It was sixth-grade orientation. New lockers, new teachers and new friends. But as I was preparing to lead this orientation, I wanted to take time to honor what wasn’t new—all the experiences my students brought with them. My solution? Paper airplanes.
I gave out paper and asked the students to list people and things that were important to them in elementary school. To help them think broadly, I gave lots of prompts as they made their lists:
● Friends they were close to, whether or not they’re still close now
● Teachers who made a difference
● Significant activities, such as athletics or arts
● Places that mattered to them
● Topics they learned about that were particularly interesting
● Important skills or processes they learned
● Things they cared about, like a favorite toy or well-worn article of clothing
● Books that had an impact
● Memories they want to hold onto
After the students had time to make satisfying lists, we folded our papers into airplanes, with the words on the inside so they could be kept private. Some students were already expert plane-makers, and others had no idea what to do. I had no idea either, but I’d printed the steps off the internet and guided those who needed help. (Everyone got through the activity with their eyes intact!)
But before we flew our planes, we sat in a circle. I said, “Imagine that this plane represents your life. On board are the important experiences you’ve had so far. Even though new things might become important as you go through middle school, no one can take away the experiences that are important to you right now.” I looked around the circle. The students were with me. “So, what might happen when we all fly our planes at the same time?”
“They might crash into each other,” a student said.
“Yes. In life, we’re going about our business, and other people are going about theirs, and sometimes we have conflicts. Two people reach for the last doughnut, try out for the lead role in a play or try to get the same friend’s attention. What else could happen when we all fly our planes?”
Another student said, “It might just…” and she acted out a crash landing with sound effects.
“Yep. We sometimes try things and fail miserably.”
Another student motioned to the fluorescent light fixtures and said, “The plane might get stuck.”
“Yes. In life, we sometimes get stuck and need help getting out of those situations. What else could happen?
“Couldn’t the plane fly exactly where you want it to go?”
“Of course! Sometimes things go the way we planned them. Maybe because we folded our planes really well, we got help or we just got lucky. What else could happen?”
“I don’t know. Maybe someone tries to make the plane go really far, but it ends up making some cool loop-dee-loop.”
“Yes! Sometimes what we end up doing isn’t what we expected or planned, but it’s really cool! There are so many ways to make a flight successful.”
Then, on the count of three, we all flew our planes at the same time: We sped and looped and crashed them. Then I asked the students to find someone else’s plane and bring it back to their seats. How did it feel to have another person’s plane? The responses were all similar. Weird. Uncomfortable. A big responsibility. I asked, “What might be some situations in sixth grade where someone else’s plane will be in your hands, so to speak?”
“When you’re working on a group project, you need to do your part or everyone gets a bad grade.”
“If your friend is upset.”
“Even something small, like if someone needs a pencil and you have an extra.”
“Or if someone asks you for help with their homework.”
They flew each other’s planes—more carefully this time—and found their own again. Finally, I asked them to consider how they want to fly their planes in middle school. Not where they wanted to fly; this wasn’t a goal-setting exercise. I was asking how they wanted to fly: “How do you want to approach your classes? How do you want to treat your friends? And your classmates who aren’t your friends? How do you want to treat your teachers? How do you want to treat yourself? How do you want to behave toward your families and communities?”
They wrote their responses on the wings of their planes because, while their experiences are on board, their values are how they want to fly. We went around the circle one last time so everyone could share.
“I want to take on challenges.”
“I want to act supportively toward my friends and classmates.”
“I’m going to take my academics and sports seriously.”
“Even if I fail, I’ll keep going.”
I collected the airplanes so I could return them later in the year and ask if the values the students wrote on the wings still feel salient. How have they stuck to their flight plans in middle school, and how have their flight plans changed? Questions like these can help them live by their own values in a variety of contexts—including school.
Porosoff is a seventh-grade English teacher, curriculum design consultant and author of Curriculum at Your Core: Meaningful Teaching in the Age of Standards.