Photo from our cultural food night. We were trying to depict
that you should never reach across the communal bowl!

Growing up, I only had one class that made me feel challenged. Mr. Webb’s fifth grade class introduced me to poetry and Tudor England – and was more intense than any class I had ever had and most of the classes I have taken since. We wrote research papers, gave presentations, played games, took tests, studied hard, and discussed real ideas. Granted, we did so at the level of fifth graders – but my horizons shifted and expanded. I was encouraged to work extra hard, to practice my presentation with my best friend at recess, and to take my studying beyond the school environment. It isn’t surprising then, that poetry and Tudor England are two of my favorite subjects to study even to this day.

Ever since Mr. Webb’s class, school has been a disappointment. It has not just been the teachers who have made it less than exemplary. No, it has also been lazy students unwilling to go above and beyond, myself included. When I entered the sixth grade, the other students who had once been willing to go above and beyond, creating a culture of excellence, achievement, and true learning, had apparently lost their drive. I watched as one by one, eager minds turned away from excellence and toward bare minimum requirements. Before long, I too, lost my desire to overachieve – to learn for the sake of learning. To be honest, I don’t even know why or how I lost it.

This semester has opened my eyes. I am at a new university and I am finally surrounded once more by students who are eager to learn for the sake of knowledge. They are not here simply to gain a degree, to pass time, to party, to please their parents, or to impress their future colleagues. They are here to increase their mental capacities and to absorb knowledge.

This environment of learning has led me to step up my game, not because of competition but because of encouragement. In group projects, I am prodded to work extra hours. In my apartment, I see other students who are constantly working hard and growing. On campus, I see students studying in the library, in the cafeteria, and in random beautiful places on campus.

In my Middle East class, we were assigned a group project where we had to write a paper, create a PowerPoint, and be prepared to present (even though only three of the nine groups would actually present, chosen at random) on an assigned country. My group was assigned Tunisia. We had three class periods off to work on our projects. My initial thought mirrored my old way of bare minimum. “Sweet, we can work hard the first two days, maybe meet outside of class on one night for an hour, and have a day with no class!”

As I met with my group for the first time, we decided to meet an extra time in the library just to get ahead. This was originally supposed to take the place of one of the class periods, but we got so into the material that we ended up meeting during both times instead. We did our research separately, but we wrote the entire paper together, discussing each section and learning about every aspect of Tunisia. We also decided that we wanted to have a cultural food night and make Tunisian food for the class. We took a trip to Winco together to shop for the food and spent almost four hours preparing and eating it the day before the presentation. A project that was assigned to take three hours turned into approximately twelve hours of group work PLUS outside work for each individual.

As we presented our project today and passed out the food (snacking on some as we went along), we decided we wanted to have another cultural food night – just for fun.

I learned so much more from this project than I would have if we had just done the bare minimum. I am certain that our grade will be no higher for the extra time we took learning about the cultural aspects. We could have written a paper that would have gotten a good grade in the three hours provided. We could have done the bare minimum, but if we had, we would not have learned to appreciate Tunisian culture – and we would not have learned how to make Tunisian Couscous, Palace Bread, and that yummy citrus mint drink.

Going above and beyond and learning for the sake of learning rather than to earn a grade was a gift that I lost somewhere between fifth grade and college, but I am happy to report that I have regained it. When I teach someday, I hope that I can help encourage my students to go above and beyond in their academic pursuits – not for a grade, but for the sake of knowledge.

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