With so much ugly human nature saturating our senses these days, I wanted to give my students a different life experience.
At the start of spring semester in January, I created an assignment allowing them to explore the goodness that is within themselves.
Called the Decency Project, the months-long endeavor gave them an opportunity to pursue charitable work in any area of their choosing. Students could decide to work alone or with up to two other people from any of my four English classes.
During the semester, students turned in progress reports. Their projects covered a wide spectrum, from working with disabled children and the elderly to feeding the homeless and caring for cancer patients.
Since I have never done this before, I was not sure how I was going to evaluate their work in terms of a grade. That is why I asked them to answer this question at the end: How would you feel if I told you that after all your work on this, I decided not to award any points for it?
I was so impressed with their responses that I shared several of them with all my classes so that the students could see how the decency project impacted their peers. And I listened to them—no grades were given.
It was one of the most powerful moments in my 29 years as a teacher.
While a few students wrote that they would be very disappointed if they did not receive points for this project, over 95 percent of the 135 students said they would be fine without. Here’s what they said:
“If this project was graded, it would defeat the whole purpose of being a decent person.”
“Soon after beginning my work, I began to not really think of this so much as a school assignment, but an incredible opportunity for me to give back to my community and grow as a responsible, hard-working citizen.”
“Rewarding someone for doing something diminishes the values behind volunteering, turning what should be a selfless act into a selfish one.”
“I would feel very proud and glad if you decided not to reward any points. Kindness should not be rewarded.”
“It was more of a life lesson than a project.”
The last question students answered in their final report was this: Looking back over your efforts, was it worth it?
Here are their responses:
“It was absolutely worth it, and I am willing to do it again.”
“This project was an eye-opener as we wouldn’t have normally aided others in such an impactful way.”
“It helped me to become focused on others rather than self-focused, which is a thing we all need to do.”
“We have seen how those that are less fortunate than us live, and we are able to see the world through their eyes now.”
“I felt like I actually put my time, dedication, and hard work on something that became useful at the end.”
“Since the people we were helping were cancer patients, it was quite sobering and it made our complaints of homework seem irrelevant.”
“I am thankful that this project was assigned because of how much freedom was granted. Students do not get many opportunities to be so creative and self-dependent in projects.”
“Nowadays, there isn’t a lot of kindness going around in the world. I hope this project motivates other students to do this.”
“This project has shaped me into a humanitarian.”
“I feel more humbled as a person.”
“I have become a better person.”
What a breath of fresh air in today’s times. I learned how lucky a teacher I am to work with such inspirational students who will be leaders in our society one day. I am proud of their accomplishments, and I hope the public is, too.