For a long time I had a project in my Intermediate Composition class in which my students built kites. After they built them in groups, they wrote essays telling someone how to make the same kite.
It was a project to help them understand how to write the process essay. My goal was to reinforce the necessity of having good organization, and specific, concrete details. Well, that was script I had ready just in case any administrator asked why I had my whole class running across the quad with kites. (After all, we had to make sure they worked.)
Mostly, though, it was just a fun project that I could do mid-year when confidence and motivation were flagging. I have a wide variety of students and this gave them a chance to work together, to create something, and for some world-weary students to experience some fun for a day.
I divided the students into groups, and they planned what materials to bring to the next class sessions. I gave general instructions, urging them to bring balsa wood for the cross sticks, suggesting materials they could bring in to make their kites successful.
After a few semesters, I thought I was pretty knowledgeable about kite construction and not afraid to spout off about it. I readily told students what would work and what would not.
One semester, I had a student from Argentina named Luis who was in charge of bringing the materials for his group. He did not speak very much English and apparently had not really understood what he was supposed to bring. All he had was some string, a crumpled plastic bag from the grocery store, and some sad twigs he had picked up from under the tree.
His group was distraught and came to me for help. They were sure he had forgotten the assignment and had just thrown these things together. I went to talk to Luis and he just nodded and smiled at me.
His group was not happy and was getting a little stressed out. I gave the group permission to borrow from other people in the class to make their own kite. I talked to Luis and explained to him all the reasons why these materials would not work but he just went to a corner of the classroom and started his own project.
I felt a little bad, watching him cobble together his crippled little kite, but time was passing by quickly.
Soon the groups had finished their kites. There were some beautiful creations, decorated with bright colors, festooned with tissue paper and shiny streamers.
I saw the students look at the kite Luis held. Some of them smirked a little. I knew the kite wouldn’t fly but what could I do?
It was a gorgeous day, but there was not too much wind. We tried flying the kites anyway. I always love to see my students get excited about such simple things. I have a very clear memory of one of my more gangster-type of students, arms full of tattoos, holding up a kite in one hand, and his jeans with the other, a cigarette (unlit) in his mouth, as he ran in his giant black shoes, laughing all the way across the grass.
The students released the kites, and ran with them, but none of them flew. We decided the wind was probably not strong enough. Then, as you may have guessed, we all turned to see one kite high in the blue sky. It was a kite made out of twigs and a crumpled grocery bag, and there at the end of the string was Luis, smiling.
The other students were amazed at how high the kite went, the way it hovered in the sky. They asked him about it and he told them he had learned to make this type of kite as a child in Argentina. They looked at him and then up at the kite with complete awe.
I think about Luis and the kite a lot. This experience really changed my life. I realized how rigid I was in my thinking, how smug I was about what I thought I knew, and how wrong I had been.
Now, when one of my students, friends, or my kids has an idea, I don’t discount it. Instead I say, “Let’s try it!”
What’s the worst thing that can happen?
The world’s a big place.
The sky is wide above us.
Even the most unlikely kites need a chance to fly.