PROJECTS WITH RELATIONS AT HEART

We cordially recommend reading the article by Daniel Starski, IATEFL Poland’s Member and Representative at Slovenia Conference 2022.

Introduction
Learning requires respect. That one sentence repeated more times than there are stars in
our galaxy (or even beyond) could summarize my entire presentation. I do not think there
was a case of a professional development conference for teachers without a speech on the
subject. I cannot believe that there is a single course for our profession that does not cover
the issue. Yet, somehow we come across teachers and situations that should never happen.
In a twisted version of fairness, many of us strive to count every 0.001 of a point, make tests
as hard as they get, and be foolproof of fools that would somehow lower our fame in town
by their mediocre final exams scores. We keep telling our students those grades are just a
marker, yet many of us treat tests and numbers in the register as something holy. We forget
how we were when we were young, and even if we do remember, we still forget how
humiliating it was to be stripped of our individuality and how much unnecessary stress we
had from people who should not be allowed anywhere near a school.
The presentation I delivered in Moravske Toplice at the IATEFL Slovenia conference was
mostly on implementing projects in teaching. That is what I have been doing for a while at
the high school I work. I do not use the projects as a means to simple vocabulary or
grammar acquisition. I also do not deduce points for every mistake a student makes in
them, even though they are essentially projects for ESL courses. I see their use in a broader
context. But most importantly, I do my best to keep the human factor in grading by giving
my kids a chance to succeed and, for once, feel good about themselves.
The paper allows me to share a bit more than I could if I only spoke in the 45-minute slot
at noon on Friday. Apart from some of the ideas of projects (in subsequent chapters), I have
a unique opportunity, to begin with, the basis of what I believe education should be.
The theorem behind the projects
In 1954, Carl R. Rogers, one of the founding fathers of humanistic psychology, focused his
attention on creativity. Living in the times of bloodshed and the emerging use of the atom,
he claimed that the promotion of conformity, which was at the core of teaching, was
adverse to our very existence. He stressed the need to focus more on creativity and provided
a set of tools to achieve the goal.
According to Rogers (1954), the issue at hand is NOT limited to arts, moral judgment, or the
scope of changes it sparks. There is no observable difference between being a painter in
downtown Ljubljana and an engineer in MIT working on a revolutionary fuel to limit the
use of fossil ones. It is more a natural effect of an innate drive of humanity to progress that
requires acceptance of ambiguity of surroundings, internal valuation of the product (the
creator has to feel it is theirs), and the possibility to play freely with elements. To limit the
adverse effects of fear that follows the creative process, Rogers (ibid.) suggests avoiding
judgment and offering acceptance (that results in a climate of psychological safety and
freedom).

