Benjamin Franklin, Classroom Teachers and the Dangers of Perfection

220px-Benjamin_Franklin_by_Joseph_Duplessis_1778

Perfection is a danger. Just ask Benjamin Franklin and social studies teacher Chelsea Alsberg.

Why is it at the end of the year we become possessed with feelings of inadequacy about not doing enough for students? It’s like there’s this voice in the sky reminding us of the lessons we never got to, standards we failed to meet, paperwork left incomplete and lives untouched. Things didn’t turn out as we planned. It wasn’t perfect.

Meanwhile…

…many of our students are suffering the same feelings of regret thinking about the homework they should have done and the adult expectations they failed to meet. Added to their stress is the pressure of test scores and for seniors the torture of college decisions. The pressure to be perfect comes from all angles.

The quest for perfection is a monster that debilitates us and diminishes our capacity to grow into the best version of ourselves.  Social studies teacher Chelsea Alsberg drew upon this psychology to construct a lesson featuring Benjamin Franklin, somebody who was able to overcome the alluring spell of perfectionism in the toughest of circumstances.

She begins, innocently enough, with a question:

What makes something perfect?

So simple yet so profound, and it meets all three of our criteria.

After gathering students’ responses, she shows the story “Ish” by Peter H. Reynolds

Students reflect:

Was there ever something you stopped doing because you were not doing it perfectly?

Can art be perfect?  Who decides this?

What does it mean that Ramon’s later paintings/art were “-ish”?

Having personalized a definition of perfection and considered their own personal experiences, students are poised to make the historical connection. They read Benjamin Franklin’s closing speech to the Constitutional Convention  and shape responses to a series of questions including this big one:   If Franklin knows that the Constitution is flawed, why does he still push for ratification?

After discussion, the lesson concludes with students articulating the key positions of the anti-federalists and federalists as they debate the pitfalls and possibilities of the new Constitution. Students then must decide whether or not they would ratify it given its imperfections.

What I love about this lesson is not only do students gain a comprehensive understanding of a seminal historical event but, more importantly, they are encouraged to consider on a personal level the idea that imperfection can be a virtue.  Using Benjamin Franklin and the formation of the Constitution as a model, students and teachers learn that it is okay to turn away from the prison of perfection sometimes in the service of smart, responsible and practical decision-making.

Consider other periods of US history where you could explore the value of compromise and living with imperfection:

Reconstruction

Manifest Destiny and westward expansion

New Deal

Cold War

Lessons like this unearth a great benefit of Big Questions:  it’s not just that these questions get us to think deeply; it’s that they can cause us to feel deeply, and to move us to act in ways that make us better people.

LessonArtifacts

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