For about six years I’ve had a project that I absolutely adore with my Grade 10 classes working within a theme of Heroism and Facing Adversity. It’s called The Rebel Project. I’ve blogged about it, but essentially, it’s a flashy way for students to present their research about someone who has rebelled, like a Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi, who are featured pretty much every year. Students research and write a profile, which gets attached to the back of an art piece incorporating a portrait and quote.
They look really cool, and students enjoy creating them.
Three years ago, my first at my current school, my Grade 10s were about to start The Rebel Project. I had the sheets, I had old examples, I had lists of rebels available if people couldn’t find one on their own. I was prepared for just about everything this project needed, as well as the personality quirks of my class. I had, like we all do, planned for all the possible curveballs this particular class could throw at me.
And it was going really well. It’s an engaging project, especially once they get into the hands-on part. I made a point, as every good teacher does, of positioning myself near the pockets of potential tomfoolery and discontent. There was, as there often is, that pocket of students in the room who don’t need a lot of guidance and input, the ones that you trust are doing the things, and usually do quite well without much instruction from you. This is the part of the classroom from which you don’t foresee any issues arising from.
Which, as we all know too well, isn’t something we should necessarily count on.
The portraits for the art pieces are actually spray painted using stencils that the students cut. That means they have knives, which means keeping a very close eye on a certain part of the population. What this meant, this time, was that a bunch of my students made it to “Spray Day” without much input from me. In fact, a number of them would be done the project once they sprayed their rebel onto their canvases.
Which was awesome until I was outside with kids and spray paint, and watched one of those trustworthy kids pull off his stencil to reveal his finished piece, highlighting his rebel of choice… Adolf Hitler.
I was absolutely flummoxed! I couldn’t believe this was happening. We had talked about what a rebel was, and although it may be true that I never expressly stated that someone like Hitler wasn’t the kind of rebel we’d focus on, here we were.
I spoke to the student involved, and he actually mounted a good defense, based upon his research. He falsely argued that Hitler had actually worked to make things better for the German people. He conceded that when one takes a broader view of history, perhaps Hitler wasn’t a very good choice. It was a good chat, one of those teachable moment chats, where we discussed the bigger picture. Too often, as teachers, we have a tendency to assume that our students know certain things are taken a certain way, and this student had missed that. Perspective is an important thing, and in using a somewhat broad definition of rebel, the student had missed the horrendous impact of Hitler’s actions. Clearly, neither of us were fans of what Hitler did to try to make the changes he wanted to see in the world.
We were at a bit of a crossroads though. With the exception of adding his quote, his project was done – that canvas was painted, the profile was written, and all that needed to be done was the addition of a quote. Mortified that he’d misread things, afraid that he’d have to do everything over, this young man was in a bit of a state. We agreed, however, that he’d put his quote on quickly, so as to meet all project requirements, and he’d be done, and I would be sure not to include his project in any showcasing that we did.
Now, when we do the Rebel Project, we put a lot more work into creating a definition of a rebel. I make sure that I get a list of who’s doing which rebel. One of the goals of the project is to think about the positive impacts and efforts that people have made on society. I am much more vocal about the types of people that we focus on, and we have a lot of discussion about who makes the cut. In fact, the biggest takeaway for me from this was the importance of having these discussions with my students - talking about whether the ends justify the means, and whether great wrongs are done to achieve a “right” that benefits a privileged few. I’ve held on to the Hitler project however, because the shock of seeing that project so close to completion makes an impact.