you can. You can afford it if you don’t spend too much on crummy curriculum written by someone who knows NOTHING about your students.

Curriculum is very expensive- so buy the cheapest curriculum you can find to hold you over until you can design a problem-based approach. Don’t waste too much money on big dollar curriculum. I’ve never seen a curriculum that was worth as much as was charged for it. (except the BrainBuffet curriculum, which is FREE!). The bottom line is this: Spend money on better equipment rather than better curriculum. The best curriculum for your students is the one that YOU write. View your purchased curriculum as a stepping stone, not the final destination. Since it’s temporary, don’t spend too much on it.

But here are a few important points:

1. It’s like eating an Elephant- you have to take this one step at a time. You may be frustrated with your canned curriculum or textbook. I can relate to that; but take some advice… start with one module or project in your room and convert it to problem solving. Then if that works, convert another. Don’t try to do your entire lab in one night. You’ll hate yourself for it (and me too, for giving you the idea!). Experiment in smaller, controlled steps.

2. Different People are Different- Not every teacher is going to like the problem solving style. Some like the structure of knowing that 27 minutes into the hour on day four the students in electronics will be soldiering their third resistor onto their circuit. Don’t force this onto a teacher who is not wired for it. Gently introduce the concept with a new project that doesn’t already have structure and focus on the fact that the goal of the activity is PROBLEM SOLVING, not completion.

3. Know Your Kids- I have only worked at 2 schools so far. It’s worked for both of them. But I haven’t worked at your school. Take it slow with a few select kids. They dont’ have to be the best academically. A great way to find “lab rats” is to tell the students that they don’t have to go by the book for the next project. See which students have the greatest success with the least amount of reliance on the curriculum. Use them for your diabolical experiments!

4. Have Fun- If it’s stressing you out, put it down for a while. It didn’t work for me perfectly the first time. I went back to the canned curriculum and tried it again later. Now it’s second nature. Give yourself time to adjust just like you’d give the kids. If it’s bumming you out, take a break and relax. If you’re stressed, your kids will be, too.


Update 2014:

This TED talk captures the idea behind this post really well. It’s worth your 10 minutes…


2 thoughts on “Pumpkins and Princesses”

  1. You’ve really spelled out what I’ve been experiencing in the past two years. I don’t have any canned curriculum and it’s been time consuming trying to create curriculum myself. My only saving grace has been the collaboration with other district teacher. I just found your site again by going through some old paperwork and I appreciate all of the work you are doing. Going forward, I’m hoping to become a regular visitor and, hopefully, contributor to your site.

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