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Clara’s Big Project

March 6, 2011 3 comments

Today I keep thinking of Clara’s toothy grin beneath the pioneer girl bonnet she wore to school Thursday.  She was literally bubbling with excitement at the prospect of presenting her biography report on Harriet Tubman. 

The third-grade class assignment came home a month ago.  Clara was excited from the get-go and wanted to get over to the library right away to get started selecting her biography.  Though I was very busy that afternoon, I didn’t want to squash that precious enthusiasm, so I dropped her off with big sister, Meredith, to find a biography while I ran her other sister, Adrienne, to violin lessons.  Clara picked her book out all on her own.  The initial enthusiasm was fleeting, of course.  Said book soon became a fixture on her nightstand. 

Three weeks later, despite my frequent reminders, she had only read one chapter.  Knowing the project was now due in a week, I sat down in the La-Z-Boy with Clara one evening and set about reading the rest of the book to her.  Almost as soon as I started to read, however, we both came to the realization that the person she’d chosen–the first woman to run for president, Victoria Woodhull–was not going to work as a subject for this project.  Victoria was a spunky woman who overcame poverty and other adversities to eventually become the first woman presidential candidate.  She was involved in the women’s suffrage movement.  She had many admirable qualities.  However, she worked as a spiritual medium and clairvoyant.  She and her second husband, also a spiritual medium, both divorced their spouses to be together.  Interestingly, one of her clients was railroad baron Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, whose financial assistance helped in her rise to prominence.  But this just wasn’t going to fly at Clara’s Christian school.  Oh no.

Well, we’d come a long way since that first excitement on getting this assignment.  However, this was no time for dithering.  We had to press on.  I ran upstairs to search her sisters’ bookshelves, knowing that with two sisters, one seven years older, we must have some biographies on hand.  Viola!  a Harriet Tubman paperback was tucked between the end of one bookshelf and a hardcover book.  Would it be enough pages?  Yes!  It was 53 pages, a good three pages over the minimum requirement.  Clara was relieved; I was relieved.  With three kids, I’ve learned to savor these little victories whenever they come my way.  I sent her to bed with her new book to read, and she came downstairs an hour or so later to announce she’d finished it.

Over the weekend, she completed her Biography Banner, a poster template she had to fill in with two drawings and information about the book she read.  Each time I suggested she work on it, she responded with wailing and gnashing of teeth.  And each time I insisted she get something accomplished.  So at last the banner was finished Tuesday night.   Which brings us to Wednesday, the last day before the big project was due.  Wednesdays after school are always a grind with Adrienne’s violin lesson from 4:00 – 4:30, Clara’s dance class from 6:15 – 7:00, and dinner usually sandwiched in-between.  Plus, Chili, our Cockapoo, had a groomers appointment and I had to pick her up sometime after 3:30. 

After climbing into the van after school on Wednesday, Clara informed me that the biography project was,  “a really big deal.”  The custodian’s son was going to be watching!  And taking pictures of each child in their costume!  I assured her that she would be able to get it done.  Next she tried to get excused from dance class, saying, “I’m not going to have enough time to make my note cards.”  I was having none of that.  “You had a month to work on this; if you were that worried, you should have started earlier.”  When she got home, she had a bath and I sat her down with the note cards to make for her speech, the only part of the project left to complete.  “Can I come with you to pick up Chili?”  “Nope, sorry, you have to work on these cards now, there’s dance class tonight.”  “It’s not fair!”   As I left to drop Adrienne at violin lessons and pick up Chili from the groomers,  I tried to ignore the nagging doubt in the back of my mind.  Maybe she can’t write the cards herself; maybe this is too hard. 

I’ve always encouraged my kids to do their own work.  “It’s the process not the product” is one of my core parenting beliefs.   Here’s my rationale for this opinion.  In the early grades, kids are trying out new skills–  reading, comprehending, explaining what they’ve learned.  The goal is not to produce slick projects or products.  The child whose parents complete the work will know she didn’t really do it herself.  And the bar will have been set dauntingly high.  Next time she has a similar assignment, she will likely think,  “I can’t do it, it’s too hard.”  In contrast, the child who completes a project herself is going to experience the satisfaction of accomplishment.  Better yet, the lightbulb may turn on and she’ll enjoy having learned something.  While she may or may not get an A, she’ll usually get the grade she deserves.  Regardless of any grade she receives, she’ll feel the pride of accomplishing something and will be more likely to approach her next project with an “I can do it” attitude.

An hour later, after her sister’s violin lesson and picking up Chili, I checked Clara’s progress.  She’d written one and a half cards.  I resisted the urge to read the cards.  I pointed out again the five questions her teacher, Mrs. Boman, wanted answered during the presentation.  Then I got started making dinner.  There was no time for me to sit and hold her hand; we were on a tight schedule.  A little while later, I sent Clara up to get dressed for dance class.  More wailing…*sigh*  I had to redirect her several times as she kept reverting to playing on her Nintendo DS.  She also kept insisting that she would never get it all done, while I kept reassuring her that yes, she would get it done after dance.

At dance class she told her teacher about her biography report.  I could feel her excitement growing.  When we got home I cleaned up some more after dinner and set her down again with note cards and her Harriet Tubman book.  I found the costume–a pioneer girl dress, apron, and bonnet I bought a few years ago for another event–and ironed it.  I kept checking on Clara’s project.  Turns out she had written five cards!  She was worried about the two-minute time limit, but not that she wouldn’t have enough information, rather that she had so much more to say still!  She appreciated Harriet Tubman’s story; I could tell she felt empathy for her plight as a slave. 

As Clara continued to write her cards, I noted her transformation from an ornery, combatant child to a real student.  She remarked that she was now really excited to give her report tomorrow.  At one point I put the bonnet on her head, and wish I had snapped a picture then; she looked so happy.  When I finally read her cards, I was genuinely impressed.  She had written a clear, concise story in the first person, including the five points that her teacher wanted, as well as a couple of stories that Clara wanted to share.  I told her that she had done a great job.  She read them out loud, noticed her own mistake on one of the cards, and corrected it.  She read them out loud a second time.  Amazingly, her report came out to be exactly two minutes long! 

Sometimes I get exhausted when I think too much about all the projects my kids and I have been involved in and how many more we still have to complete.  But it’s these moments I treasure along the way that keep me going.