In this Stenhouse Summer Series blog post, Connie Pertuz-Meza shares how vision boards can spark and nurture student imagination and dreaming within the classroom.
“Who wants to play family?” Brandy asked.
It was a Friday in mid-October and the last period of the day. It was choice time for my fifth-grade class, and they had the option to choose from an array of board games. After recess, it was the most anticipated period of the week.
Much to my surprise everyone near Brandy nodded or piped up with a “Yes.”
I looked over to them, surprised that an imaginative game like family, typically played in the primary grades, was now trending before my eyes in my fifth-grade classroom. I studied my students' faces as they grouped into families with an ease only children deep in play can. I had to remind myself this was what teaching post pandemic looked like: regression of children’s behavior was now not an anomaly but the normal. Last year, stuffed animals were the trend and show-n-tell among my ten- and eleven-year-olds, this year it was playing family. I handed Connect Four, Trouble, and Uno to the few kids not playing family. Then busied myself near more than half of my class, who were creating rich family lives, noting how they declared their future, through this improv unfolding in front of me.
I am an aunt who travels the world and owns a chain of restaurants.
I am a father who is a doctor and has two sets of twins.
I am a cousin who runs marathons and adopts. I also have a tattoo shop.
I am not married and didn’t want to have a family. Instead I help undocumented people.
Every Friday, seventh period was more of the same. A worm of an idea wiggled in and out of mind as I watched more students than not join and play. I continued to eavesdrop on what they envisioned their lives to be in the future. I smiled and wished they were this excited to learn. My brain wandered not unlike my students: What if I used this imaginative play outside of choice time? I contemplated what I thought was the most important lesson I wanted my students to learn, and over my two-decade long career as a teacher it has changed.
In those early years of teaching, I wanted my students to learn to be good students, which for me meant: behave, study, and complete homework. It later evolved as I wanted them to be avid readers, deep thinkers, and unafraid to ask questions. Recently it has shifted, understanding how life is sweeter when there is meaning and teaching this has felt very much tied to my own purpose as a teacher. I also knew that if any generation would be open to this lesson, it would be this one. Afterall, they had lived through a global pandemic, the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests which swept the nation, a government insurrection, and understood the gravity of climate change. In front of me was a group of children who would be open to contemplating a greater sense of life. They needed to be curious and being a lifelong learner was how to keep the spark of life burning. The spark that leads you to play, to envision, to dream—to truly be alive.
QUESTIONS FOR NEXT STEPS
Now that I knew the seed I wanted to plant, I had to figure out my lesson plan. How would I teach them to set goals to be lifelong learners? One thing I knew for sure was their imaginations would help me teach something so abstract adults struggled with it. I struggled with it. How to recognize your own path, ignite it, and keep it illuminated?
Once again, I turned to my students. I observed them during snack time, recess, choice time, whole-class lessons, independent work, partner work, and group work. I knew if I studied them closely enough, they would teach me how to teach them.
WHAT I OBSERVED:
- They love playing with their imagination
- They love doodling
- They are excited about the future
- They love sharing about themselves
- They are so comfortable with devices, it’s like an extension of them
Finally, walking to school in mid-December, tired of looking at the bare trees, I looked up at the sky scrubbed out of all its blue, and just like that an idea floated to me, much like the light dust of snowflakes falling down around me. I could use vision boards at the start of the new year to have my students set their academic and lifelong goals, except we would do them for winter solstice. If they could see images of their goals, maybe the seed of lifelong learning could take root and would sprout long after they left my classroom.
I set to work, journaling about my desires in life and created goals. The next day, I shared with my class what I wrote in my journal; my desires to write stories, teach adults too, travel, continue to be a student of yoga, and enjoy nature more. I played with my own imagination in front of my students, creating a vision board on Google Jamboard, carefully curating images that expressed my desires and goals.
I passed out index cards and told them it was their turn to journal about their goals and life desires. I told them to not think too much, just go, and not to worry about the how, but to focus on what it was they wanted. They would have five minutes to jot on their postcard sized index cards, then they would be paired off with a partner to share, and finally they would have a chance to share with the whole group.
WHAT THEY SHARED:
- Learn my multiplication tables by heart
- Read the whole Hunger Games series
- Learn another language
- Create a comic book series
- Check out more nonfiction books in the library
- Try out for the soccer travel team
- Sell crocheted bookmarks on Etsy
Once they were done sharing, I asked them to think about their desires and goals right before they drifted off to sleep. Perhaps they would dream bigger goals and desires overnight and they could document the next day on Google Jamboard in class.
“What?” Gabe shouted out. “You mean we are not going to do our vision boards now?”
I shook my head back and forth. “You need time to dream.”
“I don’t even dream,” Gabe replied.
“Yeah, me either.” Simon agreed.
“Well, we all dream.” I said, walking throughout the classroom. “As a matter of fact, we dream when we are awake.”
“You mean, daydream?” Brandy asked.
“Is that what we did right now?” Gabe tilted his head, deep in thought, as he processed the lesson we had all been learning moments before.
“Exactly!” I smiled.
As promised, the next day I had students work on their digital vision boards, but not before they shared their dreams. Most of the class recalled their dreams, others only traces, and a few not at all. With laptops in front of each student, they all began to fill their Google Jamboards with images from nature they wanted to be around, flags from the countries they wanted to visit, foods they wanted to taste, roller coasters they wanted to ride, instruments they wanted to learn, celebrities they wanted to meet, and things they wanted to accomplish, like solve a Rubix cube or learn to sign their name in American Sign Language.
As the year winds down, and I reflect on my twenty-second year of learning, I am in awe of how much I learn from my students. One thing that children don’t need to be taught is imagination. Unlike most adults, a child's imagination roars unabashedly and tapping into it not only lets teachers do their best teaching but is a reminder that no matter our age, we should let our imagination roam, visualize more play in our lives, and never forget to dream.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION
At the start of June, I asked students to look back at their Jamboards and at the collages of their dreams, and if anything has changed? Followed by, “What else have you dreamt in the past few months? Could you add new dream images to your board? Could you expand on your board? Could anything be removed?”
As I looked through their Jamboards from six months ago, I came across one student who only placed one image on his. It’s given me another idea, one last lesson to be taught on summer solstice. I envision myself in front of my students, saying: think of one image that makes your spirit soar. Let it be your anchor long after you have left my classroom. This is mine.
*ALL STUDENTS NAMES HAVE BEEN CHANGED
About the Author
Connie Pertuz-Meza is a two-decade long NYC public school educator, mother and wife. Connie’s writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Kweli Literary Journal, and elsewhere. She is a VONA alum and board member secretary, Tin House participant, a 2022 Pen America Emerging Fellow, and 2023 We Need Diverse Books Mentorship Finalist. You can connect with Connie on at her website.