What do paper cranes have to do with English class?

An assignment to make origami birds teaches students an unexpected lesson.

Ihad completely forgotten about the quart-size glass jar that held a colorful assortment of paper and foil artwork. My 2-year-old granddaughter had unearthed it from a pile of things cluttering my office – books, folders, knickknacks – things that I needed to shelve or put away after my retirement from teaching.

When Samantha brought the jar to me, I relived a wonderful teaching moment I had enjoyed.

This jar had been a gift from one of the 6,000 students I had taught in my 35-year career. It had mysteriously appeared on my desk a few weeks after I had taught a literacy activity to my senior English classes.

I had copied a page from a book telling how to make origami animals, and my students were to follow the directions provided. The catch was that the directions were in Japanese, and not one of my students was fluent in the language.

Immediately, I was flooded with loud protests. How could they be expected to succeed, much less understand something with incomprehensible directions? Was I crazy? Was I out to get them and destroy their chances of obtaining a college degree?

No I wasn't. I had an important objective in mind – that we all have to make sense of the incomprehensible from time to time.

Look at computer manuals and tax forms. Look at life itself. Even when we read passages in our own language, we can be confused and bewildered.

"Ever read your car insurance policy?" I asked them. They nodded, and I could see that most had begun to understand that sometimes we just have to muddle through to understanding.

It wasn't long before colorful paper cranes were flitting all around the classroom. Students had somehow been able to follow the directions by looking at the diagrams and talking to one another to share insights.

Enthusiasm began to spread as each student had a little success, and eventually the loudest complainers began to realize that this was not an impossible task.

I began putting the completed birds on the small bulletin board above the chalkboards that ran around the perimeter of my room.

It was really quite magnificent. Green, yellow, red, and blue birds – they created a virtual jungle of paper cranes that grew more populated as the day progressed.

Rumors of the strange lesson being taught in my English classes ran rampant throughout the school that day. That teacher was nuts, no doubt, and even a few colleagues questioned me on the value of such an activity in an English class.

Wasn't it a waste of precious class time, when we had so many state-mandated tests and assignments looming on our educational horizon?

I stood firm in the logic of my methods, though, because the origami lesson taught many important things.

It taught that hard tasks are more successfully completed when we help one another.

It also proved, I think, that we can do what needs to be done if we approach all tasks thoughtfully and not with a sense of panic or possible failure. If you think you are going to fail, you probably will.

Even those who had the most difficult time with the directions had the good sense to find someone who had figured out what to do and to get their advice and assistance in the project.

I continued to use this object lesson in perseverance for many years afterward. After the assignment had faded into memory and the origami birds on the bulletin board had begun to gather dust, one morning when I walked into the classroom, on my desk was a quart-size glass container filled to the brim with hundreds, maybe even thousands, of colorful origami cranes.

Each was very tiny, no more than an inch from wingtip to wingtip. There were foil cranes of gold and silver and cranes with shamrocks and stars printed on them. These paper animals represented a considerable amount of time and effort on the part of the student who had made them for me. I was tremendously moved.

The origami artist was a young woman from Vietnam who was very shy about taking credit for her work. I could imagine her working diligently at the task of filling the jar to the top with tiny birds.

As I looked at the jar, I realized what a success my lesson had been, at least for this young person. I marveled at how some lessons are gifts that transcend language, just as some gifts are lessons that transcend explanation.

The glass jar now has a place of prominence next to my computer so that I can see it every time I sit down. It is there to remind me that perseverance and muddling through are my best tools. It is also there to help me remember how one simple lesson can strongly affect someone without a teacher even realizing it.

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