Wednesday, March 03, 2021

My Very First Project

Trying to identify the Very First Project I ever worked on, in order to consider what lessons I might have learned from it, was much more challenging than I expected. I’m sure that as a child, I worked on multiple art projects, but those are usually relatively limited in scope and might not afford the same opportunities for learning. Also, while I definitely learned how to do multiple things—multiple skills—as a child, those situations don’t always present themselves as projects, per se.

Regardless, I’ve identified three contenders for my Very First Project—or project-based learning moments, at least: learning how to tie my shoes, which I do remember; an illustrative art project during grade school, which I return to occasionally for its primary lesson; and my first research project, a term paper of sorts, when I was in third grade. All three predate my first working experience, which was delivering newspapers door to door (go figure). And all three taught me something I still use to this day.

Learning How to Tie My Shoes I learned how to tie my shoes from a YMCA swim instructor who was involved in my swim lessons there. I don’t know how old I was, and the Y got rid of its Guppy and Polliwog classifications in 2017, so it’s difficult to actually date the experience. But I hadn’t yet learned how to tie my shoes. I remember sitting on a bench in the locker room with him, as he patiently taught me how to tie my shoes, something I didn’t already know how to do—and something I found frustrating.

What I learned from that experience was that patience goes a long way when teaching someone a new skill. The instructor took the time he needed to take to teach me the skill, at the pace at which I was able to learn. I try to remember and apply that with youth and adults alike to this day. 

But there was one wrinkle. He was left handed, so apparently, he taught me how to tie my shoes as though I was left handed, and I—as a result—tied my shoes as though I was left handed. I don’t know if that’s even a thing, but I remember other adults commenting on it, and it never proved to be an issue or a problem. What I learned from that was that there are usually multiple ways to approach or solve a problem—and that those different solutions might very well be equally valid and useful. It didn’t ever matter one whit that I might have tied my shoes as though I was left handed. As far as I know, I still tie them like that to this day.

An Illustrative Art Project In grade school, I had an art teacher, whom I’ll call Mr. C. He was awesome. He was an excellent teacher who would also occasionally dress up like Santa Claus at holiday time for local bridge clubs and children’s events. (He later married another teacher, whom I’ll call Miss B. They were seriously a grade school power couple.)

In any event, I remember working on one art project in his class—again, I don’t remember how old I was; he taught art for multiple grade levels, and he might very well have been the only art teacher at the school. Regardless, I had finished the art project, we still had time in class, and when I showed him the piece, he asked me whether there was anything else I could do with the piece.

There was a lot of empty negative space in the piece, so—with that question resonating in my creative mind—I filled much of it with many stars of various sizes … in my opinion, having done so, ruining the piece. I was so angry with Mr. C, and I blamed him for what I had done as an artist.

But he responded to me calmly, agreeing with me that what I had done was perhaps not the best choice to have made as an artist… but holding firm that while he had encouraged me to consider whether there was something else I could do, he had not encouraged or told me to do what I had done specifically. Paraphrasing, he said something along the lines of, “Your answer might have been that you had done all you wanted to do. Sometimes that’s a satisfactory answer. I just wanted you to ask yourself the question.”

Sometimes, there is nothing else that we can or should do. We can still ask ourselves the question to gauge whether that’s indeed the case. Not all advice or feedback is worth acting on—or needs to be acted on, or is intended to be acted on. It’s OK to be confident enough and comfortable enough to stand with your own work—if you believe that you’re done, and it’s been done the best that it can be. Regardless, always ask yourself the question: Am I done? Have I done my best?

My First Research Project Finally, in third grade, I had a teacher named Mrs. R. She had a bit of a reputation as a challenging teacher who wasn’t very nice, but I found her to be a great educator—and totally kind. She might have been a little rough around the edges—in third grade, could I really tell?—but I learned a lot in her classroom. And, a project that all third graders had to complete, a research paper focusing on a historical figure, was perhaps the first truly challenging project I’d ever worked on. 

