Shark Tank Goes to School

July 15, 2015
By Natalie Orenstein

The teenagers hold the center, seated across from the adults. The adults have just finished their “pitch:”  a carefully developed idea for a task they would like to give in class. The teens ask them tough questions, mull their answers, and give incisive feedback; no criticism spared.

It isn’t a focus group. It’s actually designed to follow the format of the ABC show “Shark Tank,” where eager entrepreneurs pitch their products to venture capitalists, or “sharks,” who decide whether to invest in them. Only in this case the entrepreneurs are public school teachers, and the “sharks” are their students. The products? Investment-worthy writing assignments.

The National Writing Project developed the shark tank as a format for teachers to tap student feedback on curriculum-in-process. When it comes to the effort it takes to writing and to write well, students are investors.

“Making a good assignment is a really complex act,” said National Programs Director Tanya Baker, a former teacher. “You have to think of a lot of things: the content they have to know, the kids themselves and their interests, the audience. So when it comes to thinking about tasks and assignments, we liked this premise of the students as the ones making the investment.”

If a student feels that an assignment is worth “investing” in, he or she will be more likely to engage deeper with the material and work harder, she explained. “Young people actually have a lot to say about what they’re asked to do in school, and we don’t ask them enough,” Baker said. The Shark Tank format, known to many from the TV show, provided a structure for asking.

The first shark tank took place in Washington, D.C. in March, where teachers from 20 different NWP sites presented ideas to sharks from local public schools. The activity has since been reproduced at other locations throughout the country.

Mari Moss, an eighth-grade English language arts teacher in Claxton, Georgia, pitched her student sharks a writing assignment meant to demonstrate the power of people working together to create social change. The students suggested a revision to the assignment, so the prompt became more nuanced and encouraged deeper exploration. The new assignment had students considering when it is better to act in a group and when it is better to act as individuals.

The content wasn’t all they changed. “Students were able to word the task in a way that was clear to them,” Moss said. “When it came time for students to engage in the reading and produce the writing connected to the task, they clearly understood expectations.” In the end, the activity was helpful for teacher and student alike.

Lynzi Holland, a shark in Moss’s tank, said she has been lucky to have teachers who usually take their students’ input and opinions seriously.

But some assignments, including one during the shark tank, miss the mark.

“The one I didn’t like, it wasn’t from a student’s standpoint,” said Holland, a rising seventh grader at Claxton Middle School, where she is in the gifted program. “A lot of students were talking about it after, how we didn’t get it.”

 Her advice to teachers? “I would tell them that you need to listen to the students more, and let them give you some feedback so you can connect with them.”

Michael Keyfauver, a rising high school senior who also participated in the Claxton shark tank, said variety is key. He favors assignments where students can select a prompt or be creative.

Not all students agree, of course. Some sharks have argued that they may do better with more prescriptive tasks. During the D.C. shark tank, the sharks had differing reactions to the teachers’ pitches, Baker said. But the idea is not to determine a standardized set of assignments that all students will respond to—or to make teachers only assign work that students are deeply enthusiastic about. Instead, project organizers hope to encourage communication between teachers and their students. At the many professional development workshops Baker has attended, she has noticed that students are often brought in to “perform,” but never to give input.

“We’re reminding ourselves we create these assignments for real people—real young people,” Baker said. “We have a particular perspective but it might make sense to hear what they say.”

Photo/Mari Moss