Beyond the Passion Project
Clara wanted to do something amazing for her final Brainado project. She wanted to push herself and leave a “remembrance,” as she called it, commemorating the sustainability program at her middle school. She envisioned painting a mural on the newly constructed, pristine greenhouse. She only had one small problem: “I have no artistic ability.”
But she went for it. She found a partner, a community mentor, and unexpected help. She made mistakes and fixed them. And she worked far beyond the project period, up until the last week of school. The mural is amazing to look at but has impact far beyond the visual. Clara thought she was painting her legacy but she was also expressing the legacy of the educators who cared for her.
The artistic process
Like many great creative endeavors, the greenhouse mural did not develop in a linear fashion. When asked why she chose a mural as her final Brainado project, Clara said:
It was kind of like a joke at first. I was like, ‘Hey why don’t I just paint a huge mural?’ And Ms. Popowitz was like, ‘Well you could do it if you want.’ And then we put more thought into it and made it happen.
During Clara’s four years at CBMS, she had seen Ms. Popowitz every single day during advisory. The power of this relationship sparked Clara’s vision. And the trust of Ms. Popowitz gave her the confidence to try it.
But she wasn’t going to be able to pull this off alone.
First, she found a partner. Devon switched his Brainado project to help Clara. As he put it, “she was so passionate about it that I wanted to help, and then I became passionate about it too.” Devon had painted murals before and his experience and companionship were crucial.
Next, Clara and Devon connected with an external mentor who had signed up to help with Brainado. Denise Rundle, a local artist and business woman, helped them get started in thinking about how to take a design to scale, which materials to use, and how to plan the project from start to finish.
Then, as they worked, they drew upon the school community. A seventh grade student taught them the ombre technique for fading the colors of the sunset. A para-educator with painting experience consulted throughout the process. And of course Ms. Popowitz was always there offering encouragement, telling them to keep going and reaffirming her trust in them.
Going the extra mile
Brainado happens over the course of 10 school hours. By the end of the official work sessions the mural was just getting started. Clara and Devon were still determined to finish it. Asked when they would work on it, they responded, “whenever we can.”
And they did. They worked on it during lunch, after school, and in tiny segments of free time. They estimated that they put 70 hours of work into it during the final five weeks of school.
Keep in mind that many 8th graders were on cruise control, enjoying their last few days of middle school before it “gets real” in high school.
Why did Clara and Devon become obsessed? Clara had a vision inspired by her school, the sustainability program, and her relationship with Ms. Popowitz in particular. It’s impossible to know why exactly this came together the way it did.
Yet this is the power of open-ended student-led projects like Brainado. Give students the opportunity to amaze you, and they often will. Open that door a crack and they just might blow it wide open. Clara and Devon walked through the door to high school but left behind something powerful and meaningful.
The legacy of students
On their last day of middle school, they admired their creation.
The textured sunset depicted in the mural made the greenhouse shine for cars passing by on iconic Route 100. Up close,ornaments representing the values of sustainability popped. The initials of Crossett Brook Middle School stood proudly. And the artists’ handprints saluted their success.
Asked what she had learned, Clara responded with a laugh: “Anything is possible! Seriously – I’m not an artist I’m a lot into sports. When I thought about this I thought, ‘okay so we just put paint on.’ … but that’s not what it’s like. It was hard!”
Devon agreed, noting that he learned that “to get the best result you have to put in a lot of time.” He added that “practice really does make perfect. We made a lot of mistakes but we got better.”
They attribute their success to teamwork and persistence. When asked for what advice they would give to students about future Brainado projects, Clara said:
Don’t do something boring … don’t do something like just shooting basketballs, or doing something you always do at home, because like it’s definitely worth it. Like this, I just think of Devon and I laughing, like this is never gonna get done. Or making mistakes and thinking ‘man, this looks horrible.’
And now they have this concrete representation of their collaboration. It represents important values and key relationships. They ended middle school on a huge positive and nobody can ever take that away from them.
The legacy of a school
But there are other legacies at work in that mural.
As George Couros puts it, “Your legacy as an educator is always determined by what your students do.”
In this case, we have a school that thoughtfully put conditions in place for Clara and Devon to care enough to want to take risks, work hard, and leave a legacy.
- The advisory system that connects students across grade levels and puts them in the stewardship of one teacher throughout their middle school career.
- The sustainability program that teaches students science, values, and critical thinking skills in the context of student leadership.
- The Brainado project that provides school time, support, and resources for students to create and share something of their choosing.
In some way all of those factors helped create that beautiful mural. All of those relationships, all of that learning, all the struggles and successes, had created one of those moments that educators dream about.
A truly teachable moment.
And Ms. Popowitz hit it out of the park.
Ms. P.: It was tough at times, when you were putting everything into it.
Clara: It’s scary!
Ms. P.: Yeah but just think about when you take that risk, say it doesn’t work out the way you wanted, it’s fixable. And that’s such a huge lesson in life. Things don’t always go exactly the way you want them, but everything is fixable. And sometimes the end result is way better than you originally would have thought. Like if you had done that “path” correctly.
Attune your ear. Watch the video closely. They aren’t talking about the mural. They are talking about life. It is a one minute conversation with a lifetime of lessons.
Behold the legacy of educators: often less heralded but far more impactful than any mural, no matter how beautiful.