I was maybe 8 years old. The project was very challenging to me at that age. It kicked my butt. It made me cry. And it taught me a lot. Here’s what I learned:

  1. Work can be really hard—that’s OK: Not everything is going to be easy. Not everything can be accomplished in a short amount of time. Some projects and work can be a slog and can require your full effort and involvement for the duration. That’s totally cool. There’s a reason we call work, work. Lean into it and push through. You won’t accomplish anything big, important, or meaningful otherwise. Usually, the easy stuff isn’t the important stuff.

  2. It’s OK to cry and struggle through meaningful work: Work, even really hard work, won’t always be enjoyable, fun, or inspiring. Sometimes it’ll suck. Really hard. Not only is that OK, it’s OK for you to not like that. Grumble, grouse, complain, mutter, cry, do whatever you need to do to express your frustration and commitment as you continue to push through the challenge. Don’t avoid that pain and frustration. Keep practicing the part of the piece you can’t quite master yet. Keep making those cold calls until someone says, “Yes,” instead of, “No.” Keep doing what you do to build and develop new skills. It won’t always be fun, but you won’t accomplish your goals if you shy away from the frustration.

  3. You can learn how to do most anything: There will be times when you feel like you can’t, won’t, or don’t want to learn what you’re trying to learn—or accomplish what you set up to accomplish. Don’t weaken your goals in order to accomplish something easier. Don’t tell yourself that you didn’t want something anyway… Stay strong and aim straight! You can learn how to do almost anything. You might have to work harder sometimes. You might still end up not as good sometimes. But it’s almost never true that you can’t or won’t succeed… or that you don’t want to… but it might be likely that you decide that you don’t want to. That’s not a decision you have to make.

  4. Break large tasks into smaller tasks: This was what threw me the most in third grade. (It might be the most important lesson.) I was overwhelmed by the scale and size of the project. It felt as though I had to read everything about Teddy Roosevelt that I could read. I thought I had to know everything about Teddy Roosevelt. And I was overwhelmed by the idea that I also had to capture all of that on three-by-five note cards. At one point, I had so many note cards that it felt like even my note cards had note cards. How could I possibly organize them to be able to write a research report and biographical profile? How could I possibly know that I was done? That I had done enough? How did I know when to stop? What if I left something out? I learned that you can’t always keep your eyes on the prize. You have to break up the prize into smaller prizes that are much more manageable and easier to achieve in shorter amounts of time—while still leading you to the overall goal.

  5. Apply false constraints to make work more manageable: This lesson or realization also helped me make an overwhelming project of a scale and size I’d never experienced before more manageable and less daunting and frustrating. The constraint of only using materials available at the school and public library wasn’t enough to limit the scope of the sources available to me sufficiently, so I needed to come up with some self-imposed rules or “false” constraints to further help me decide which sources to focus on. Similarly, I couldn’t include everything about Teddy Roosevelt in my research report. So I had to come up with themes and topics about Roosevelt to focus on—to limit the scope of the content, not just of the sources. What would I concentrate my paper on?

  6. There are people available to help you: Perhaps the most challenging and frustrating aspect of the project was that I had to do it. Me. I felt too small. I thought I wasn’t enough. I thought like I wasn’t up to it. Clearly, I was capable of it—the work was appropriate for my grade level—but I needed to recognize that not only was I sufficient as a student, I could seek help, ask for specific help, and accept that help. Rarely are you alone in your most challenging task. Turn to a colleague, co-worker, manager, industry contact, family, or friend—it’s even meaningful and productive to seek help from your higher power, if you have one. And ask for help. Chances are, there are people, resources, and tools available to you to aid you in your initiative. You just have to look for them, ask for them, and accept them when offered. Then, use them.

What was your first project, if you can identify it? What did you learn from that experience?

1 comment:

Michelle French said...

In "My Weekly Reader" after an article on the opening of Disneyworld (4th Grade) the suggestion was "design your version of an amusement park. Not satisfied with squares on paper, I began making paper buildings.

My teacher let me spend a week in the back of the room building an amusement park.

After graduation from Auburn (with a stop at Parsons), I went to thank her for encouraging me. I was sure she saw some spark of creative genius.

She had been the first black teacher in the white school system and had 6 straight-A students and the remainder were very behind from the old mill village school.

She looked at me after thanking her and she said "Honey, I had to do something to keep you quiet."