Breaking Through the Challenge

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Rockets have fascinated me since I was young, and so it was with childlike enthusiasm that I decided to build and launch model rockets with my high school students over a three-day project period. When I purchased the kits, I chose “skill level 1” over the “easy-to-assemble” model, believing that my students’ excitement at building these rockets would overcome the level of difficulty. That was the first step in presenting an achievable challenge.

Although they were as excited at the outset as I had expected, their gazes slowly grew blank, shifting from the pieces on the table to the drawing of the soaring rocket on the packaging and back again. Soon the game was up. A chorus of negative comments began to fill the room: “I’m done, I can’t do this.” “This is stupid. I don’t know what I’m doing, this is too hard.” “This is impossible. What if I mess it up? I’m going to break this.”

Some students felt they were too cool to fail, so they quit before the balsa could beat them. A few of them left before I could intervene, and their models remain incomplete on my shelf today. But the rest of my students engaged in a dialogue that eventually illustrated the power of perseverance.

My job was to create achievable steps and celebrate each success. I set up the project in stages, each one with a definable endpoint. We built the rockets in halves, which allowed me to say, "Hey, you've built half a rocket and doesn't it look great?"

I continued to tell my students that I believed in them until they started to believe in themselves and then I continued to praise them. I had faith in each student’s ability to build a rocket. Throughout the process, I constantly tried to tell and show my students that they have all the skills they need and that they are worth believing in.

As glue joined fins and tubes with nose cones and nascent rockets stood on all fours, the students’ sense of defective knowledge and faulty skill was replaced by the concrete reality of creations taking shape on the tables before them. There were breakdowns and tears, but at the end of the class they held proof in their hands that they could do what they had thought was impossible. After finishing and painting the rockets, we were ready to launch.

This experience reinforced for me the idea of achievable challenge. The difficulty in accomplishing the task must be real, not contrived, and has to result in students pushing themselves beyond what they believe is possible. Set the goal too high and students will give up when the pain becomes too great. Set it too low and the task is merely an exercise. It’s like building a scaffolding around a concept or project: Students can see the progress and get a satisfactory perspective on completion as they move forward at each stage. We must set  appropriately difficult goals for students that, with the proper support and encouragement, they  can achieve. By setting achievable challenges, we help students move beyond their self-doubt and build their self-confidence.

Swoveland works with high-risk students in Massachusetts, primarily preparing them for the GED exam. He also leads enrichment and engagement programs in writing, photography and art.