Think at this point, how often does your teaching allow for creativity according to this
definition? I am not trying to accuse anyone, as even some of the ideas I present in my
speech limit the creative process students are allowed, but it seems to be a good moment
to think about it.
Fifty-five years later, a group of American scholars asked volunteers from two high schools
in the Pacific Northwest to share their thoughts on their lives in the form of responsive
essays to one of the given subjects. Four hundred and sixty volunteers were involved in
this project by Mark Girod, Michael Pardales, Shane Cavanauch, and Pam Wadsworth
(2005). Out of those one-third name school and teaching methods as the leading source
of boredom in their lives, while one-fifth also write about fear and stress even though they
were not on the list of available prompts. It seems that teaching has not gone far from
what Rogers was trying to warn us about.
Another set of researchers in 2013 addressed the issue of student engagement in class.
After careful examination of the available data, Michael J. Corso, Matthew J. Bundick,
Russell J. Quaglia, and Dawn E. Haywood proposed a framework they had called SEC to
foster this crucial process. As it turns out, the relation of T and L is essential to getting our
students engaged. Apart from the usual practices attributed to a good teacher (staying
after hours to explain complex issues, being fair), asking questions about daily lives to
learn more about a student creates a unique bond that has empirically proven effects on
content intake. This matches well with Rogers’ view on building a genuine relationship
between the therapist (or a teacher), and the patient (or a student).
With all this in mind, I cannot overlook criticism from various scholars. In his paper, Stanley
D. Ivie (1991) mentioned several shortcomings in Rogerian attitude to education. In short,
he maintains that what works in a therapy session does not translate well to a learning
setting. In his paper, he mentions, among many, that students should not be burdened by
adult decisions (Rogers’ attitude towards freedom of choice as to what the learner should
learn) and the adult world (Rogers stresses the realness of the educator). He also brings up
the issue of Rogers’ view on prizing (unconditional acceptance) is improper since children
always know when they are liked.
However, the problem nowadays is not whether to introduce Rogerian ideas in schooling
in full swing, but rather can some of the elements of his thought be applied to teacher
training and will introducing those elements solve some of the problems we encounter.
While I agree with Ivie (1991) that teachers should never attempt to toy with the role of a
junior psychologist (and sometimes fail at not doing that), there is a sentence I cannot
overlook. In his paper, Ivie (ibid.) states that “Children do not wish to know all (underlined
by Daniel Starski) the human frailties of their parents and teachers”. No matter what
various theories or experts claim, no teacher would enter a class and treat their students
as mates sitting over a beer and talking about ALL the issues! However, the ability to say “I
was wrong, I am sorry” is the exact thing a young person needs to hear from adults. If they
emulate our behaviors, what role model do we promote without this? Also, Ivie’s (ibid.)
claim that students know if they are liked by a teacher, is plain wrong. The key issues
schools need to deal with daily are misunderstandings originating from the generation
gap and lack of communication. Since relationships are a two-way street, claiming that
children instinctively know things about our attitudes towards them, makes teachers look
either ignorant or narcissistic when they fail to reciprocate and misunderstand their cues.
Finally, looking even at a paper by Elaine Meyers and Virginia Walter (2011) inspired by Kaiser
Family Foundation’s January 2010 report on teenage screen time, it seems that the
Rogerian view is more positive than not. In their insightful work, they summarize their
findings of what teenagers needed from libraries. In the middle of their discourse, they
mention Mark Bauerlein’s fear of the current youth’s focus on technology and loss of
vertical modeling (as a direct consequence of hours spent on communication within their
generations). As it turns out, what teenagers enjoy and need from librarians is a genuine
relationship with a genuinely interested adult.
The core principles of projects
With all the above in mind, with Rogerian principles at hand, projects with relations at
heart need to meet specific criteria.
First off, the utmost respect of every student is paramount. The projects I ask my students
to perform, in most cases, are impossible to produce without long preparations, extensive
research, and (sometimes) teamwork. With that in mind, no work conducted by my student
is ignored or ridiculed. If a teacher cannot genuinely praise a student for the work they had
spent their week on, one should not even start using this method.
Another thing is that projects are a means to an end, not the goal itself. Apart from fostering
the growth of a student in a certain area, their role is to build relationships and students’
outlook on how to create and maintain them. If a student decides to plagiarize their work
(the worst crime in the book in my classes), it should not lead to a severe punishment that
leaves smoke and ashes. The very fact that I talk with a perpetrator and do not grade such
work is emotionally difficult. However, I believe it to be a teaching moment as well. Among
many things, students will fail several times in their lives. How they do it largely depends
on what they experience in their formative years. If we hit their moments of weakness with
a force of a hurricane, they will emulate our response in their future relations. Then, if one
day your graduate’s child is your student and in some moment of honesty tells you that
their parent is a tyrant with elevated expectations, think twice about who to blame.
I also do my best to include my learner’s opinions as much as possible. Every year I conduct
an extensive survey where I ask for some comments regarding the year that passed. Then
in September, I outline the changes I made to my projects after going through their answers.

