High school students don’t need me? Oh well.

The Rise Out Independent Education Project has been going along swimmingly. We have nine dedicated students who are working in a diverse range of fields: music, coding, health and fitness, history research, and patent development.

When I first launched this initiative, my focus was on the word Project. What would students actually DO for a year? I spent an inordinate amount of time coming up with example projects, assuming that students would appreciate my suggestions. Yeah never mind. As it turned out, each of them already had a project in mind, or developed one during the first semester, something borne out of their own interests: a question they were grappling with, a problem they were prepared to spend a full year pursuing.

My secondary focus was on the word Education. All projects should be educational, right? How would I ensure this? Who defines what’s “educational”? What if a student proposed to watch nothing but hockey? Or write a report on the Kardashian family history? Would it be up to me to veto projects I considered shallow? What if I approved, but their parents didn’t? How would I handle that? I debated all this, in the privacy of my own brain, during the summer before anyone had even enrolled in the class.

In all that time, though, I’d given little to thought to what I now realize is the most important word in that phrase: Independent. It took a death in the family to make me realize its importance.

Two weeks before our final meeting before Christmas, I learned that my 21-year-old cousin had been killed in a car accident in Iowa. I sent a quick e-mail to the Rise Out students, telling them I wouldn’t be able to make our last meeting but encouraging them to go on without me, and then turned my attention to packing. I left Boston that same night, too distracted to think about anything but my family. Had the whole class collapsed because of my last-minute absence, I’m not sure I would have noticed. At that moment, my mind was elsewhere.

But then a remarkable thing happened. Something that made me realize why I like doing this work in the first place.

A few days before the group was set to meet, I checked my e-mail in Iowa and saw that I’d received a polite note from Alex, age 17, one of Rise Out’s student participants. He gave me his condolences, and then asked if I had a facilitator in mind for the meeting I could not attend. If not, he and his brother, Owen — another student participant — offered to organize it in my absence. Of course I agreed.

A week later Alex e-mailed me the notes from that meeting: the meeting I (naively) worried they couldn’t manage without me. I’m including it here, with Alex’s permission, because I think it wonderfully illustrates that once you have Independent in place, Education and Project will naturally follow:

Hi Laura,

I hope you’re doing well! Friday’s meeting was more or less a success.

Matthew started for us. He’s been talking with various people involved with his internship. One of them explained to him that the MIT “Build Your Own Drone” workshop wants to follow his project and watch it, which is exciting. That was all he really had to say, but he did go over some math stuff with Eddy and Owen as well. The content of that talk is lost on me (as math is not my strong suit).

Owen presented some work in Python that he had been doing lately. This included a program he calls the “Cracker”, which generates a random 3-digit password and then sets about trying to find the password. The Cracker did not quite work as intended though, because upon finding the password, it would continue to search and wouldn’t stop. Owen and Matthew looked at the code itself while I conveniently avoided that by talking with Eddy about Sebastian and about the difficulties of writing sheet music.

Then it was my turn. I displayed a video I had made, featuring a song of mine set to a slideshow. Upon its completion, I gave Eddy and Matthew a small questionnaire I had made, asking for their general opinions on what I do and asking if they know any artists that I could try to create cover art for my album with. With that, I had nothing more to add and so I ended my turn far ahead of schedule.

Finally, Eddy’s turn arrived. It turns out, he has built a large, clunky model of his invention. Also, upon plugging it into his computer, he could use a program made in Visual C++ that would display the results of the measuring. At this point, a small coding debate broke out because Matthew considers the Visual version of C++ as cheating, while Eddy and Owen defended the system. It was a civil debate, but then Eddy’s computer ran out of battery so his turn also came to an end.

The last 30 minutes of the meeting were filled up by Eddy asking Matthew an intense math question. The idea behind it seemed to be that Eddy needs to make a robot and wants to know if there’s a way to program it to go in an arc towards a destination. This seemingly simple question was not as simple as one might think, and it took about 30 minutes to even come close to an answer. I meanwhile tried to stay awake (trigonometry is boring, what can I say?). Upon reaching 12 PM, Eddy and Matthew dashed off, talking about math, leaving Owen and I to put all the chairs back (not that we minded, of course).

So that, therefore, concludes this report of the meeting. I hope you enjoyed, and have yourself a merry little Chri… Umm, I mean, Holiday Season!
— Alex LaRosa

I’ve been teaching for over a dozen years, and never have I felt so gloriously irrelevant. The stated goal, in all my professional development workshops, is that we, as educators, do our tasks so well that we work ourselves out of a job. A wonderful goal! But one we never really expect to happen.

Yet here I am. Convinced yet again that as adults we give ourselves too much credit.