During my 36 years as a high school English teacher, I generally substituted creative theft for actual creativity. Some of the best practices that I used were taken from teacher workshops, my colleagues, and journal articles. One of the things that teaching did for me was to keep me engaged in the world, always looking for something I might adapt and use effectively in the classroom. A song lyric, a news article, a documentary, a project my own children might bring home from school were all fair game. This was how I entered the weird world of scrapbooking.
I taught Advanced Placement (honors) senior English for the last 12 years of my career and all AP teachers, particularly those who worked with seniors, quietly dread the day that the AP test has come and gone. Beginning on the day that the students would return from the test for which I had prepared them, they would begin to look at me as some alien being, someone who no longer served any purpose especially when I would insist that we were continuing on with our work as usual.
I faced 4-5 weeks of trying to keep them engaged when nearly every kid had already chosen the college they would be attending the following year, and once AP tests were over, they were done. My best attempts were met, not with hostility, but with a deep and abiding sense of apathy. “Mr. Waldron,” they would say, “why do you keep trying to make us do stuff?”
I did “stuff”, because I could not stand the boredom that comes from doing nothing. I decided they would read The Rocket Boys, the poignant memoir by Homer Hickam, popularized by the film October Sky. They would write a reflective essay focusing on one significant thing they had learned during their high school years, or to profile one special person who had provided them with mentoring and guidance. Students would also prepare a reflective speech to be delivered on one of the final three days of school. The guidelines were similar to the reflective essay and provided me with an easy way to get through the final three days with little to grade.
Lastly, they would create a scrapbook.
It started with the class of 2001. The entire idea of this four-part unit was to personalize the last 5 weeks and to give them opportunities to look back and consider what this experience of high school had meant to them, the good and the bad. For better or for worse, they were hitting one of our society’s significant rites of passage—graduation from high school. It was also designed to make the last 5 weeks as fun and easy for me as possible. Call it senior-citizenitis.
The seed of the idea for the scrapbook came from an article I read in the spring about a teacher who had used the creation of a scrapbook as a classroom activity. It occurred to me that this fit right in with my theme and that it would be both valuable and fun to have students create their own, individual scrapbooks, full of their best memories from high school.
I kept the guidelines simple. The scrapbook was to be a minimum of 25 pages. Each scrapbook had three required elements: a copy of their reflective essay, a short blurb on each section telling why this sport, activity, person, club, was significant, and three letters from meaningful people (a friend, a school person, and a relative) written to them and reflecting on this moment of their impending graduation. The other pages were up to them. I gave them a list of suggested page topics, but they literally exploded with ideas of their own. The grading was simple. If students met the requirements on time, they got full credit. The scrapbook could be expensive and elaborate with themed paper, stickers, and all of the other scrapbook madness, or it could be in a three-ring binder mounted on typing paper. It had to be completed at home. I took only three class days out to check on the number of completed pages and check on the required elements. The hardest part for me was getting through the class in one period. Some kids wanted to tell me the story behind every picture on every page and I really, really wanted to listen because some of them had worked so hard, but I had to sometimes rush them so I could look through all 30+ scrapbooks in one period.
I kept the same requirements for 12 years with very little adjustment, the biggest change being that after the first year, I told the students about the project during the first week of school to give them plenty of time to take pictures, save memorabilia, and to procrastinate. After the project had become well established, I would poll the students on the first day of school as to whether or not they had heard anything about it. Ninety percent of them had. Some of them had literally gotten into my class specifically because they wanted to do this one assignment. Wide-eyed kids eagerly told me that they already had completed some pages during the summer before their senior year had even begun. The finished projects ranged from meeting the minimum requirements to putting together 80-page productions in multiple volumes. It became a monster.
But it did not catch on right away with that very first class, the class of 2001. In fact, there was open revolt from the moment I suggested the idea. Remember, I introduced it with only 5 or 6 weeks remaining and it sounded like work and work was something that most had grown allergic to by then. But, there was a distinct gender split. As I explained the project, I could see a euphoric expression crossing the faces of some girls as if this was the assignment they had been waiting for, hoping desperately for, for their entire high school careers. Many of the boys were outraged. “You can’t make us do this“ they threatened. “We’re going to start a petition!” I’m not sure what the petition would have been for or to whom they would have given it, but clearly they needed some outlet to combat my audacity. One of the boys came to me and said defiantly, “I’m just not going to do this project!” My response had been honed by years of practice. I looked at him blandly and said, “You don’t have to. You don’t have to do anything I assign. If you can afford to lose the 100 points for the project, then don’t do it. It’s entirely up to you.” While the boys were planning rebellion, the girls were already planning scrapbooking parties.
We made it through that first year. The rebels surrendered and put their mothers and girlfriends to work and everyone completed the task. In the last weeks as I attended numerous senior activities, both kids and parents approached me to thank me. “We are so grateful that you made us do this. We would never have taken the time to do it on our own and now we have something really special to help us remember his high school years” was a comment I received frequently.
Alicia, a wonderful student from the class of 2005 wrote a message to me recently where she stated, “I found my scrapbook last summer and can’t thank you enough for creating an assignment for us to compile a concrete record of our time at Valhalla (High School). I never would have done it on my own, and it was incredible to rediscover the high school version of myself—so concerned with defining my own personality and path, surprisingly struggling with some of the societal and personal issues that I think about today.”
It’s funny the things that endure. I tripped across an article, adapted it for the classroom and decided to give it a shot. I quite unknowingly discovered a tool by which kids could “rediscover the high school version” of themselves. As the years have gone by and I have met up with or heard from students who are now scattered across the country, the scrapbook is invariably mentioned.
So much from the classroom fades away, but clearly, the scrapbook abides.