On my way out of a classroom today, I stopped by Qaiden’s desk. I don’t know him well, but I think of Qaiden as a rather quiet, perspicacious young man. Kneeling down next to his desk, I whispered, “Hey Q, what are you working on today?”
“De-extinction,” he responded in his level, calm manner, not looking away from his computer screen.
De-extinction? What did he just say? Never has a sixth grader dropped a term that’s landed so directly in the no-man’s land of my mental lexicon. I honestly don’t think I’d ever heard that word in my life. What I did know is that some of our sixth graders are currently knee-deep in a research phase for an argumentative writing piece. Over Qaiden’s shoulder, I saw some type of informational website up on his Chromebook screen. I looked. Yeah, I’m still not sure what he’s talking about, I thought to myself. So I asked, “So, what is ‘de-extinction,’ Q?”
“Well, it’s sort of like cloning of animals…kind of like bringing back animals that were extinct.”
Fascinating. My mind began whirring. “So, this is your argument topic?” I queried.
“Yeah, I think so,” Qaiden responded.
“So, will you be arguing in favor of this, or against it?” I pressed on.
“I’m not really sure yet.” And then he looked at me. “I’m still learning about it.” Qaiden spoke politely, courteously. But that was my cue. It was clear to me that I had interrupted his process. His eyes went right back to his screen. I’m still learning about it. Okay, time to tiptoe away.
Sometimes I worry about engagement with our middle school students. I worry about kids falling into the category of what Phil Schlechty calls “strategic compliance.” According to Schlechty, students in this category demonstrate “high attention with low commitment.” They do not see inherent or direct value in the task, but they do associate the task with results that do have value- like grades, for example.
But as I quietly made my way to the door, I wasn’t worried about Qaiden today. Nope. His teacher had allowed him choice in writing topic. And his words, his actions, all spoke volumes. He was engaged. Truly engaged. As teachers, many of us believe wholeheartedly in choice when it comes to reading. But choice matters in writing, too. Qaiden is interested in de-extinction. Why? I have no idea. But he is. And when writers are able to pursue a topic that fascinates them, they will write better.
Leaving Qaiden’s classroom that day left me inspired. What if we could get every kid to be this engaged?
EPILOGUE: I looked up ‘de-extinction’. According to Wikipedia (2017):
De–extinction, or resurrection biology, or species revivalism is the process of creating an organism, which is either a member of, or resembles an extinct species, or breeding population of such organisms. Cloning is the most widely proposed method, although selective breeding has also been proposed.