The next thing to consider is how much to ask of them. I usually have one mandatory
project per semester (and I give two options to choose from) and one voluntary to let
them get an extra grade. Asking more from a student that spends 35 hours a week at
school, and has two subjects on an extended level would be inhumane.
Finally, I do not take their rejection personally. Involuntary projects juniors usually have
high attendance, around 60-70%. In sophomore and senior years, it drops to 10-15%.
When that happens, I never feel disappointed. On the contrary, I praise the work I receive
and show them appreciation.
Sample projects
When it comes to mandatory projects, I have two to offer: geography and poetry. I present
each of them to the students, asking them to make a group decision on which to go with.
Last year, based on the surveys I had received, I allowed for individual picks, and now I am
thinking of keeping it more individualized than not in higher grades.
To briefly describe one of the mandatory projects, the one on poetry is, in essence, choosing
a poet out of five given, choosing a poem at least 16 lines long, learning it by heart. Then
in a set week (one lesson is impossible), every student presents their poem alongside the
author’s short bio and analyses (professional alongside their own, they are both of equal
value when the graded). The project, apart from the obvious memorization, forces the
students to do extensive research, read a lot in English, understand the vocabulary and the
thought behind the poem, and then present it in public. In this project, one of the most
crucial elements is praise, support, and respect. I see how much effort my students pour
into their work, and I never let that go unnoticed. There were many cases when students
who were far from perfect with pronunciation received A+s and praise. I noticed how much
energy this gave them for further work. Some of them I am lucky to call my friends now.
When it comes to voluntary projects, I usually offer one of the following per semester:
breadcrumbs or #challenge. They are of lower weight than the mandatory ones but still
address valid issues of our reality.
Breadcrumbs is essentially a picture with a clue from my town that the students need to find
(by deciphering the hints in the rhymed text). I usually ask them to either walk around and
find specific things in the area (e.g., all the embassies, monuments, etc.) or author a story/
poem somehow inspired by the place. The project is quite popular, as I suggest group work
(finding and walking around). Even though it requires less work on their side, the outcomes
never fail to marvel me. In recent years about 80% of my students took part in them, and
usually, when the weather gets better, ask repeatedly for a new breadcrumbs project.

Challenges draw fewer students, as around 10-15% of them decide to take them on. In essence, I think about what they might miss. To name a few of my challenges from recent
years, they were about: sleep, time outdoors, time without electronics, time without sugar.

Then I inform the classes I teach that I challenge them to two weeks of doing/not doing
something. Their task is to do whatever the challenge is about, write a ten-sentence blog
entry/journal each day, and write an essay on two things they enjoyed and two they did
not (submitted on the last day of the challenge). The crucial element here is flexibility
(allowing them to fail once/twice and still get a grade), grading their work (not accuracy,
always A+), personalized feedback (that shows them I read through their journals), and no
criticism as to how they did their challenge. This particular project is introspective, usually
stirs a lot of emotions (not necessarily positive). Besides, while attending a training session
in creative writing, I learned one simple truth: to teach a student writing, they need to
write. In this project, they write fifteen genuine pieces of writing.
Conclusion
In post-COVID school, projects foster rekindling friendships, curiosity, and joy of learning a
language. Of course, they are not universal, and some students will rebel or ignore our efforts.
Still, if you introduce them with relations at heart, the results are always heartwarming. For
that one reason, I hope that since you read this article, you will give those projects a chance
at least once. If you need any help, write me at danielstarski@protonmail.com.


References
• Rogers, C. R. (1954). Toward a theory of creativity. ETC: A Review of General Semantics, 11(4), 249–260.
http://www.jstor.org/stable/42581167
• Girod, M., Pardales, M., Cavanauch, S., & Wadsworth, P. (2005). By Teens, For Teachers: A Descriptive Study
of Adolescence. American Secondary Education, 33(2), 4–19. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41064609
• Ivie, S. D. (1991). Is Rogers Relevant for Teacher Education? Teacher Education Quarterly, 18(1), 69–78.
http://www.jstor.org/stable/23475083
• Meyers, E., & Walter, V. A. (2011). Talk to Teens They’re Still Listening: A powerful, no-tech social and civilizing
medium: Conversation. American Libraries, 42(9/10), 37–39. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23025320
• Corso, M. J., Bundick, M. J., Quaglia, R. J., & Haywood, D. E. (2013). Where Student, Teacher, and Content Meet:
Student Engagement in the Secondary School Classroom. American Secondary Education, 41(3), 50–61.
http://www.jstor.org/stable/43694167

Daniel Starski