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Page history last edited by c 15 years, 7 months ago

Getting Stuck and UnStuck


When students are working on projects, sometimes, maybe inevitably, they get 'Stuck'. This is a phenomenon similar to Writer's Block. Probably any person who has worked creatively has had this experience. Something is in your way, and you can't figure out how to see around it. So you push on it. Occasionally, you will luck out and it will just fall away. Often, however, you will stay stuck. Sometimes you will remain stuck for a very long time. Often, when people experience this, they find it easier to just give up.


So how is this unhappy creative place good for you and your project? What can you do to recognize that you are Stuck? What can you do to get UnStuck? Can the people around you help you get UnStuck? What if they encourage you to Stay Stuck?


In my years of teaching, I have seen youth of all ages go through this process. I have experienced it myself as an artist, teacher and human doing projects that seem easy to other people. Last week, I witnessed a group of teenagers wallowing in the despair of Stuck. As the deadline approached, a whole group of people gave up on their project. "No, we aren't going on Friday" they said in a group in the break space. "We don't have anything to show, so why bother?" Something like that. I couldn't believe that they could be allowed to walk from their project after so much time given to them.


My response, maybe not so productive, was to let them know that I thought it was wrong for them to give up on their project. I tried to push them on specifics of what they were planning. They could only respond that they were going to "do some stuff" to the project. They didn't know where they were going. I guess I figured that not knowing what they were going to do would allow them to not do much. I pushed, they dodged. I followed. They ran. It got loud as I tried to get them to be realistic about what they had in mind. My hope was to assist them into putting some steam into their efforts. They should know that they were expected to produce. In the minds of many of the people around me, I was pushing in the wrong way. Ultimately, I apologized to the group for getting too intense as the deadline approached. My hopes may have been altruistic, but my approach was wrong for the situation.


So what is the right approach? In public school classrooms, the teacher has to keep the students On Task for the whole time, working "from Bell to Bell." The period in my school is about 70 minutes. There is to be no time for being Stuck. All students must perform all the time. There should or must be no exceptions. If a student is not working on the current project, then the student and teacher are wrong. Since the teacher is in charge of the learning environment, it is the teacher's fault if the student gets Stuck. Any student who is not on task must be graded down. If there is an administrator in the room, the teacher will be advised of his or her shortcomings in keeping all the students occupied for the entire time.


If learning is a creative process, then there must be some kind of process for the teacher and students to reflect on the material and process of integrating it. But must this cycle of reflection and information gathering be so heavily directed by the teacher? In the situation described above, a few members of the group rallied together and got some of the goals met. They needed a fair amount of assistance from an adult mentor. They worked on the project during the time that they were scheduled, and after their scheduled time may have done a bit more work. It was a deadline race for them. They did have something to show at the public presentation of their work.


After hours on the day before the presentation, I sat next to two members of the group. I had my own project going and just happened to be sitting next to them. One was looking at the project, showing it to me and a few others. Another was there, and as he sat next to his group mate, he said he wouldn't go to the presentation, and tried to talk the one showing his work into not going either. It was interesting to hear the group member with less invested in the project trying to sow the seeds of failure in the other. Trying to convince the other to slow down or stop working on the project. "What do you mean you're coming in tomorrow at 9am? I'm planning on sleeping in til at least 11 and will get here when I get here." Basically, he seemed to be saying "Come on, let's just both give up together." Failure looking for company?


When he left, I mentioned to the remaining group member that it must have been pretty intense to have a member of his group being so negative. "It was like he was trying to get you to give up." He agreed to this sentiment. I gave a few suggestions on how to address some of the issues raised by other people in the room and let it go at that.


At the presentation ceremony, I saw both group members. The memorable scene I witnessed was the partner who, the afternoon earlier seemed to be sabotaging the project with his negative attitude, and here he was showing off the project to several adults, possibly his relatives. They were at least members of his community, and he seemed proud of what his grouped had pulled off. He didn't seem quite so stuck last night. He seemed proud of his work and eager to show it off. The deadline had come and gone and he was up for showing off. How much of the product was created by him personally, I have no idea, but he was the one I saw demonstrating the product.


So what is the value of being Stuck? It doesn't really directly help anybody get their work done. As deadlines near, some people will Lay Down. They just seem to give up. Some people Turn it On. They feel the deadline and want to make sure they show their best. When they Turn it On, they stay late, they work over night, they work solo or with their group to finish proudly.


When others get Stuck and Lay Down, they get negative. They undermine the efforts of their peers. They find all the ways that the project can't be done. They see only obstacles. They get low on energy, time drags on. They psych out the people around them and often try and even convince others to join them in Laying Down.


It becomes the teacher's fault if too many people in the room Lay Down. If the teacher has allowed, permitted or created an atmosphere where students are allowed to Lay down, then it is the sign of a faulty teacher in the eyes of many. I suppose it is the teacher's success if they Turn it On, but often the credit rightly goes to the dedication of the students. Often there is a mix of both scenarios in a class with project deadlines. If the balance is in favor of those choosing to Lay Down, then supplies go missing, tools go missing, equipment breaks, software doesn't work and other negative feedback loops surface. As things get more negative, it can get worse.

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